The winter weather will mean customers will be more apt to lean on restaurant delivery – and third-party delivery apps – to get the food they crave. But as a recent New York Times article reported, “restaurants have quickly found that the apps, with their high fees and strong-arm tactics, may be a temporary lifeline, but not a savior.” That’s especially true when an app can charge fees surpassing 30 percent per order and take customer data along with them. In 2021, how can you set yourself up to encourage your customers to come to you directly when they want to order from your restaurant? If you can’t divert waitstaff to delivery duty, use a third-party provider as a courier service only (which typically involves paying a payment processing fee and delivery fee but not losing any customer data), or make it more appealing for guests to collect their orders. In every bag to be collected by a third-party vendor, include a coupon good for a pickup discount – along with an explanation about how third-party fees are impacting restaurants right now. Offer rotating specials that are only available through orders placed via your website. Finally, use your social media and website to directly urge customers to come to you. Reinforce how much they will save on fees by simply collecting an order from you or (if possible) having you deliver it to them directly. Explain the difference side by side and tell them how much money your business makes or loses depending on how an order is placed – sometimes a consumer’s decision to use an app is not a conscious one and the person just needs to be reminded of how you’re feeling the difference. Your customers have surely seen some of their favorite restaurants close in recent months – and they want to see you survive and thrive. Tell them how to place orders that can best support you right now.
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.
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?
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.
Does your loyalty program look different now than it did in February? It should. The kinds of promotions that were central to your loyalty program back then – along with your method of operating your program – might come across as inappropriate now. It’s especially critical that you’re using your loyalty program to fuel the parts of your business that need support in the current environment and to collect information about how, when and what your customers are ordering. This will help you to keep business coming in now and provide a more secure bridge to operating post-pandemic. So what do you want people to know about your restaurant? In what areas of your business do you want to build awareness and generate more sales? Your loyalty program is a great vehicle for directing customer focus. Incentivize people to place their order via your website or app and pick it up curbside. Integrate contactless payment with your loyalty program so you’re automatically generating data (and at a time when safety is the new hospitality, also ensuring your guests don’t have to swipe a physical card to earn points). Increase the appeal of your program by creating joint offerings with partner businesses and offering more flexible terms. Stay in contact through email and social media – posting daily on social media is important for awareness right now – and make sure to promote your safety practices.
By now, you likely know the approved COVID-recovery playbook for restaurants: Fine-tune your off-premise menu, offer digital ordering, make your pick-ups low-touch, etc. But restaurants aren’t all alike – thankfully – so a cookie-cutter approach to COVID survival and success isn’t going to work for everyone. If this sounds like you, what could work for you? What might inject your business with enough lifeblood to keep it going until spring, when the environment may look a whole lot better for restaurants? A recent New York Times report profiled the Brooklyn restaurant Gertie, which serves updated Jewish-American deli food and has embraced reinvention mode. When the pandemic hit, the restaurant had no takeout or delivery operation – the one thing believed to be a must for operating in these times. So the owners created one. Far from being a saving grace, it was a “dead end.” So instead, the restaurant has focused on nonprofit work – partnering with a range of meal programs around the city that distribute meals to the hungry. Prior to the election, they planned a weekly event designed to boost business while encouraging support for candidates running for office. So far, it’s keeping them going, and they continue to look for ways to reinvent themselves. The environment for restaurants is severe – but money is still flowing in this economy. What organizations in your community could be critical partners for you right now? What causes might inspire your best customers to support you? This isn’t what you’ll be doing forever but it may help carry you through these next few months to a point next year when life feels a bit safer, people want to get out and support restaurants, and yours will be among the ones there to serve them.
Recently the long-anticipated “second wave” of COVID-19 cases was spurring an indoor dining ban in Chicago, leading to talk of heightened restrictions in the U.S., and bringing back lockdowns in Europe. At a time when COVID fatigue has set in and we’re all eager to congregate again, restaurant operators are in the difficult and pretty impossible position of being arbiters of public safety. Unfortunately, the colder air will make virus transmission even easier than it has been to date: As reported in the Oregonian, Dr. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago medical school said colder air is drier and the droplets that transmit the virus become smaller – so removing masks to eat and drink poses extra safety risks. Instead of pouring your creativity and resources into building a safer outdoor dining area to sustain you in the months ahead, you will likely be better served by going all-in on perfecting your off-premise offerings right now. Think back to how you operated in the early weeks of the pandemic and focus on doing those things again and better. People may be less comfortable eating out for the next several months but they will still need to eat – and the public has become more educated about the low risk of COVID transmission on packaging. Your off-premise menu can help bring some festivity and normalcy to life in these strange times.
The holidays are coming – though they are likely going to look a little different this year, with fewer work gatherings and indoor celebrations filling your dining room every night. But can you still make it a season of goodwill? If you’re looking at a likely downturn in business this year because of capacity restrictions and virus infection upticks, how can you use this time to ensure that you’re still taking care of the customers who can help you come back stronger in 2021? A recent Business Insider report shared the out-of-the-box ideas that Geoff Tracy, the chef owner of several Washington, D.C. area restaurants, has implemented in recent months. He and his teams took on a number of goodwill projects in the early weeks of the pandemic, including offering free car washes for customers and even calling their top-500 loyalty point members and offering to pick up prescriptions, drop off dry cleaning and give rides to doctor’s appointments. To be sure, these aren’t the kinds of tasks his staff signed up for when they started working with him. But the next time Tracy’s customers are looking for a takeout meal – or their first indoor sit-down meal after the pandemic – how could they consider ordering from anyone else? At a time when celebrating looks different, tap into your service mindset. How can you help brighten the day of your best customers? Maybe it’s with a custom meal package created for a loyal guest isolating at home. Maybe it’s something your restaurant has never done before that could supercharge guest loyalty like never before.