- Jan 20, 2022
Grill House Evolves to Build Customer Loyalty
Some businesses become local favorites over the course of many years; others swiftly reach that status. Grill House may be a fairly recent addition to Northbrook’s restaurant scene, but it has built an outstandingly loyal customer base through their multi-platform marketing, community outreach, and something-for-everyone menu. Their success in navigating the challenges of the pandemic offers lessons for all kinds of businesses and make them a natural selection for the Business of the Year Award.
Owner Nick Drivas has a deep personal history in the restaurant business. His father owned Nick’s Gyros in Chicago’s Edison Park neighborhood, and Nick was helping to clear tables by the time he was in kindergarten. Eventually the family relocated to Northbrook, opening a new Nick’s Gyros at Dunsten Plaza; Nick attended Glenbrook North while still working in the family business.
“I was fortunate to gain experience from the ground up and a deep understanding of what makes a restaurant successful,” says Nick.
While his early career took Nick to other locations, including his Backyard Grill restaurant in Highland Park, his Northbrook roots established a long-time desire to open his own restaurant here. That goal became a reality in 2017 with the opening of Grill House in the White Plains Shopping Center on Dundee Road.
“We were always looking for the right opportunity to open a fast casual, family friendly restaurant in Northbrook,” recalls Nick. “When this space became available, I thought it was the perfect location, with all the businesses across the street and the visibility being on the corner of the shopping center. We were very excited.”
Grill House enjoyed brisk lunchtime business from nearby offices during its first years, and also developed a growing catering operation with both family and corporate customers. However, the shutdown of offices in spring 2020 forced Nick and his team to reinvent their business model with a creative, comprehensive strategy. Tactics that kept the restaurant thriving included:
Dynamic Marketing: Grill House utilized a variety of marketing options to reach customers and to generate repeat business. In addition to direct mail coupons, the restaurant worked to build an audience through frequent Facebook and Instagram posts featuring appetizing photos. Grill House was also an early adopter of text message marketing to reach customers with timely information about daily specials.
“Social media has been such a big part of reaching out to the community,” notes Nick. “Everybody was so responsive to our specials on Facebook. And our text program with NorthShore Loyalty really helped us out. We were able to text our customers about the specials of the day, they were forwarding texts on to their neighbors, and people were calling us to be added to the program.”
“Grill House has one of the largest followings in our text program for good reason,” says Ron Goldblatt, NorthShore Loyalty. “His wide assortment of menu options appeals to a large audience and provides a great value for his customers.”
Creative Use of Outdoor Space: When restaurants began offering curbside pickup in 2020, Grill House recognized that their location was especially well suited to this option. A side entrance near the restaurant’s checkout counter provided quick access to a long aisle where customers could queue up. The option’s popularity has made it a permanent element of Grill House’s business.
In addition, Grill House established a large outdoor dining area in a parking area on the north side of the building. “The space there was really helpful and allowed for social distancing,” notes Nick. The success of picnic-style dining in 2020 and 2021 led to a more permanent arrangement for outdoor dining. “We’ve extended the patio so people won’t be sitting out in the parking lot as much. It’ll be landscaped very nicely in the summer and we’ll have added lighting.”
Menu Additions for Pandemic Demands: With families eating more meals together at home during the pandemic, Grill House developed carryout “Family Packs” that were both affordable and easy to serve. A typical family pack feeds four to five people with an entree, salad, and additional side dishes. The restaurant also obtained a beer and wine license for customers to enjoy onsite or with their carryout order.
Thanks to its creative pivots, Grill House has been able to successfully navigate the challenges of the pandemic. “I’m very thankful that we were able to maintain all our employees during the pandemic,” reflects Nick, who credits his staff for their personal sacrifices. “My employees were like many essential workers in every industry who worked through the pandemic. They put themselves in harm’s way providing meals and helping the community. 2020 was survival mode. I’m just fortunate that we were able to keep on pace and keep the business moving forward.”
At the same time, Grill House has built a reputation as a generous supporter of people and organizations in need. In the early days of the pandemic, Nick provided food for first responders and hospital workers. When schools were closed, he distributed more than 1,000 meals for children who normally would receive free lunches at school. The restaurant also hosts frequent “Dine and Donate” programs, providing a generous portion of a given day’s sales to local organizations.
“Northbrook is such a charitable community and I enjoy watching people come together for a good cause. It feels good to give back,” says Nick.
As the restaurant industry and other businesses gradually approach a post-COVID future, Nick acknowledges that Grill House will be permanently changed by the lessons of this period. “You have to adapt to changes, and once customers become used to it and enjoy that service as a business owner you have to deliver,” he says. “That’s what we want to do, just keep up with the service our customers expect.”