Recently many restaurant operators are looking at empty dining rooms and slower than usual sales. In times of a tough economic climate, it’s no secret that consumers have become increasingly cautious and fearful. Today, as fears of losing one’s job and looking at their dwindling 401k statement, chances are, consumers are scared. So what can a restaurateur really do to attract cautious guests?

A pause in consumption prompts personal reflection. Consumers are asking, “What’s really important to me?” Not surprisingly, the one constant that will remain important is time. Time will remain the ultimate luxury. Recession or no recession, “time well spent” will remain the ultimate goal and how guests feel eating at a restaurant needs to be “time well spent.”

If time becomes the highest currency of the day, restaurateurs should take heed. People love spending time well. However, “time well spent,” isn’t just about finding balance, in life or connecting with loved ones. Nor is it a high-priced luxury experience such as limo rides or a four-star vacation resort. Ultimately, consumers spend a great deal of precious time going out to eat. Therefore, tying a brand to quality time is a concept with huge implications.

For instance, consumers surround themselves with brands that engage them and make them feel they are spending their time well. They’re gravitating more toward experience than assets and goods. Finding ways to make your restaurant brand “add life to the experience” should be a priority on any restaurant marketer’s to-do list.

The approach of creating a meaningful experience starts with engaging your guests. Engagement is the new awareness, and return-on-engagement ROE is the new ROI return-on-investment. Put another way, ROE is more customer-centric, a more outwardly approach than ROI.

So restaurants need to boost ROE: how? As with any broad scale change in a company’s thinking, a true commitment to engagement requires senior management to commit first. That said there’s much that restaurant marketers can do. The first step is learning to be a proverbial fly on the wall. Don’t launch that new website unless you have a clear idea about who your guests are and what type of experience they perceive. It is also essential to be creative about adopting ways that customers can give you input.

When creating your brand messaging, consider employing public relations. What is going to get my guests truly engaged? Understand the importance of associating your brand with something authentic.

For example, Boudin SF the fast casual concept developed by the 170 year old San Francisco sourdough Boudin Bakery company, gave away daily bread, 365 loaves, to the first 100 guests at a recent grand opening. Guests lined up the day before and spent the night. Into the morning, guests learned the history of Boudin and shared their love and memories of Boudin’s sourdough bread. Boudin entertained kids and parents alike in bread toss games for prizes, and were treated to signature menu samples before the doors opened. Overall, guests shared in an authentic experience that proved to be a great return on their time, while Boudin SF got to know and share their favorite tradition with guests.

When searching for restaurants worth their time, consumers don’t want to dig through the clutter. Other public relations strategies such as sampling, tasting events and fundraisers allow brands to further engage guests, keeping them at the top of the list when they go out to eat.

Finally, realize that your guests are a source of feedback and ideas, even about menu items. Don’t underestimate the power of direct interaction with your customers. During a recent in-person “voice of the guest” initiative, I learned first-hand how one-on-one involvement can provide R & D folks with a far richer and holistic view of both their jobs and the people they serve.

I don’t suggest moving ROE to the forefront of a company’s branding efforts should mean that ROI disappears from a marketer’s arsenal. Indeed, it can’t! Businesses must be efficient and investments prioritized. But so long as the current economy puts sour and skeptical faces on consumers, it is more important than ever to look at those faces and engage your guests.

Engaging your guests will ultimately develop a lasting bond with your brand. Additionally, these engagement activities, which include promotions, events, focus groups and round table discussions with your customers, leads to loyalty, frequency and word of mouth. The ultimate goal for a restaurant marketer in today’s challenging economy is to “add to customer’s life experience,” and by engaging them, it will be the best return on investment of time and energy when the economy swings north.