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Gorilla marketing

A California restaurateur bets on big attention grabbers - like dinosaurs.

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Dino diner Dino diner Dino diner
To beat the economic slump, a California diner invests in monster marketing campaigns. The latest: dinosaurs and King Kong. Photographs by Brad Hines.

(Fortune Small Business) -- They rise from the desert dust, 130 miles southwest of Las Vegas - a 12-foot-tall King Kong and five like-sized dinosaurs, beckoning motorists along Interstate 15 into Peggy Sue's 50's Diner.

Cheesy? Sure. Effective? That would be the way to bet it.

For the nearly 20 years that Champ Gabler and his wife, Peggy Sue, have owned the 250-seat diner, they have used outsized marketing campaigns as their recession buster. And each time their bottom line has been rewarded.

Their first experiment came in the early 1990s, when they decided to grow Peggy Sue's, which lies on a desolate stretch of highway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, beyond its 60 seats, nine stools, and $280,000 in annual revenue. The economy was down, but the Gablers invested $600,000 - a mix of personal savings and an SBA loan - into quadrupling the number of seats and adding a 3,000-square-foot gift shop. They placed billboard signs along the highway and took out radio spots announcing the new 1950s-era Hollywood memorabilia tourist destination. Two years later Peggy Sue's 50's Diner was pulling in nearly $1 million a year.

Since then, whenever Gabler senses a lull, he buys another radio spot or adds a billboard. This January, when he realized that 2007 sales were flat at $3 million, Gabler went even grander, renting a billboard just outside Sin City that costs him $1,600 more per month than his other locations.

"Big casinos pay top dollar to advertise in that area," says Gabler, 63. "And here is ours, saying nothing more than our name and HUNGRY? 90 MILES."

The result: In February, Peggy Sue's sales jumped 12% despite traffic along the Interstate lagging by 5% compared with February 2006.

Now Gabler is hoping that his monster marketing experiment will have a similarly lucrative impact, quickly recouping the nearly $40,000 he spent on the custom-sculpted creatures.

"There are about 40,000 cars a day passing the back of our property," Gabler says. "We're not sure how long it will take to get a return on our new monsters, but they have created another marketing strategy in trying times," says Gabler.

Up next: the King Kong burger. To top of page

What's your view on the Gablers' slump-busting marketing strategy? Talk back.

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