food for thought

Restaurant marketing in a pandemic: what can you do to survive the winter?

Part one of a two-part marketing blog, written with love for First Bite Boulder by ROOT, people who live to eat and promote good food.

hands resting above a laptop keyboard
Photo Credit: Dan Burton

Winter is coming, and it don’t look pretty. The latest survey from the National Restaurant Association says that 40% of restaurants will have to close if they don’t receive additional financial relief from the federal government. We don’t need to tell you how critical it is to adjust to this “new now” NOW.  

And let’s face it, as eaters, we need you as much as you need us! As well as saving us time, you feed our bodies and senses with delicious meals that are well beyond our own creativity and skill. We don’t want to lose that, and we know you don’t either.  Plus, according to the Good Food 100 List and Industry Impact Report just published this week, “every $1 restaurants spend has a 3X impact on the economy,” so the health of your restaurant is more important than ever to our community.

There may not be a silver bullet, but there are steps you can take to strengthen and even increase your business’ resilience, first by thinking through and possibly rethinking your offerings, then by spreading the word far and wide.  Marketing is 80% what you say, and 20% where you say it. It’s not enough to rely on the message, “Beloved customer, we need you to order out more to help us survive.”  Now is the time to sit down and see what you can create, so let’s dig in and start thinking about what you can do to get through the long winter ahead.

Jump on the bandwagon… selectively.

It’s not all doom and gloom: according to a recent McKinsey report, dine-in is down an average of 50%, but restaurant delivery is up 158% year over year as of August. If you want to capture eaters’ attention and their appetite, you’ll have to shift to meet the change in demand; but whatever you do, don’t abandon your core brand values. What trends in consumer behavior align with your vision?

There’s no doubt delivery is here to stay. Did you know that 63 percent of consumers actually prefer to order directly from a restaurant’s native first-party delivery system? If you don’t have one, get one! Not only will it make your customers happy, it will save you a ton of money on delivery fees – even if you still use a 3rd party for the actual food delivery. 

Ask yourself: what are your customers’ needs? What are eaters seeking out that you can offer? 

Perhaps now more than ever, we’re all craving moments of excitement and meaning. How can you create those moments for eaters? Don’t be afraid to tap into FOMO (fear of missing out) with limited time offers.

This summer, seafood, and oysters in particular, were hot sellers – people worry about cooking seafood properly at home. What other food items feel safer, or significantly more convenient when prepared by someone else?

With a worldwide pandemic at play, we’re far more conscious about our health, and you’ll see this trend fueling meat alternatives, immunity boosters and superfood options. According to a recent survey poll,  61% of consumers would pick a healthier option on the menu today as compared to their choice two years ago.  Consumers want more nutrition, more wellness and more indulgence for less stress, less time and less money.

Family meals to go and meal kits became a fast trend in early COVID-19, and they’re becoming more popular as winter approaches. Family meals offer convenience, value, and “a special treat” that families desperately need as they struggle to keep up with remote learning, increased meals at home, and other demands on their time. 

Work your magic.

As someone who’s a master at creating an experience, you know that dining out is about so much more than just the food. It’s the feeling of being cared for, the hospitality, the shared experience, and we’re all grieving the loss. These days, how do you give a human touch without human touch, create the feeling of community that people crave,  and offer the safety measures people need to feel safe, all from a distance?

Here are a few creative ideas to inspire you to think outside of the box. How can you offer your own unique experience?

Chef Lucas Sin of Junzi Kitchen in Manhattan is creating an experience by offering an interactive, rotating takeout menu that’s supported by Instagram Live, where Chef Sin explains the story behind each dish and tells eaters how to plate it.

Digital sales are surging, and companies like Chipotle and Sweetgreen are encouraging online sales by creating exclusive meals available for online ordering only.  Sweetgreen’s Eat Like a Chef offering gives eaters a chance to order the typical orders of award-winning chefs. Plus, they’ve taken this idea one step further and added a “do good” element. Proceeds from the sales of the Eat Like a Chef meals are donated to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which advocates for the support and the survival of small restaurants. 

Could you feature favorite orders from local micro or macro influencers, who would spread the word about the offering through their own social media channels?  Collaborative partnerships are an excellent way to engage others to spread the news with you.  Or could you hold a contest for a customer-created recipe through social media; or to add a feel-good and community strengthening aspect, feature the favorite dish, or customized order of one of your most loyal customers, and tell their story?   

Photo Credit: Minh Pham

In marketing, we have two primary options to generate revenue for your business: get customers to spend more money with your company, or get more customers to buy your product (and then get THOSE people to spend more money!)

Prior to COVID-19, many restaurants found financial success by layering dine-in service with large party events, take-out, and off premise catering. When you restrict dine-in capacity, eliminate large party events, and severely reduce off-premise catering, revenue opportunities start to feel scarce. People are not likely to be gathering in large groups for some time yet, so it’s time to look at what it takes to rebuild revenue diversity in this new distancing era.

The secret to many restaurants’ success in the pre-COVID model was diversification, and that holds true now more than ever.  Diversifying your revenue is all about meeting your ideal customer’s needs in a different way. 

For most restaurants, switching to take-out only is an unsustainable model.  Unless your restaurant was designed to take advantage of the efficiencies you can gain within a delivery-only model, you are likely working harder than ever for diminishing returns. If you want to keep it simple and offer take-out only, consider a ghost kitchen, like ChefReady, opening in Denver this fall. If delivery-only isn’t your thing, now’s the time to reconsider your wildest ideas.  

Remember how some restaurants turned their dining rooms into de facto grocery stores in the early days of the pandemic?  Use this type of thinking to inspire diversification ideas to give you additional revenue streams. If eaters love your BBQ sauce, why not package it up and sell it as an at-home staple?  Have fun letting your creative ideas flow, and trying new things. When you land on a winning idea, pull out all the stops. Make sure you build out clear, consistent messaging, and tap into all of your available marketing channels to communicate it with the world (more on that in Part Two!)

In the second part of this two-part blog, we’ll get into the details about how to share your message to grow your revenue! So stay tuned. In the meantime, do your homework. Identify the trends that fit your business, brainstorm ideas on how to reinvent the experience, and let your brain run wild with ideas for new revenue streams. Then you’ll be ready to leverage part two of this blog: how to share your message to the right people in the right way, at the right time.

Author: ROOT Marketing & PR

At ROOT, there’s nothing we love more than to see good food thrive. Our seasoned team works with good food business owners every day, to develop and implement powerful marketing, branding and PR strategies.


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