Across the country, restaurants in a handful of states are gearing up for soft, restricted dining room reopenings.
In Arkansas on May 11, dining rooms were allowed to reopen with one-third of their normal capacity. In Connecticut, outdoor dining areas will be allowed to reopen on May 20. In Florida on May 4, restaurants were allowed to reopen and operate at 25% capacity with six feet required between tables. And 19 other states have similar plans with varying restrictions.
But for a majority of restaurant owners across the country, the focus remains on continuing to push on under a takeout-only model. And for restaurants reopening dining rooms, it’s far from business as usual.
In either case, marketing a restaurant during COVID-19 presents unique challenges. Still, opportunities abound for restaurant owners looking for unique ways to reach customers.
Here are 5 ways restaurants can win at marketing during COVID-19:
1. Be creative and over-communicate on social media.
For a number of reasons — including high traffic and hungry customers open to exploring new restaurants — strong social media presence is more important than ever. On social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, restaurants should inform customers about new hours, menus, and specials, express appreciation, and appetize with quality, engaging product photos. But that much should be a no-brainer.
Here are some more creative social media tactics that could prove especially successful right now:
- If you have top-notch bartenders: Ask them to show your patrons how to make their favorite cocktails at home through a simple smartphone video or livestream feature. Or similarly, ask your chefs if they mind offering a quick behind-the-scenes look at the magic happening in the kitchen. These are both fun, engaging ways to interact with your customers when they can’t come in to see you.
- Encourage customers to share photos of or shoutouts to their meals, and feature those posts on your own accounts. This is an excellent way to build community and brand awareness.
- Post with relevant, timely hashtags. Here are a few: #SaveOurRestaurants; #OpenforDelivery (DoorDash’s campaign to encourage the support of restaurants offering delivery); #DoYourPartChallenge (A campaign led by celebrities nominating each other to donate meals); #SupportSmallBusiness
2. Sell and advertise special deals like family meals, cook-at-home kits, cocktails to-go, and more.
These are just a few novel offerings trending across the (now-partially) quarantined nation.
Unique consumer demands and the takeout-only model have spurred industry-wide creativity and adaptation in many forms. In New Orleans, Commander’s Palace hosted a “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” virtual cocktail party on Zoom. Couples who paid $99 were delivered three bottles of French wine and assorted cheese and crackers, complete with a guided tasting led by the restaurant’s wine director, Dan Davis.
If you can offer hungry, stuck-at-home customers great meals with a touch of novelty, practicality, creativity — or even better, a combination of two or three — and market it well, you’ll almost surely see success.
3. Create and share a house playlist to lend a piece of your in-house ambience.
Does your restaurant have a signature sound?
For indie pop hipster brunch hotspots and smooth jazz fine dining locales, the music played at restaurants is a piece of the dining experience your customers probably miss. And it’s easy to curate and share on social media a playlist via any major music streaming platform. Here’s how to do so on Spotify and Apple Music.
4. Start an email list and newsletter.
For restaurants owners who’ve long mulled the idea, now’s a great time to finally put your email list into play. Many restaurants have compiled email lists but do little with them. Especially if you have some extra time on your hands, now’s a good opportunity to focus on backburner marketing initiatives such as developing an informative, engaging newsletter.
Here are a few tips on designing and writing a great one:
- Design for mobile—that’s where 50% of recipients will open your email, after all
- Include large, high-quality photos and other visuals for aesthetic effect—don’t clutter your newsletter and overwhelm your recipients with big blocks of small text
- Include a call-to-action, such as making a reservation, following your social accounts, or RSVPing to an upcoming event
- Include a catchy, brief subject line—use exciting words, but no more than 8-9 of them
- Feature specials, recipes, your staff, your suppliers, and your community
- Give access to special events and offerings
5. Turn negatives into positives.
As restaurants adapt and limit services, how they market the forced changes they’re undergoing will shape customer perception. With a positive angle, tough situations can be framed as new opportunities or offerings. Use “don’t miss out” messaging when advertising limited hours. If relevant, let customers know they can now receive dishes for takeout that were once for dine-in only. Or if your restaurant is gearing up to reopen with limited capacity, talk about how private and safe the dining experience will be.
As we all adapt, good marketing can help frame strange-and-new situations as fun, enticing, or otherwise positive.