Hear the one about the pink donkey? Last month in Los Angeles, a restaurant called Pink Taco used a pink-painted donkey as part of a Cinco de Mayo promotion. The stunt caused quite an uproar and generated a ton of publicity for Pink Taco. It was a huge success in terms of creating buzz, just maybe not the kind that the restaurant was looking for. It all backfired when animal activists started knocking on their door, and 3,000 people jumped on a Facebook boycott of the restaurant.
In light of the Pink Taco debacle, we dug around to find other restaurant publicity stunts that have been tried over the years. Turns out, the owner of Pink Taco was hardly the first genius to try do something stupid or over the top to focus the spotlight on a restaurant. Restaurants have been pulling tactics like these since at the least the early 1900s, when Nathan's hired actors to stand on the street eating hot dogs... while wearing lab coats -- all in the name of trying to create a healthier image.
In the time since, many other restaurants have tried their own brand of Barnum & Bailey. Taco Bell claimed it bought the Liberty Bell. One Seattle restaurant unveiled underwater billboards said to have been anchored in the 1950s to catch the eye of passing submarine-drivers. Some campaigns, like the one where a German restaurant was supposedly encouraging diners to donate body parts to be cooked, turned out to be complete scams not even involving a real restaurant in the first place.
There's no doubt that pulling stunts like this will get a lot of attention. But with the restaurant business as difficult as it already is, you've really got to wonder about short-sighted owners who would rather have the hype around their restaurants be so fleeting and gimmicky. But you be the judge. How outrageous and successful do you consider these stunts? And be sure to comment if you remember any great stunts that didn't make the list.
- Jamie Tredwell, The Daily Meal
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Everyone knows Nathan's is a New York original, but what you might not know is the company’s success is greatly due to a publicity stunt dating to 1916. Nathan, a Polish immigrant, was trying to undercut the prices of Feltman’s Restaurant, a large beer garden he shared a spot with on Coney Island. He cut prices to a nickel per dog, but results were unexpected, with rumors starting that questioned the quality of the meat to explain the low price. To combat these rumors, Nathan hired actors to stand outside his place wearing lab coats and stethoscopes while eating the hot dogs. He later unveiled signs reading, “If doctors eat our hot dogs, you know they’re good!” It must’ve worked, because Nathans continues to thrive today, and you're probably saying, "Feltman who?" Related: Hot Dog Q&A with Richard Pink
Though it remains sort of an urban legend as to who actually gets credited with its invention, Harry Reichenbach's “Invisible Fish” is one of the most original restaurant stunts on record. As the story goes, Reichenbach was hired by an ex-circus woman to bring traffic to her luncheon. Harry supposedly noticed a giant empty fish tank sitting in her back room, and decided to fill it with water and put it in the restaurant window with a sign reading: “The only living Brazilian invisible fish.” The stunt garnered so much attention from people claiming to be able to see the fish that crowds couldn’t be controlled. It's been riffed on many times since. Related: 21 Deadly Dishes
In 1998, Burger King bought a full-page ad in USA Today announcing they had created a burger that would improve the lives 1.4 million Americans. What could that possibly be? The Left-Handed Whopper! The new burger would have all the same condiments, just rotated a mere 180 degrees to better suit hungry left-handers who may have been struggling with conventional burgers. Whopper Freakout: A Burger King campaign in 2007 discontinued the Whopper for one day — with camera crews filming customer reaction to prove just how loved the Whopper really is. What ensued after the stunt was exactly the name of the campaign: a freakout. Related: Celebrity Fast Food Commercials Before They Were Famous
After creating a stir in 2001 for a stunt promising a free taco to every U.S. citizen if the Mir space station core hit a target they assembled, Taco Bell was at it again in 2006. They put an ad in The New York Times headlined, “Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell.” The ruse continued with the company explaining that the purchase was mean to help allay the national debt. Though it sounds like an obvious joke, enraged Philadelphians complained in numbers about the transaction. Taco Bell admitted the whole story was a scam, but their sales did increase by about half-a-million dollars during the week of April 1st, compared to the week before. Related: 20 Most Popular Fast Food Restaurants on Facebook
In a creative and elaborate hoax in Sydney circa 2009, a Portuguese chain called Nando's arranged for an impersonator to crash the premier of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest flick, Bruno, while dressed up to look like the film's central character. When the impersonator arrived, six models followed him out of the limo. While the fake Bruno was escorted off the red carpet some models dunked buckets of Nando's Peri Peri sauce over their chests and others unveiled signs proclaiming: "This year's hottest chicks are covered in Peri Peri." Related: Bad Table Manners: Celebrity Edition
In a stunt that created much controversy on the Puget Sound in 2009, the longstanding Seattle seafood restaurant, Ivar’s, surfaced a series of underwater billboards that were supposedly submerged in 1954. “Ivar’s Chowder. Worth surfacing for. 75¢ a cup," a sign proclaimed. And “Diver’s special. Kids 12 & Under Eat Free with regular entrée. Includes Jell-O.” Allegedly, the signs were part of the restaurant's original owner’s plan to advertise to divers and submarine pilots passing through the Puget Sound. Even though it was revealed to be a hoax, the stunt worked miracles for Ivar's. The following months saw overall sales increase by ten percent, with clam chowder sales increasing by more than 400%. Related: 30,000 Pounds of Bananas and Other Spills
Not too long ago, folks in Melbourne were abuzz with excitement about a “hidden pizza” restaurant that was offering free pizza to any customer who came in. The catch? You had to find it first. People were instructed, “Look it up the way you would any other business.” You’re thinking Google? Wrong. Turns out the whole thing was a scam put on by Yellow Pages and an advertising company called Sensis, as a way to say something like, "Yes, we’re still relevant." What a tease! Related: A Tour of New York City's Best Pizza
One stunt in 2010 caused such an uproar that it brought international attention to Berlin’s FLIME restaurant before it even opened. The restaurant released an ad campaign calling for donors to give “any part of their body” to be served at the eatery. That’s right, a cannibal restaurant. And this was just four years after Berlin's Armin Meiwes (pictured) had been sentenced to life in prison for cannibalism. When the stunt was found to be a hoax, the restaurant changed their website to how it remains today, a declaration by Vebu (Germany’s PETA equivalent) to condemn meat eating as similar to eating human flesh. Related: 21 Strange Food Deaths Through History
Remember last year when the volcano that no one could pronounce erupted in Iceland? And it delayed travel plans for most everyone in Europe? Well, two Icelandic chefs from the Holt Hotel in Reykjavik created a way to capitalize on it. The chefs offered to fly two lucky customers to the point of the eruption to cook them dinner using the heat of the lava. It sounds like a meal of epic proportions — quite the stunt from some of Iceland’s leading chefs. For all that, when asked if he would consider doing it all over again, Chef Fridgeir Eiriksson said, absolutely not. Related: 21 Deadly Dishes
This Los Angeles taqueria made headlines last month when they decided to celebrate Cinco de Mayo by painting a donkey bright pink and parking it right outside their restaurant. As expected, animal rights activists were up in arms over the spectacle, and there was actually a boycott launched for the restaurant on Facebook. They have since posted a response on the restaurant’s homepage, assuring everyone that the animal was treated safely, and they have spoken with PETA, vowing to never again use live animals in any of their events or promotions. Related: Tacos at La Taqueria
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