The Evolution of Free Bread


Home of the Throwed Rolls

In the far corner of Southeast Missouri is a town called Sikeston.  If you have heard of Sikeston, MO it is probably because of a restaurant called Lambert’s Café.  I’ve eaten at Lambert’s a number of times over the years, but don’t recall what I had.  I always remember the food being good, but nothing amazing.  The menu isn’t what made Lambert’s famous though.  Lambert’s is known around the world as “The Home of the Throwed Rolls.

If you are unfamiliar with Lambert’s, the atmosphere is best conveyed on video.  You almost have to be on guard at all times while eating there because any stray glance could result in a roll being unintentionally thrown at your head.  The rolls aren’t the only thing they give away. Fried potatoes with onions, macaroni with tomatoes, black-eyed peas, fried okra, and sorghum are all handed out free of charge around the dining room.  At first glance it makes no sense to give away so much food.  Yet this small town restaurant is thriving and has spawned three other locations.

In contrast, several years ago an girlfriend at the time worked for O’Charley’s when they released this video on their website.  I immediately declared it the single stupidest marketing move I had ever seen a restaurant make. Why would they spend money to advertise something they are giving away that directly trades off with the things they are trying to sell?  It is at exactly 1:53 in that video where they completely missed the point.  After relaxing with a couple rolls while considering the menu guests face a decision: buy an appetizer or eat more of these delicious free rolls.  Anyone who has ever waited tables can tell you how that decision ends.  At the end of the meal, guests ate too many rolls to buy a dessert, but one more roll sounds good.

The difference between Lambert’s success with marketing free bread, like kaiser buns, and O’Charley’s failure (the video has just over 1000 hits and the third video in the referred category is a news story about health code violations at one of their restaurants) all can be seen on their menus.  Lambert’s online menu is particularly plain.  O’Charley’s online menu has all the bells and whistles.  O’Charley’s has eight different appetizers listed.  Lambert’s has none.  Lambert’s has a large portion of their site dedicated to their merchandise.  It starts with a picture of the gift shop in their stores and offers everything from travel mugs to boxer shorts to backscratchers.  Lambert’s website offers 31 different types of t-shirts.  O’Charley’s website has none.

Perhaps the most telling difference is that O’Charley’s has prices on their website and Lambert’s does not.  The rolls at Lambert’s are the reason you go there. It is because they are part of the atmosphere, not part of the value.  All of the free items at Lambert’s are paid for in the price of the meal.  You pay extra for the food because of the entertainment.  Lambert’s does not try to sell you an appetizer. They are trying to sell you a t-shirt.  That t-shirt will have their name on it and anyone wearing one will tell you all about their visit to “The Home of the Throwed Roll.”

While O’Charley’s advertised that their rolls were good, Lambert’s advertised that they were “throwed.”  Lambert’s tried to take something as mundane as a roll and make it part of the atmosphere.  They did so successfully.  The differences are subtle but the impact is profound.  You should advertise what you sell.  Lambert’s sells an experience to make you want to buy a souvenir while O’Charley’s sells appetizers, salads, entrees, and desserts.  The rolls at Lambert’s sell t-shirts and convince people to drive out of their way to eat in little Sikeston, MO.  The rolls at O’Charley’s replace the need for an appetizer or dessert.  Two very different approaches to marketing the same item with very different results.

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About David Hayden

David Hayden is a restaurant marketing and training consultant based in Kansas City, MO. He writes a series of 9 blogs collectively known as The Hospitality Formula Network and is the author of "Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips" and "Building Your Brand With Facebook"

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