What Can Restaurants Do to Survive the Winter Season?

The end is now in sight. The vaccine rollout has begun and, perhaps by the second quarter of next year, life can start to “return to normal.” But restaurants must first survive the winter – literally and figuratively.

The arrival of colder weather probably means the end of outdoor dining in many parts of the country. Still, survey data from the National Restaurant Association offers hope that many diners will maintain current on-premises (outside dining) habits through the winter. The late October survey found that a majority of consumers (74 percent) said they would continue to eat out “about the same as now” or “more frequently” over the next three months.

Tough Economics, with Some Options Coming 

That sentiment is positive news. Yet in concrete revenue terms, the U.S. Census Bureau found that November restaurant sales were down, sequentially, more than $2 billion. And between March and November, sales were off more than $190 billion from earlier projections, according to the National Restaurant Association. 

These and other grim numbers have led some insiders to argue the industry is in “free fall.” And as the second-largest private sector employer, this also means millions of job losses or continued furloughs. 

Government help is expected, but in the current crisis, it’s clear that what restaurants really need, above all else, is customers and revenue. 

Marketing Moves to Make Now

Beyond waiting for Congress or the states to act, what can restaurants do from a marketing perspective, to maximize the likelihood of survival during the final four to six months of COVID? Most are already offering takeout and delivery. 

Franchise brands have the benefit of higher levels of awareness and national brand marketing dollars behind them. Independently owned restaurants face a much tougher road, although they may inspire stronger local customer loyalty. They still need to grow awareness, increase customer empathy and ensure that new customers can easily find them online. If you’re not readily discoverable online your competitor will get your business (e.g., “best Indian restaurant near me”).

Focus on the Major Consumer Platforms

Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook and Google are the major platforms. (Apple Maps is relevant but largely fed by Yelp.) Each has slightly different offerings (free and paid), and all have sought to accommodate restaurants in distress. For example, Google recently introduced a “small business advisors” program that, for a limited time, offers digital marketing advice for free. This is mostly about helping businesses understand and better utilize Google products but it’s a valuable digital marketing resource to tap.

Restaurants must ensure that they have claimed their business profiles on Google. The Google local business profile should be fully populated with information, images and menu content, if not already done. Accurate contact information (i.e., hours, phone number) is foundational. And that claiming process should be duplicated at each of the other sites.

If the restaurant does online ordering, that information (including links) can be presented on these sites as well. This is basic stuff but it’s material to whether consumers can find and engage with local restaurants – right now almost all local business interaction starts online. Restaurants should also verify their identities and engage customers on Nextdoor, which has a number of useful and free promotional tools.

Existing Customer Engagement is Critical 

Restaurants that have customer lists can and should offer email communications (i.e., newsletters or periodic updates). This can include hours changes or COVID-related protocols, information about how the business is doing and promotions or discounts, which can be shared “virally” to generate new or repeat business. 

Consumers are sensitized to the plight of local businesses and looking for ways to help. Some restaurants set up GoFundMe pages in the early days of COVID. But basic communication with customers about how the restaurant and its employees are doing will generate greater empathy and with it more business. This is not to suggest any sort of “guilt communication” or manipulation, just telling the restaurant’s ongoing story is likely to be effective. 

Creating Empathy, Managing Your Reputation 

These stories can be conveyed in email, video on YouTube, blogs and on social media sites, such as Instagram, Facebook or TikTok. Exposing the human side of the business, its challenges and creative adaptations can be therapeutic for staff and also help strengthen customer loyalty and build new audiences. Innovative loyalty programs should also be considered.

Finally, restaurants must also attend to their online reputations, in the form of ratings and reviews, which new customers will examine closely. There’s a much longer discussion of reputation management to be had. But both positive and negative reviews should be addressed — negative reviews in 24 hours or less. Overall review scores will affect how visible restaurants are on the different sites and in search results. Yelp is also especially important because its restaurant listings often rank very highly in Google. 

Put Yourself in the Mind of Your Customer 

If the restaurant is lucky enough to have the budget to work with a marketing agency, that entity can do many of these things. Alternatively, a number of restaurant back office SaaS platforms also offer online marketing capabilities. Otherwise the owner or employees need to take on these digital tasks themselves.  

Regardless, restaurant owners and operators need to put themselves in the place of their customers – and draw upon their own experience as consumers – to understand the current customer journey, which starts online and revolves around search, reviews, phone calls and online ordering.   

All this is potentially straightforward, conceptually. However, it can be challenging to execute in practice. But with diligence, some luck and tenacity, local restaurants will make it through the winter and be much better positioned for the future.