If you’ve been in business long enough, you likely have a strong idea of what your ideal customers look like, how they order from you and what they like to see from you. But COVID-19 has changed this in a couple of ways. For one, the pandemic has persisted long enough to have created lasting – or at least long-term – shifts in consumer habits and expectations. The times when people eat, what they eat, and who (and how many) they eat it with have all changed. Further, as we power through what we hope are the final months of the pandemic, recovery from it will be uneven across consumer segments. Older guests may hesitate to dine out. Families may sustain their level of takeout ordering or perhaps dine out more often, particularly if they have spent months at home managing home learning. Instability in the economy may dissuade younger consumers from using discretionary income for restaurant meals and beverages as often as they once did. Or you may not see clear demographic-specific sales patterns overall. All told, if you leaned on hunches or impressions to sustain your business before, you will now need to mine your data and be able to make actionable decisions about it every hour and every day. This will enable you to respond to small, frequent shifts in consumer behavior with promotions and menu items that connect with them – and avoid wasting food and money within your business in the meantime.
You may have decided by now that you don’t need to hire new hosts or waitstaff as you prepare your restaurant for post-pandemic service – but what about staff whose expertise is in technology? A recent report from Hospitality Tech references the southeastern U.S. restaurant brand Sonny’s BBQ, which relies on the skills of two full-time, highly skilled data analysts. These analysts synthesize industry data, sales and profits, marketing statistics and other data to develop and fine-tune strategies for data analytics, customer relationship management and personalized guest experiences. Strengthening your business and brand in these difficult times is about harnessing information – about elements ranging from your market and customers to each item and promotion on your menu. That may require you to rethink how you manage your business and what expertise you need most. Doing so can help prepare your business for future bumps – and bring some needed predictability to your business in 2021.
Do you remember what your marketing plan looked like from last year at this time? Chances are if you reviewed it today, it would look pretty quaint, considering the countless ways operators have had to reinvent business this year. While the development of a vaccine has provided signs of hope for 2021, the winter season will still require operators to rethink the ways they appeal to their customers. Your breakfast and lunch menus may hold some untapped potential here. For many people this winter, dining out in the evening could be a non-starter if eating outside is their only option. At the same time, the pandemic has also changed lunch from being a quick break in the day to a welcome chance to reconnect with colleagues and get out of the house – particularly for the large swaths of people who continue to work from home. How can you rethink your winter promotions to help capitalize on those changes in our habits? Can you draw people out for a hot lunch outside or entice loyal customers with a lunch delivery subscription? Could you offer a special menu of specialty coffees, breakfast burritos or grab-and-go breakfast items a person could collect following their morning run or school drop-off? Even snack times have new potential this year. The increased numbers of people working from home – and experiencing more blurred boundaries between work and life – may result in guests being more open to picking up a late lunch or meeting a friend for a late-afternoon appetizer. How have the habits of your most loyal guests changed this year? Keep them in mind as you plan for what could be another few unpredictable months ahead.
Your take-away menu is carrying a lot of weight these days. It needs to offer a sufficient range of items to satisfy guests (though not so many that you overwhelm them with choices or generate waste). It must communicate the experience of eating these items (but without too many words). And it must accomplish this all without the person ever having to walk through your doors to experience your brand. Chances are we’ll be looking at another several months of dining room restrictions and being limited to take-away and delivery – particular during the winter months, when it can be hard to get people to come out even in normal years. So give your menu a reality check now. Aside from organizing items by category, ensuring everything travels well, explaining options with a handful of carefully chosen words that help communicate the texture, freshness and aroma of an item, and including appealing photos, try to add some intrigue. Beyond your popular standbys, think about what regular tweaks you can make that will entice people to come back and see what creative menu items – or even new categories – you are offering. New research from Postmates, for example, found that sales of family meals had climbed 175 percent and alcohol sales 49 percent over last year. Special occasions have resulted in food and beverage spikes too: National Ice Cream Day in July led to a 118 percent increase in ice cream sales, and Election Day resulted in sharp increases of orders of pizza, alcohol, cupcakes and ice cream. Clearly this is a year when people crave comfort. What kind of comfort can you cook up for upcoming occasions this winter?
The math on third-party delivery has long been problematic. Operators have felt the need to offer it at the expense of profits just because of increasing consumer demand. But now that restrictions on dining rooms have made delivery more of a necessity than a nice-to-have extra, many operators are thinking even more critically about how to make it work. Common approaches include raising prices on menu items to help compensate for high third-party fees, finding a way to offer delivery in-house, or enticing guests to order via your online platform and then paying a third-party vendor a reduced fee for delivery (but retaining the valuable customer data). If delivering food yourself isn’t feasible, committing to making the third option work may be your best long-term bet for making ends meet and serving customers well. This Restaurant Business report ( https://bit.ly/3pqATav ) discusses how delivery may be evolving and how to drive people to your platform.
This year, consumers and restaurants alike could really use the morale boost that holiday gatherings and celebrations can offer – but those events will look a lot different this year (if they happen at all). But not so fast. Could you find a festive way to help people enjoy great company, food and drink in a new way? Could you still help them toast to a long-awaited 2021? Think about how you can bring the party to your guests individually or virtually. Are there businesses in your neighborhood who have always held their holiday lunches and happy hours with you but will miss them this year because their employees are working remotely right now? More than ever, they want to make their employees feel appreciated and connected to their work from afar, so promote some holiday bundles that can be delivered to individual employees as a special treat. Do your customers still feel the need for a party – even if it’s not a traditional one? If you don’t have access to a large outdoor space where you are allowed to plan a socially distanced gathering, don’t underestimate the appeal of a virtual party, cooking class, quiz night or wine tasting held via Zoom. It can come together with a menu of festive food, cocktails and party bags for delivery, a few festive or funny Zoom backgrounds and some music.
This year has been a frightening rollercoaster ride for restaurants – and while 2021 shows glimmers of improvement, we’re surely going to experience more twists and turns between now and recovery. But restaurants can also play an important role in shaping what’s to come. Recent research from McKinsey & Company said that to survive COVID-19, most restaurants will need a redesign – both in terms of their physical layout and business structure. If you’re planning to scale down your hours this winter or close altogether in anticipation of a stronger reopening in the spring, how can you use that down time to your advantage? Can you reconfigure your interior and exterior space to accommodate streamlined food pick-ups? Now is the time to, at the very least, create new systems that allow you to keep a finger on the pulse of your business every day (ask us how we can help). Ideally, that means adopting analytics and automation capabilities. They will help you manage inventory, monitor your equipment and energy use, provide contactless pickups, manage labor fluctuations, anticipate customer preferences – all of the critical capabilities you will need to succeed as we push through this difficult period.