The National Restaurant Industry reported $120 billion in industry wide losses during the months of March, April and May. They expect that to double by the end of the year.
Rally for Restaurants has interactive data maps showing restaurant revenue by state and city since the start of the pandemic. In February, year over year revenues were up across the nation. In March, restaurant revenues nosedived to a dismal -77.5% compared to 2019 earnings, and would fall even lower before beginning to climb.
Around early June, dine-in customers began to outnumber take-out customers once again, and nationwide revenues are now -32% compared to September last year.
The restaurant industry is in trouble. This is how some restaurants are rethinking their business models to deal with COVID as a longer-term reality.
Online Presence Has Become Priority One
The key to standing out is to put everything you have into crushing your online presence. After all, customers are online more than ever. Options like contactless menus, curbside pick-up, or delivery are impactful and in many cases essential to keeping a business alive.
Dockside Brewery in Milford, CT, opened their doors on April 3rd of 2020 and has faced a number of challenges in the midst of the global health crisis. In response, they doubled down on their online presence and made takeout an integral part of their business model.
Founder Bob Chicoine says they’re using a platform called GoNation to create a more aggressive online presence.
“In June I sat down with Chaz [Tanase, GoNation’s founder], and I said ‘look, let’s push and see how can we take this to the next level?’ And Chaz sold me on really just thinking outside of the box and being aggressive with our digital marketing and online presence going forward.”
Dockside’s GoNation powered website allows instant communication with customers, a straightforward mobile experience and includes a seamless use of a QR code menu. Chicoine says that their website and QR code menu offers a better, contactless, customer experience with a sophisticated menu presentation that integrates professional-quality photos of their food. Because their QR code menu is powered by their GoNation website, it can be updated in just a few taps to reflect the most recent specials and menu offerings, which have been changing rapidly throughout COVID-19. Dockside’s QR code menu replaced traditional black and white disposable menus that look outdated and uninspiring.
Dockside is also pushing multiple Instagrammable patio spaces, one which they’re outfitting with gas heaters and igloos for colder weather, which has been seeding a strong social media response. “Internet real estate is becoming more important than physical real estate in the restaurant business,” Tanase says. “Restaurants thriving in COVID are categorically pivoting to a stronger online game.”
Take-Home Kits Bridge the Home-Restaurant Experience
Boston’s Sugar & Spice Thai restaurant is leveraging online traffic by giving away their recipes with take-home meal kits. Each order comes with packaged ingredients for a restaurant-quality meal you can cook at home, with printed instructions. Their online presentation also includes instructional videos.
Take-home meal kits bridge the gap for customers who aren’t ready to share tables in public spaces, but who need a break from their usual cooking. They’re great marketing tools for when the pandemic eventually ends, and they’re cost effective for restaurants. In a timely stroke of serendipity, these kits are also a clever way for a restaurant to sell an experience rather than a product. They make a perfect date night in.
Though not a restaurant, Impossible Foods has the right idea by livestreaming cooking parties on Instagram.
Demote Delivery Apps and Up Your Delivery Game
Crushing your delivery game is non negotiable during pandemic times. And with apps like GrubHub and Postmates under fire in multiple cities for questionable fee structures, the smarter move is to facilitate your own orders through (you guessed it) your strong online presence.
Have a developer polish up your online ordering system so it’s flawless and foolproof, end-to-end. Make sure all your socials are pointing to your order funnel directly. And don’t forget to plug in that old fashioned landline. Customers are still dialing in!
Deepen Community Involvement
The pandemic has highlighted how reliant the business world is on community support. Restaurants are both receiving support and giving back through platforms like Off Their Plate, which allows patrons to buy meals from your restaurant for frontline healthcare workers. Most of the restaurants on Off Their Plate are Black, immigrant, or women-owned. The process creates mutual support and gives customers a chance to have a meaningful community experience through your restaurant’s brand.
If your situation is dire, reach out for help. “Anyone who is under the impression that because a restaurant [is] ‘open,’ all is ‘back to normal,’ is not grasping the reality of the pandemic and its consequences,” read an Instagram post last month from New York’s B&H Dairy, a kosher lunch spot that’s been in business since 1938. They’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign to keep afloat. “We applied for all appropriate relief loans and grants from various city and government agencies, none of which have been granted so far, except for one tiny grant early on, which covered a fraction of one month’s rent, and has since been repaid.”
If you have the means, consider sponsoring a day of free meals for the houseless, or coupons for postal workers. Charity isn’t just cynical marketing. We all need each other, and we all know that now.
The next few months will be a tell for the future of the restaurant industry. Leading restaurateurs are already using online avenues to reinvent the dining model. We’ll see what sticks, but for now it’s important to stay creative and flexible. Winter is coming.