Keeping Foodservice Afloat in the Age of Covid

A messaging tool kit for restaurants

Remember January, February, even the beginning of March? We were talking about the Democratic primary, debating LeBron or Giannis for MVP, the economy was still cookin' and so were you. Things took a very sobering turn since then. It's strange how a couple of months can have such a drastic impact, with long-standing social injustices and divisions reaching a boiling point and a global pandemic upending any plans you thought you had in place. 

The world is in a pretty messed up place at the moment. It's sad. 

But the fact is, when it comes to Covid-related news or social unrest, it's very hard to tell what things will look like in the future with any degree of certainty. As a business owner/marketer, you need to form a plan—we could all use a strategy to navigate our business through this time. Having the right communications plan in place should be chief among that new strategy. This in no way is meant to minimize or trivialize what is going on in the world. Rather, this is more concentrated on helping restaurants in particular find their way back to opening their doors (whether dine-in or take-out). 

Here are a few tips to help bring that into shape.

Make a marketing plan.

To some reading this, the idea of a "marketing plan" sounds hard and something you'd just rather ignore altogether. But marketing plans are not one-size-fits-all, so if you have a corporate headquarters with a marketing division in your building, you're going to look at the idea of marketing/communication plan very differently than if you are running a single restaurant on your own. Either way, you may find similarities in your needs.

Whether big or small, corporate or family-owned, the essential idea is the same: Come up with a plan to keep your company in regular contact with current, former and prospective customers. 

A marketing plan may include a national broadcast media buy, in which case you probably have thought this part through. But if your marketing consists of more localized efforts, social media, Google AdWords, or just word-of-mouth, it's important to consider these resources and make them work for you. 

Break out a calendar, start marking it up with what you'll say and when. Assign who will be overseeing this, and make sure they (or you) are taking it seriously. 

Your brand should have a voice/tone that is consistent in good times and bad. That doesn't mean if you're an offbeat and irreverent brand that you make jokes daily in the wake of serious events, but the voice should still sound like it's coming from the same person/people no matter what you are talking about. Like real humans, brands should consider different ways of addressing different situations, while maintaining who/what you are.

The brand voice matters, because throughout your communication it gives you a north star to guide you.

Assuming that's in place, take inventory of what you need to communicate, from very basic info to more detailed forecasting into the future. Take inventory of which channels of communication you currently have, as well as others that are open to you, then start putting the puzzle pieces together. 

On a very basic level, that is all a marketing/communications plan is. Doing it in more advanced ways can include situational analysis, plenty of data analytics, strategy, budgets and scheduling, but it always boils down to that simple objective of "What are we going to say? And how are we going to say it?" That remains critical for brands small, big, and anywhere in between. 

Assume people know nothing.

It seems as if we've all grown accustomed to not truly knowing what's going on with the pandemic. That is to say, even if you have a firm grasp on governmental positions from a local, state and federal level, it is still hard to keep up with the way businesses, and regular people, are reacting day-to-day. What you can control, however, is your business' unique situation. 

So, let your customers and the public at large know. Let them know if you're open for business, your hours, how takeout and delivery works, what your specials are—the more information the better. 

Don't stop there, either. As new levels of reopening happen, have a plan, and announce that plan clearly and loudly. Let everyone know the measures you're taking to keep clean and safe, and walk them through what you're doing to adapt to the new normal.

Give updates. And don't be afraid to be very specific.

Along with assuming no one has any clue what's going on, do your best to throw updates out to your customers. Details are always good, and it allows you to open a channel of more continued dialogue. 

I'm talking more about nuts-and-bolts type of information for this in particular. You may be supporting a cause, involved in community outreach, or have been moved by something happening in the world. That's great, there is a place for that, but this point is more concerning new hours of operation, Covid-related updates you're making, new dishes you're working on, or just sharing something light and personal to give a face to your company.

Show the goods.

I've worked on advertising a few different restaurant accounts over the years, and one thing that was pounded into my head was very simple—show the food. I will admit, I was hesitant to give into this idea at first, but once you see how people react to different types of images, whether it's on an Instagram account or on television, it's clear that the quickest way to human being's minds, hearts and wallets is through their stomachs. 

Get personal.

The bigger companies get, the more corporate they act. It's just the way capitalism works. This isn't always the case, but more often than not it is. Acting more corporate means a few things, but one of those things is acting less personal.

Across any form or business, we often look up to those above us to see what they are doing, and assume that's what we should be doing, too. That's not true. Especially in times like these. Have you seen those YouTube videos where they mash up all the Covid-related commercials and they essentially feel like one big ad? This is not an area to mimic, it's an area to avoid, if you ask me. On the other hand, no matter what size you are, if you stand for something that feels important like a social cause, plant your flag with them. Go for it. 

Like I said earlier, I still think it's important to let people know you're aware of the state of the world, that you are taking actions to improve your customer's experience, etc. But it doesn't all need to be said in the same way.

Take inventory of your company, what makes you you. Give your employees pride for being a part of the team. Share the faces of your employees, tell stories about you and them, use this moment as an opportunity to humanize your restaurant. Don't be stupid, of course. Use your discretion in what and how much you're sharing. This isn't the place to unleash all your political hangups or air your dirty laundry, but sometimes just seeing a face that is on the other side can have an impact.

Communicate like an actual human being.

When times get rough, there becomes a heightened sensitivity of being careful what you say, or how you're saying it. That's a pretty good idea. But that can be misinterpreted to talk in a stale, robotic form. Please avoid doing that. Establishing a brand voice doesn't come with a snap of the finger, but it's a worthy exploration. 

If your restaurant is more downhome, downhome should probably be the tone. If you're a bit silly and irreverent as a person and your company matches your tone, dive in. If you're more upscale and want to tone down the personality, that is totally understandable. But don't stop there. If you want to be thought of as a culinary expert, form your communications to sound like one. 

No matter what the tone is, do your homework, set the voice, and keep to it. Your customers will take notice.

Distribute information efficiently.

How you should be getting your information out into the world often is a case-by-case situation, but there are some general rules to follow. 

It can be tempting to go wider with your distribution channels, which is right on the money ... if you're McDonald's. For the rest of us, it's better to think deeper. Select your channels, or channel, and make that your thing. Get to know it, its best practices, frequency of ads/posts, who is doing it well, then own it. 

Embrace change.

By now, we have adapted to the normality of abnormality. It's tough to trust anyone predicting what the future will hold inside business or beyond. So one way to be prepared for the weeks, months and years ahead is to embrace whatever may be thrown at us. 

In the startup world, the companies were created to do one thing, but by paying attention to how their product was being used and being agile, these companies could pivot to serve another purpose. Some of these companies found great success in doing so, and are almost universally celebrated for doing so. Foodservice is not a tech industry, and I'm not suggesting it should be. But keeping your head on a swivel may be the difference from keeping the lights on or trying your hand at another profession. 

Embracing change means asking more questions of your customers, trying to get to know what they want, what keeps them coming back now and in the future. It means having a game plan, and honoring that game plan, but when the landscape shifts, it also means taking a good look at what you can be doing to build a connection, stay afloat as a company, or change what/how you're operating to get ahead. 

Help people. 

People helping people—what a novel idea. 

I recently heard a story about Billy Durney. He was a guy who got really into BBQ, so much so that he was looking to open up his own restaurant in Brooklyn right before Hurricane Sandy hit. His future restaurant was destroyed before he could open the doors. He is a jovial, good-hearted person, so without much thought he decided to take his BBQ to the streets. He cooked for a community that was reeling, and they stood in line to get a meal. He did this from a pure place, and it showed.

Eventually, Hometown BBQ opened its doors and the customers came. And then more came. And now Billy has three locations.

Think about that for a minute. In this current climate of division and distrust, you could be a force for good just by serving food to people.

It's not rocket science. When the chips are low, pitch in, help out, do what you can for your community, and people will take notice.

I know as well as you do that some of these tips won't be enough to save your business. But whether this is your roadmap or if you have another plan in place, it's always best to roll up your sleeves and put in the work. I started an advertising agency this year, Butterworth Collective, and wake up every day expecting nothing to be given to me. I'm trying to help where I can, and if I can help you, all the better. But no matter what line of work you fall into, there's no substitute for hardwork and genuine goodness.

Good luck to you all. We'll get through this one way or another.

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Jeffrey Butterworth
Jeffrey Butterworth is a creative director and founder of ButterCo.

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