Weathering the Storm: Small Business Expert Weighs In on Next Best Steps

Many restaurant owners and workers are feeling helpless and at a loss for what to do next. Yelp's  Small Business Expert Emily Washcovick has years of experience helping small businesses survive and thrive, particularly in times of crisis.

In this Q&A with Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine, Washcovick offers some ways restaurants can engage their customers and their community in these unprecedented times.  Learn why she says now is "a time to really look back on the business and plan for the future."

What are the most effective ways to reach customers and engage with them and the community?

There are many ways to engage and connect with consumers in these challenging times and we encourage business owners to take advantage of all of them.  From social media, to your website to email and your Yelp page, there are endless opportunities to reach your audience with relevant and timely information.

Be sure to, first and foremost, update your business hours and contact information so that your consumers know the latest information from your business.  They’ll want to know if you’re offering delivery, curbside pickup, abbreviated hours or if you’re temporarily closed. In addition, if you are open, you’ll want to be sure to communicate what specials you might be offering at this time, how people can contribute to your business (gift cards, virtual offerings, etc.) and how they can best reach you.

Use social media to highlight your customers and connect directly with them!  We’ve seen businesses selling cocktail kits and donut decorating kits reposting their customers’ creations which is a great way to not only communicate your offering, but also stay close with your community in a time of social distancing. 

What are some examples of success you’ve seen?

In my neighborhood it’s been so exciting to see businesses finding new ways to reach consumers during the social distancing guidelines.  These are just a few examples that I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks and hopefully they will inspire more ideas! 

The Lost Whale is a local bar in Milwaukee and, with the current guidelines, you might think that they’d plan to shutter their doors.  However, instead of doing that, they decided to create “make your own” cocktail kits for people to buy. Within hours on their first day they sold out.  They’ve continued to make these and expanded the kits, providing options with and without spirits to access people at different price points.

In the spirit of collaboration, three local shops came together to create an enticing offering to consumers.  Camp Bar Tosa, Cranky’s and Central Standard pooled their resources to create a combo package for their customers with something from each of their respective shops.  We love seeing business owners get creative and finding ways to expand their offerings by collaborating with other business owners.

Cranky Al’s also put together a “Kids Quarantine Box” which consisted of a build your own doughnut activity.  The local favorite provides their famous doughnuts and all the toppings needed to create your own masterpiece.  It’s a fun way to drum up business and a way to appeal to families looking for ways to support local businesses while also entertaining their kids.

These are just a few of my favorite examples, but it’s exciting to see what’s already happening and I look forward to continued examples of success from business owners across the country.

What are some low/no budget ways to market your business during Coronavirus?

Clear and prominent signage to let customers know if you’re still open and if so, how to connect with you, is the first step. Many of your regulars have probably gone past your business during this time to see if they can get any information. Even a DIY sign in your front window is a great way to inform your customers of how your business has transitioned, and what ways they can continue to connect with you.

Get this same message posted across all of your social platforms as well as your website. 

Social media is a great (and mostly free) tool to visually communicate with your community during these times. If you’re still operational, take pictures and videos to describe the changes you’ve gone through. Everyone is going through their own life challenges and changes right now, so the more authentic and real you can be on social media the better. 

Julie Lim, owner of OC Wine Mart & Deli (multiple locations) said that she has taken the leap of faith to be less polished, and more open on social media during these times and it’s important. She has been constantly sharing the updates and changes they’re making to the business in order to serve their loyal community, but also taking time to be honest about what a tough and vulnerable time this is for their business. The response she’s seen has been supportive and she’s encouraged to continue sharing more about what it’s really like behind the scenes. 

If my business is closed and I plan to reopen, what should I be doing now to make that easier?

Right now is a great time to focus on all of the things you were always hoping you had the time to do.  It’s a time to really look back on the business and plan for the future. Here are a few things we’d recommend:

  • Customer + employee communication: Regardless of what your status is, customer and employee communication is key.  In challenging times, the more communication, the better. Keep people aware of your plans, how you are dealing with the times and what they can expect.
For your staff:
  • Make sure you have at least two ways to contact each employee so you don’t waste time trying to track someone down if needed
  • Clearly communicate changes in policies, new safety procedures and staying home if sick.  If your workers don’t have paid sick leave, do what you can to compensate sick employees so they don’t endanger the rest of the staff or your customers 
  • Keep the lines of communication open and support your staff during this stressful time 
  • Training: If you’re able to keep your employees on staff, this is a great opportunity to offer training.  These can be refreshers on things that you have previously trained them on, diversity training or additional resources for them.  
  • Menu Innovation: Refreshing your menu is always a great way to reinvent yourself and give consumers even more of a reason to come back.  It’s also a good way to cut costs and uncover new ways to save money.
  • Touch Ups: Closure is a good time to invest in renovations and touch ups – and, with free time, we recommend trying to do what you can yourself.  DIY can be a big money saver if the touch ups are minor and that way your business will be in tip top condition when it reopens.
What are some operational best practices I should follow?

Our Coronavirus resource hub for businesses links through to a handful of reliable and trustworthy information for best practices including CDC Resources for businesses and employers as well as the World Health Organizations getting workplace ready resource

What are some innovative things restaurant owners can do?

It is a challenging time, but there are still things that can be done to drum up business during this time.  Here are a few things that business owners can think about during this time:

Takeout and Delivery

If you haven’t already done so, think about whether or not your business can employ a takeout / delivery model.  While many businesses already offer this, there are some higher end businesses that may not have considered it before and are now pivoting to create a new menu that serves this model.

Expanding outside of your core businesses

As I’ve mentioned, we’ve seen businesses finding new creative ways to get business, including creating “decorating kits” and “make your own cocktail kits.”  We’ve also started to see businesses adding wine and beer or “cocktails to go” to their normal menu offering with new laws around delivery. However, one of the most innovative things we’ve seen is businesses pivoting to more of a grocery store model – offering a place for consumers to get fresh produce.

Virtual networking and customer interaction

One thing we’ve seen are chiefs offering virtual Q&As and cooking classes.  It’s a great way to remain relevant and interact with your customers in a way that provides actual value.

Gift Cards

Gift cards are top of mind for everyone right now.  They are a great way to bring in income, either for the operation of your restaurant or for employees who you may not be able to employ during this time.  We’ve seen many business owners offer discounted gift cards to promote purchases.