In restaurants just a couple of weeks ago, having a solid plan for off-premise business was highly recommended but perhaps not essential. Well here we are – and for restaurants across the nation, takeout has suddenly become the only option to allow business operations to continue for the time being. Whether you offer off-premise menu items such as takeout meals that customers can pick up outside your door, or you have food delivered, restaurants can play an important role in providing a sense of normalcy and community in these unsettling times. Try to think of your menu and marketing in a new way. What items available through your regular suppliers can be included in care packages to be sent home with people who are house-bound right now? Can you create meal bundles complete with appetizers and comfort food that may appeal to families looking for relief after a day of managing remote learning? Do you have a popular house-made beer that people may crave to relieve some stress at the end of the day? (Note that state regulators have begun to allow delivery of cocktails.) Can you create partnerships with other restaurant operators to pool resources on a temporary basis? How can you think outside of the box and provide food and some much-needed positivity to your customers through the weeks ahead? When spreading the word about your takeout options, think beyond the usual channels – on your social media and email list, encourage people to help promote you to friends at their schools, houses of worship and other local organizations that are eager to help people in your community the weeks ahead.
For many restaurant operators around the U.S., recent weeks have been a stressful blur of trying to keep business open, keeping themselves and their staff safe and healthy, and easing the fears of customers who have been receiving mixed messages about whether or not they should visit restaurants. It’s a time when restaurants need support in many forms – and an important time to lean on your network, at both national and local levels. Consider supporting the National Restaurant Association’s efforts, as well as grassroots efforts underway through Change.org to urge Congress to pass a plan that helps restaurants recover. Food + Tech Connect is assembling a growing list of resources that restaurants can turn to, and Food & Wine has assembled resources too. Also look within your community and join forces with other foodservice organizations to collectively benefit from scale. For example, the Restaurant Response Program in New York is bringing together 30 restaurants in the city, giving them a sum of $40,000 to use their existing food supply and operate as a pick-up/delivery-only food distribution center for a short term. In San Francisco, Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger launched SaveOurFaves, a directory of local restaurants selling gift certificates to help them offset lost income due to COVID-19. In other cities, restaurant operators are forming online groups where they can share each other’s business needs and collaboratively approach the community and legislators for support from a single point of contact. At Team Four/Value Four, we have created a working group to develop customer-centric strategies and services to help your business recover and build sales momentum. We are committed to helping our customers weather the current challenges and continue to support you as life begins to return to normal – and it will.
As the coronavirus has spread and restaurants have had to transition to a takeout-only model, what are restaurants to do to protect themselves and the customers they serve – and to somehow keep business coming in? Despite the many tech advances that have swept the industry, restaurants – until very recently – have been social places where people are on the front lines. A recent Restaurant Business report, which includes advice from a law firm specializing in employment issues, advises clear communication with employees in several areas: share your plan with them (and make sure it covers employee concerns such as your sick leave policy and your plan of operation during school closures) and provide training to ensure everyone knows what procedures to follow if they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or are diagnosed with it. Day to day, increase your efforts to sanitize door handles and kitchen and bathroom surfaces more often. Some operators are placing hand sanitizer at their building entrances, as well as outside the restroom and at stations in the back of the house. And while delivery was once considered a nice-to-have service, it’s now critical. Even if you don’t currently offer mobile ordering tech, now is the time to adjust your menu and offer a simple takeout menu that can be picked up outside of your establishment or dropped off outside a customer’s door for contactless delivery. Right now food delivery is considered a public service for people who are elderly, vulnerable and isolated, so promote on social media and to neighborhood news groups that you are open and ready to help, and provide your menu and contact information. Finally, encourage people to pick up the phone and call you – it’s old-fashioned but people are missing the social connections that restaurants have long been able to provide. You can provide a valuable way for people maintain those community ties as the industry pulls through this time of uncertainty.
When it comes to restaurant food delivery, the numbers don’t often add up – for the operator, the customer or even the third-party delivery company. A recent New York Times report found in a survey of GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates and Uber Eats – the four largest third-party delivery apps in the U.S. – that customers were paying as much as 91 percent more for food delivered via these apps. In the meantime, operators are trying to carve out razor-thin profits from delivery orders and delivery companies are struggling to make money in a sea of competition. But since off-premise demand continues to climb and restaurants are adjusting their sales models and even their physical structures to accommodate it, how can operators make the costs easier to swallow for both customers and themselves? Offering delivery by hiring in-house couriers can help, though it isn’t necessarily feasible for everyone. A Restaurant Dive report says industry analysts predict restaurants will adjust prices, use virtual kitchens, adopt their own branded platforms or renegotiate their commission rates with third-party delivery companies in an effort to get ahead. Renegotiation may come in the form of changes in sales structure too: Technomic says a key way that providers are evolving right now is by offering delivery subscriptions – all-inclusive delivery for a monthly fee, as well as delivery discounts for loyal customers – incentives that can come directly from restaurants too.
In these shaky times for the restaurant sector, many operators are facing steeply lower guest counts and cancelled catering orders as the spread of the coronavirus – as well as fear about its spread – continues to grow. In light of that, there may be some actions you can take to ease the concerns of guests and keep business coming in over the next couple of months. First, these are times when your email list may prove its worth. Contact your customers and share what you have done in recent weeks to help ensure your restaurant is a safe place to dine – talk about your efforts to enhance your standard cleaning and sanitizing procedures, as well as more recent steps you may have taken, such as replacing your buffet with an à la carte menu, monitoring employee health more vigilantly, increasing the distance between tables or limiting seating. Promote your delivery and the precautions you are taking with it – from packaging food more securely or accommodating no-contact food drop-offs. Share similar messages on your website, voicemail system and social media. This is a time when people are becoming more community-minded and are making a concerted effort to look out for people who are at risk – if you have stories about how your employees are helping people in need right now, share them. Finally, look to other income streams – if you sell merchandise such as packaged food products or gift cards, market those items now and partner with other organizations that might cross-promote them with their own products. You can believe that once fears over the virus have subsided, people will be eager to get out of their houses and gather with friends over food and drinks. Plan now to be part of the comeback.
Last year, restaurant prices climbed 3.1 percent year over year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they are set to increase again this year between 1.5 and 2.5 percent. If you’re among the many operators that must raise prices this year, consider how you might achieve that without turning off your guests. First, try adding some value to the dishes you serve and the experience you provide. Some low-cost ideas that guests may perceive as adding to their experience could include offering fresh-baked bread or a larger side salad with a meal – or finding ways to make your menu more memorable, whether that means writing a guest’s name in chocolate sauce on a dessert plate or creating specialty artwork in the foam of a latte. Could you do a better job of explaining the quality of the ingredients you use? If guests get some extra detail about the steps you’re taking to provide a quality product, they may not mind paying a premium. If you have plans to upgrade your branding or marketing materials (to include your menu design), make pricing changes at the same time so you’re not simply taking your existing menu and plugging higher prices into it. Next, focus on your loyalty program – if you’re offering your best guests a chance to get something at a discount or for free, even if it is just once in a while, you can make higher prices easier to swallow. Finally, at a time when consumers value transparency, consider sharing your cost dilemma with them via social media or your email list – it helps if you haven’t raised prices in a while and can say you’re not willing to cut corners on quality. Of course, be sure to encourage them to share their feedback about what’s working well and what isn’t so they feel they are contributing to your success.
Looking to streamline your off-premise business? Many restaurant industry experts are placing their bets on ghost kitchens as the future of the industry. They have their benefits: For small brands and large, these spaces can help ease labor and rent burdens, meet growing off-premise demand and help restaurants connect their food with customers quickly. On the negative side, restaurants with ghost kitchens are generally relying on (and paying) third-party providers to deliver food to customers, and in the absence of a front-of-house team, they may also encounter challenges in connecting customers with their brand – unless it’s already well established. As the ghost kitchen industry expands, various models are emerging. Check out this map of the landscape from Spoon to get a sense of where different providers and restaurants are building a presence – and where you might fit in.
Are you sending customized promotions to your guests based on their past orders? Adjusting your menu or specials based on guest data you have collected? Changing the items you promote on your digital menu when changes in the weather make guests crave different items? The era of hyper-personalized marketing is here – and the more personalized you can make the experience for guests, the better. There are important payoffs for restaurants: A study from Deloitte found that one in five consumers who expressed an interest in buying personalized products was willing to pay a 20 percent premium, and 22 percent of consumers are happy to share some data in exchange for a more personalized service or product. Hyper-personalization was a key prediction in a recent report from Modern Restaurant Management that collected a roundup of insights from restaurant industry experts about the trends to expect in 2020. In the report, Dan O’Connell, CEO of Foodmix Marketing Communications, said he sees the industry taking personalization even further than the “you may like” recommendations that restaurants are using widely now. Think matching flavors to personalities, offering guests personalized recipes and packaging, and serving up customized latte art for every guest who orders coffee. Of course, hyper-personalization makes it all the more inspiring for guests to talk about it on social media. After all, when you feel like a business knows you well and celebrates what you like, you want to tell friends about it.