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How Restaurant Marketers Can Communicate with Customers During Pandemic Uncertainty

How Restaurant Marketers Can Communicate with Customers During Pandemic Uncertainty

Sarah Steimer

delivery driver driving moped toward map pin

Restaurants that choose to remain open at this time need to alert customers that they’re open, what they’re offering and how they’re keeping customers and employees safe

Many industries are struggling in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, and perhaps none is more consumer-facing than restaurants. Many beloved mom-and-pop shops have had to close up entirely, while other eateries can only offer pick-up or delivery. It’s an uncertain time for anyone trying to market their restaurant, so we spoke with Rick Silva, board member for the National Restaurant Association, about how restaurants can communicate with customers.

Q: The National Restaurant Association has been recommending and promoting drive-thru, takeout and curbside pickup delivery so that restaurants can stay alive and consumers can be fed. How exactly are you recommending that businesses alert their customers that this is an option?

A: It’s so important because consumers are disoriented. They don’t want to take any risks by going out. Any normal mediums where you’re speaking to your guests—if you’ve got loyalty programs, social, digital—you want to reach out to them and communicate to them. Let them know that, first and foremost, it’s safe to come to your establishment and you’ve created mechanisms to ensure the safety of your employees, and that your food is safe and that they can access the food in a safe manner. What we’re advocating is, obviously, the off-premises where people feel most comfortable. That’s delivery, including pickup and they can drive-thru as well. It’s critical that people understand that you are open first and foremost, because many establishments are closed. You want to let them know that you’re available and leading with what you’re doing to make sure that your employees are safe and that the food is safe and the method of accessing the food is safe. The more you communicate in advance, the more comfortable people will feel coming to you.

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Many people are worried about where they’re going to get food from. (…) Restaurants have been feeding the population for decades and decades. It helps the consumers to know they can access food independently from grocery stores, and your local restaurants that are convenient, they’re safe to get to, where you don’t have a lot of crowds. Going to a grocery store can be very unsettling for folks because they have to walk the grocery store, they have to stand in line to pay. Restaurants offer a great solution. But it does start with communicating to [customers].

Q: One of the things that I’ve noticed, just with some of the restaurants that I follow on social media, is that a lot of them are doing things like waiving delivery fees or offering some sort of discount. But of course, these businesses are already hurting financially right now. Do you have any recommendations for the types of discounts that they’re offering, or even the language for discounts?

A: First and foremost, I think the folks that are doing that, they’re joining in partnership with the third-party delivery companies Whether it’s Grubhub, DoorDash or Postmates, and they’re funding that together. Because as you said, restaurants are suffering a great deal, even though they may have delivery and drive-thru open in many cases, in fact, in most cases, it’s still not the majority of their business.

In terms of how to discount it, there may be smart ways of doing that. Most people that are (ordering from restaurants) are probably not just buying food for just themselves. Potentially a smart way of providing discounts is by bundling foods into meal packages. It’s a smart way of doing two things: One is addressing people’s need to feed their family at home. And then by pushing that average check up, you’re giving yourself some room to provide a discount. It’ll allow you to provide potentially even more throughput for your kitchen because by standardizing or offering a meal package and moving people to a standard meal package, your kitchens can produce things more efficiently, more of the same thing and potentially actually be able to produce more food more efficiently out the window.

Q: I saw something else that the association was recommending was offering family-targeted offers. Is that what you’re referring to when you describe packaging meals?

A: That’s right. We call it home meal replacement. You’re trying to feed your family and by offering it in a in a complete package, it has your main plate, your sides, even your drinks, and it’s meant for multiple people and you can have multiple packages. You can create a discount for bundling those together. You’re addressing the need that most consumers are having right now, because they’re trying to feed their family. And then you can also help expedite your kitchen by producing more of the same product, it’s more efficient for kitchen to know that these packages could be 30% of your volume, and therefore they can be much more efficient producing a product.

There’s a lot of anxiety out there in terms of how do I just live my life right now without potentially putting myself or my family in harm’s way as it relates to contracting the virus. If you can help them understand that you could provide them a service in a safe way, it helps make them feel better.

Rick Silva, board member, National Restaurant Association

Q: I wanted to also ask about some of the planned events that some restaurants might have had, whether that was something special for an upcoming holiday or anything like that. How should they handle of their marketing materials that they’ve already spent money on?

A: Everything is so unpredictable right now, in terms of when we’re going to be able to go back and change our behaviors. We’re obviously still in the cycle where we’re seeing potentially more restrictions placed on what people can do, including in restaurants. I would certainly say hold on to that POP (point of purchase). If you can redeploy it in some way, of course we deploy it. What’s really important is that you communicate in advance to your customers, to the extent that you will not be able to offer the event or to the extent that you’re changing the way you’re communicating the event.

One thing that we’re finding is it is absolutely critical to reach out to your customers. The practical side is many consumers are finding they have a lot more time on their hands than they ever had before and they really are taking their time to review emails, to respond or stay up with their loyalty programs. Because they’re not busy at work, unfortunately, most of them, and so they’re probably engaging socially (with restaurants online) more than they had. It’s a great opportunity to be thinking into the future and be considerate of the fact that they are available and you can let them know if you’re going to have to make changes to your plans.

Q: Speaking of emailing with customers, it became a running joke at the very beginning of this that companies you’ve engaged with were sending you an email about their plans for handling the pandemic. Other than sending out communications that say, “We’re open. Here’s what we can offer you. Here’s how we’re keeping staff and the customer safe,” are there any other communications that you’re recommending right now?

A: For restaurants, I would keep it really short and be really considerate of what matters to them: We’re open. We’re offering these kinds of deals. Most importantly, again, I know it sounds like overkill, but tell them how they can access your food in a safe place. Let me know that you have drive-thru available. Let me know that an employee can walk it to my car if I don’t want to come into the restaurant. Let me know that you will be open late so that we can access that. Let me know that you have employees and are staffed up so you can serve my food. Let me know that you are adhering to not only your standard health code requirements, but extensive other mechanisms to make sure that the food is not only safe to consume, but that I can access in a safe manner.

Those are things that matter to everybody. And you can do that in a very, very tight way that makes people feel good. I don’t think you have to have a lot of corporate speak and several paragraphs to get that accomplished. People will appreciate that.

There’s a lot of anxiety out there in terms of how do I just live my life right now without potentially putting myself or my family in harm’s way as it relates to contracting the virus. If you can help them understand that you could provide them a service in a safe way, it helps make them feel better.

Q: Any other thoughts for restaurants during this time?

A: One thing I wanted to say is to remind folks that the restaurant industry has very, very strict health and safety guidelines that we adhere to. That local health departments and restaurants are always vigilant on making sure that the food is prepared in a manner that it cannot be contaminated by anything on the exterior regardless of, in this case, we have a very obvious containment, which is this virus. But in the food industry, we’re used to dealing in that environment because even the common cold, whatever it might be, the procedures in kitchens are designed to make sure that food is safe. People should realize that that’s always the case, and that’s certainly something that is even more heightened today. That should not be what worries folks.

What really should worry all of us is the social distancing. How do we access the food, the services, the items that we need, in a safe manner. The great thing about your local restaurant is that they can do that through delivery, through drive-thru and other mechanisms. People should feel comfortable doing that.

At the end of the day, they should also know that the vast majority of these restaurants are run by folks in your community. These are local families. To the extent that people feel safe, they should be frequenting and helping these restaurants. It’s not only a nice alternative to going to the grocery store and standing in line to get your products, but it’s also a great way to get great food that’s hot and safe and supporting a local business, because businesses are struggling right now, given the change in customer behavior.

Illustration by Bill Murphy.

Sarah Steimer is managing editor of Marketing News. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.