13 Restaurant Contest Ideas to Boost Customer Engagement and Sales

By Katherine Pendrill

Restaurant Contest Ideas

Whether you have a competitive streak that rivals the likes of Michael Jordan, or you’re more of a team player, we can all agree that winning free stuff is just plain awesome.

After a tough year, running a restaurant contest is a great way to show your customers some love for sticking with you and supporting your business – you just need a few red hot restaurant contest ideas to get started.

This can be as simple as a social media giveaway, or as complex as a multi-platform contest with a major prize at the end. No matter what format you choose, restaurant contests are the perfect way to boost customer engagement, generate some buzz, and even boost profits.

In this guide to restaurant giveaways, we’ll cover:

  • The benefits of running restaurant competitions
  • 13 creative food contest ideas to try
  • What to consider before running a restaurant contest

The Benefits of Running Restaurant Competitions

Picture this: it’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and you’re sitting out on the patio with your staff, brainstorming restaurant contest ideas over delicious food and drinks. Doesn’t even sound like work, does it?

Aside from getting to flex your creative muscles, having some fun on the job, and boosting employee engagement, there are two other crucial bottom-line benefits to running restaurant competitions.

1. Attract Potential Customers

As a restaurateur, you already know you need to expand your customer base if you want your business to grow. Your goal is to get noticed by people who haven’t yet discovered your food, but you may not have the marketing budget required to put up billboards all over town. 

Instead, let the shareable nature of social media contest ideas work to your advantage. Research shows that companies gain an average of 17,500 social media fans and 34% of new customers through contests. This means that social media contests and other kinds of restaurant giveaways are an excellent strategy for bringing in completely new business.

2. Increase Customer Engagement 

Getting new customers in the door is important, but it’s also critical to keep your most loyal guests happy. Coming up with food contest ideas and testing them out can help you nurture your existing relationships and boost customer engagement. For example, compared to regular email campaigns, contest emails have the highest average open rates – an impressive 45%.

In short, running restaurant competitions shows your customers that you value their business and want to offer them something in return. This marketing tactic helps create two-way relationships, which can do wonders for your restaurant’s reputation and sales. If you’re thinking about how to increase restaurant sales, remember that no one likes “it’s all about me” marketing.

13 Creative Restaurant Contest Ideas

1. Gift Card Giveaway

Gift card marketing is a smart move for restaurants for several reasons. Over 40% of consumers say gift cards encourage them to try places they’ve never dined at before, so this kind of restaurant giveaway can help you quickly expand your customer base.

A gift card giveaway is also one of the simplest restaurant contest ideas to execute. It can be as easy as asking your Facebook followers to share a post from your business page for a chance to win a gift card. For example, you can ask them to share a post about your Canada Day restaurant specials.

Another bonus? You can run a contest like this on a regular basis at a price point that doesn’t break your bank account – for example, once a month for $15 a pop.

You can easily make gift card giveaways work for your restaurant by leveraging restaurant technology. For example, with a system like TouchBistro Gift Cards, you can use both physical and digital gift cards as prizes, which makes it a breeze to execute the contest and for the winner to pass on the prize to their friends or family if they’re feeling generous.

2. Like, Follow, and Tag to Win

One of the best social media contest ideas is the classic Instagram contest of liking a post, following the account, and tagging friends in the comments to win a prize – whether it’s a gift card, a free entrée, or another deal that’s sweet enough to incentivize participation.

Here’s how this specific contest idea plays out on the Calgary, Alberta restaurant State and Main’s Instagram account:

This kind of engaging restaurant Instagram marketing is a must-do activity in 2021. The interactive nature of restaurant competitions on Instagram means you can easily gain new followers, then convert them into paying customers. In fact, nearly half of diners say they visited a restaurant for the first time after they saw it on social media, so it’s worth your while to get your brand in front of as many eyes as possible online.

3. Share to Win

Get your guests involved in the fun! Ask your customers to share photos of your food or of themselves dining at your restaurant for a chance to win a prize. Then reward the owner of the photo with the most likes. This is an easy-to-execute contest that you can run on all of your social media platforms – just don’t forget to ask your fans to tag your restaurant so you don’t miss their snaps.

St. Thomas Restaurant Group in the U.S. Virgin Islands tried this approach recently on Facebook. Here’s how they did it:

St Thomas Restaurant Group context instructions.
St Thomas Restaurant Group

The obvious advantage to this restaurant giveaway is that customers have to buy a meal from you to enter, so you’re guaranteed to generate sales while also boosting customer engagement.

4. Leave a Review to Win

Considering that 60% of consumers read reviews before they head out for a meal, getting glowing recommendations from your current customer base is an effective way to attract new guests to your restaurant. But how do you incentivize your customers to leave reviews? Run a contest, of course.

Remember, the best restaurant contest ideas are the ones that are easy for people to participate in. If you have a restaurant reward program like TouchBistro Loyalty, you can seamlessly request and collect reviews directly through your Customer Web App or by sending targeted email campaigns. This way, your customers don’t have to go through the trouble of visiting third-party sites like Yelp, just to leave a review.

5. Let Customers Choose Your Menu Items

Invite your guests to play chef for a day and let them suggest their own ideas for your menu. This is an excellent way to increase engagement on your social media platforms by getting the conversation going in the comments on your contest post. You can also ask guests their opinions on their preferred meal choices by using restaurant comment cards. Letting your audience know you want their feedback helps boost your brand’s image, too. 

This restaurant competition can be as simple as asking for ideas for something specific like a pasta dish, or giving your audience the freedom to go completely rogue and submit the menu item of their dreams.

6. A Naming Contest

Sticking with menu-themed food contest ideas, another option is to run a contest that involves asking your guests to name a new menu item, like a pizza or burger with creative toppings. You’ll get a ton of suggestions that you can keep in your back pocket for future menu items, and the winner will get to see their idea in writing on your menu. Both this restaurant contest and the previous one can be run on social media or through a restaurant email marketing campaign where you ask your audience to hit “reply” with their suggestion.

Pita Pit gave this giveaway a try on their Facebook page when they asked customers to name a limited-time prime rib and provolone cheese pita. Not only did the winner get to name the item, they also received a free pita every week for a year.

7. “Caption this photo!”

One of the easiest restaurant social media contest ideas to execute is simply posting a photo and asking your audience to caption it for the chance to win a prize. Be sure to post something eye-catching or humorous (not your standard food beauty shot) to elicit the best responses.

For instance, Windsor, Ontario restaurant Spago Canada tried this on their Instagram account and got a variety of responses from “If you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen” to “When Nona asks you if you’re hungry.” The winner received a $100 restaurant gift card.

8. Customer of the Week or Month

Diners around the world have been enthusiastic about showing their local restaurants love during the COVID-19 pandemic. Let your guests know how much you appreciate them by running a customer of the week or month contest. A little gratitude can go a long way, considering that 91% of consumers are more likely to buy from businesses that show customer appreciation.

To make the offer even more attractive, you can keep this contest exclusive to your loyalty program members. Select the winner at random based on the criteria of your choice. This could be the customer who dined at your restaurant most during a given time period, or maybe the person who spent the most that week. You could even choose someone based on their dining preferences, like the customer who orders you veggie burger every single time they come in. 

9. Create a Bundle

What’s better than getting free food from a restaurant? Getting free food, plus more free stuff from other businesses! Create a restaurant giveaway bundle by partnering with another local company or a social media influencer to create a sweet prize package.

Stumped on what to offer? Try teaming up with a tour operator and give away a stand-up paddleboard lesson on your local lake, then lunch for two on your patio. Or, partner with a boutique and offer a gift card bundle for shopping and dining. This kind of contest lends itself well to social media, where you can ask your audience to like and follow the accounts of all the businesses involved.

10. A Free Dish For a Month or Year

Winning a prize once is exciting, but winning a prize that lasts all year is what dreams are made of! Wow your guests and run a contest that involves the winner getting tacos (or another dish of your choice) for a specific amount of time.

Torchy’s Tacos did just that by rewarding one lucky fan with 15 years of free tacos in honor of the brand’s 15 years of business. To enter the contest, fans had to enroll in Torchy’s Taco Junkies Rewards Club, helping to bolster the brand’s loyalty program.

11. Merchandise Giveaway

Food contest ideas are plentiful for restaurants, but how about giving away something else? If you sell branded merchandise like sweatshirts or hats, run a contest with one of these items as the prize. Promote it on social media or through an email marketing campaign.

A merchandise giveaway is a win-win for both you and your customers. One lucky individual will win your branded merch and you’ll get free advertising every time they wear it!

12. Themed Contests

Holidays and big events offer the perfect inspiration for restaurant contest ideas, and you can tailor them to match your restaurant’s atmosphere. For example, if you’re known for your brunch and afternoon tea, run a Mother’s Day contest where the winner gets free brunch and tea with Mom. Or, if your venue is more of a beer and burger joint, create a giveaway for a Superbowl meal kit that gives the lucky winner everything they need to barbecue at home on game day. If you’re looking for a spookier theme, check out our restaurant Halloween ideas.

13. Time-Sensitive Contests

Nothing motivates people to act like the element of scarcity. Try running a contest that requires customers to order a meal between certain hours or on a specific day to be entered to win. This contest idea is a great way to increase traffic during a slow period.

For instance, your POS reports might show that your restaurant is regularly slow on Tuesday afternoons. In this case, running the giveaway at this exact time is a perfect way to encourage more orders during the lull.

Restaurant Contest Considerations

Restaurant competitions may seem like they’re all fun and games, but it’s important to keep in mind that depending on the contest ideas you choose, some giveaways involve more time, energy, and money than others. It’s best to pick restaurant contest ideas that fit the goals and resources of your business – don’t bite off more than you can chew!

In addition, always remember to check on legal rules and regulations around contests, especially if you’re using a social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to run your restaurant giveaways. These rules can vary by region, so be sure to do your research.

Now, get ready to say it with us: “winner winner, chicken dinner!”

Photo of Katherine Pendrill
by Katherine Pendrill

Katherine is the Content Marketing Manager at TouchBistro, where she writes about trending topics in food and restaurants. The opposite of a picky eater, she’ll try (almost) anything at least once. Whether it’s chowing down on camel burgers in Morocco or snacking on octopus dumplings in Japan, she’s always up for new food experiences.

Free social media templates for your restaurant

Orange Takeout Box

Up Next

Restaurant Menu Templates
By Katherine Pendrill

More Articles

Blue cover of the American Diner Trends Report on a pale blue background.
By Katherine Pendrill
The coral cover of the 2024 Canadian Diner Trends Report Cover on a pink background.
By Katherine Pendrill

A group of happy coworkers drinking wine and enjoying a conversation over a meal at a restaurant.