In the early days and weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurant operators were forced to close their dining rooms or even shut down their businesses entirely to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. For many restaurateurs, this also meant significantly scaling back any marketing campaigns.
Now, months into the pandemic, restaurants are slowly beginning to reopen their doors to the public. For some, this means reopening their dining rooms and patios, while others have opted to open back up for just takeout and delivery. No matter what approach restaurants choose to take, one of the biggest hurdles is marketing to diners who have spent the past few months isolated at home.
With customers still wary of venturing out, restaurants can no longer rely on foot traffic to keep their businesses top of mind. Instead, restaurateurs need to market their businesses to customers where they are right now: online. The new reality for restaurateurs is that going digital and using the latest technology is no longer a unique differentiator. It’s the price of entry.
In this guide, we’ll go over a few restaurant marketing tactics that will keep you connected to your existing guests and introduce you to new ones as you adjust to a new normal, including:
- Content creations ideas to market your restaurant
- Ways to optimize your website and social media channels for the future
- Ideas to partner with other restaurateurs and influencers
- Marketing your restaurant reopening
Everything you need to know about social media, digital marketing, SEO, and more!
Create Compelling Content
We don’t want to belabor Bill Gates’ often-quoted “content is king,” but it kind of is. Creating unique content regularly is a great way to boost your brand and keep customer attention – especially as you adjust your business model for the post-COVID era.
The best part is that content is relatively easy to create, just by using your smartphone (more on that in a moment).
So, what kind of content could you create to boost your restaurant marketing efforts?
1) Behind the Scenes
People love your food, but more importantly, they love you. One of the big reasons your guests dine with you is because of the experience you provide and how you make them feel , not just because of how delicious your food is.
Take your audience behind the scenes into your dining room, your kitchen, or even your living room. Here are a few ideas:
- Tell them the story of how you got started in the restaurant business
- What was the inspiration behind starting your restaurant?
- Why did you want to become a restaurant owner?
- Virtually interview members of your staff about what they love about your restaurant and what it’s like being a part of your team (you can record your video calls for free using a platform like Skype or Zoom)
- Ask regulars and other members of the community to share what your restaurant means to your city or neighborhood
- Get candid about the challenges and triumphs you’ve faced during the pandemic
If you’re not sure people want to see behind the curtain, just look at what Gordon Ramsay has been doing with restaurants.
2) Share How You’re Coping
There’s no denying that the past few months have been tough on restaurant owners and staff everywhere. Though you may not be used to sharing some of the struggles of running a restaurant, this is a great opportunity to show customers and loyal fans how you’re dealing with what’s going on – especially since everyone is online right now.
For instance, if you’re taking extra measures to support your staff in some way, you can share that on your website, social media, or via restaurant email marketing. The Brick Store Pub in Atlanta sold off all of its old patio furniture during the shutdown to raise funds for its laid-off staff.
Or maybe you’re dealing with some major hurdles and could use the help of your loyal regulars. The team at Pam’s Roti in Toronto sought out the support of the community to encourage their landlord to apply for a federal rent relief program.
There’s a very real, very human story behind every restaurant, especially at a time like this. Don’t be afraid to let people see that side of your business – they might even be able to help.
3) Share Recipes, Tutorials, and Live Cooking Shows
Even as restaurants reopen, some consumers will feel more comfortable staying in. Why not keep people at home entertained and engaged by giving them a miniature cooking class? Teaching your audience about some of your beloved dishes could help build equity in your brand and an appetite to dine with you when they feel comfortable doing so.
Have the best spaghetti Bolognese in town? Publish the recipe with stunning images of it being prepared, step by step. Does your food lend itself to some great family meals? Go live on Facebook each week with a cooking show that engages that whole family. Or follow the lead of Toronto’s Kimchi Korea House, which shares easy-to-follow Korean cooking tutorials on its Instagram stories.
We get it – this may sound counter-intuitive. Why would you share your secrets and potentially give your competition visibility into your operations? We’re not suggesting you live stream how to make your secret sauce, but you can walk people through a simple recipe that will make them feel more connected to your brand – no secrets required.
Even if you showed your audience every step of how you make a certain dish at your restaurant, you’re still the expert. That’s why they love coming to dine with you. If they attempt a few of your recipes at home, they’ll still be eager to come in for the full experience as soon as they can.
4) Reach a New Audience on a New Social Media Channel
Now may be the time to test different social media channels and features as part of your COVID-19 restaurant marketing strategy.
Connect with regulars and reach new potential guests by experimenting with social media channels and features you’ve never tried before.
Have you been curious about trying live streaming on Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube? Or have you been inspired by what other restaurateurs are publishing on TikTok?
Many TikTok users have been creating their own recipe videos using the rapidly-growing video platform. Because of its recent popularity, this could be just the space for you to try and reach a new audience. Just take the example of chef Sonny Hurrell, who has amassed 700,000 followers for his wildly entertaining Tik Tok cooking tutorials.
Of course, don’t forget to give your usual social media channels – like Instagram – some love by remaining active.
5) Use Your Smartphone
If the expense of hiring a professional team has been a barrier for your restaurant marketing in the past, it no longer has to be. Believe it or not, that smartphone in your pocket is powerful enough to create scroll-stopping content.
Advancements in smartphones mean they have:
- More processing power for video and photo editing
- More storage for long-form audio and video files
- Stronger cameras to capture images and footage in high-definition
To perform any of the above marketing tactics in this guide, all you need is your smartphone, an Internet connection, and occasionally something to prop up your phone like a set of books or a smartphone tripod. Aquavit’s executive chef Emma Bengtsson even managed to use a head of broccoli to prop up her phone while shooting her cooking videos.
6) Document Your Journey to Reopening
As parts of Canada and the U.S. begin to lift dining restrictions, restaurants are quickly preparing their venues for reopening. But with strict limits on capacity and new health and safety regulations, dining out will look very different than it did before the pandemic.
To help your customers prepare for a whole new dining experience, you can document and share your journey to reopening. This can mean everything from taking photos of your spacious new floor plan, to sharing videos of masked staff manning a dedicated takeout window.
You can even have fun with this content, like the owner of Trattoria Da Luigi, Luigi Cutraro. Ahead of opening his Italian restaurant in Royal Oak, Michigan, Cutraro filled several seats with ghosts made of white bedsheets as a humorous way to show how the restaurant would be keeping diners six feet apart. In a video posted on Facebook, Cutraro introduced each ghost by name and encouraged guests to “please join us for dining with the ghosts.”
This kind of content not only lets customers know that you’ll be reopening soon, but it can also help to soothe some of their anxieties about dining out in the wake of COVID-19. A recent Nielsen survey on restaurant reopenings found that 50% of consumers want to see social distancing accommodations and 49% are looking for additional hygiene programs. If you can show consumers that you’re taking extra steps to keep them safe, it can help to make them feel more comfortable dining out again.
Revisit and Optimize Your Online Presence
Though people may not be walking by your restaurant like they used to, they are googling it.
As dining restrictions are lifted and consumers start looking up places to dine, where will you be in those search results? Take some time to optimize your online presence and ensure your social media channels are consistent so that when consumers do go looking for your restaurant, they can actually find you.
A great place to start is by making sure you’re set up with Google My Business. It’s free, easy to use, and allows you to manage your online presence across Google, including Search and Maps. This helps guests find you more easily through various marketing tactics that keep guests engaged.
Beyond your Google business profile, you should also be updating your website. When auditing all of the pages of your website, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is all the information up to date?
- Does your menu view well on desktop and on mobile devices?
- Do you have a reservation system integration on your website for easy booking?
- Are your images up to date?
- Are you capturing emails and building a mailing list?
- What else can you add to your website that might be valuable to your audience? (Our story, chef bios, etc.)
You can also make sure to include information people may need to see now regarding your operations, including:
- The current status of your operations (e.g.. completely closed, open for dine-in, open for takeout and delivery only, etc.)
- Your updated safety and hygiene precautions
- Any government-mandated procedures you need to follow (e.g. collecting guest information for contact tracing purposes)
- How you’re supporting staff during this time
- How guests can support you (through gift cards, relief funds, direct online ordering, etc.)
- How to stay connected with your restaurant (email sign-ups, social handles, etc.)
Part of updating your website should also include adding online ordering (if you don’t already have it) to maximize your takeout and delivery business. With website integrations like TouchBistro Online Ordering, customers can place orders directly on your website and all the information is processed through your restaurant POS. This not only makes it easier for customers to order from you, but your restaurant also gets to keep 100% of the profits (which isn’t the case with third-party ordering apps).
And remember, anything that goes on your website should be consistently reflected across your social media channels. For instance, if you add direct online ordering to your website, update your Instagram, Facebook, and other social profiles with the appropriate link.
Lastly, optimize your website for search (SEO). This may be a marketing activity that was put off in favor of all the other operational considerations when running a restaurant. But now’s the best time to make sure you’re optimizing your website to be found for relevant search terms. You can even use free tools, like this one from BentoBox, to quickly find out if your restaurant’s website is optimized for search engines. If it’s not, we have a full guide that can help you do this.
Find Partnerships and Influencers
You are not alone in the struggle caused by COVID-19 – this is an industry-wide pain. Restaurateurs around the world are all in the same boat and that means you can all lean on each other for community and hope.
Many restaurateurs are partnering around relief, lobbying, and charitable initiatives in this time of need.
For example, PINCH Kitchen+Bar in Miami has joined several restaurant industry leaders in its community to create a relief fund for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even if you’re only operating at a limited capacity, it doesn’t mean you can’t come together with others in your local neighborhood to create some positive support for the industry.
Restaurant influencers are also keenly aware of what’s happening in the industry and right now might be a great time to begin building relationships with them to help reach a wider audience. For instance, food influencer and Black Foodie founder Eden Hagos has continued collaborating with Black-owned businesses throughout the pandemic, including the Malamiah Juice Bar & Eatery in Grand Rapids, SoulBowl in Minneapolis, and True True Diner in Toronto.
Start proactive outreach to influencers in your city or state, and ask them how you can help each other in this time of need. While these can be great relationships, be mindful of cost – they may be willing to volunteer some time and energy for these partnerships right now, but many influencers have a price tag attached to posts or collaborated efforts. Be mindful of your budget based on current income before making any decisions.
Marketing Your Reopening
Whether your city has completely lifted dining restrictions or is still in the early stages of reopening, you should be thinking about how to market your return to business.
The plan doesn’t have to be solid right now, but putting some ideas together could help you open up more quickly, when the restrictions are officially lifted and you’re comfortable serving guests again.
Though restaurant reopenings will look a little different across North America, consider the following ahead of your official reopening:
- Communicate with customers about any new safety precautions you’re taking and the government rules and regulations you need to follow (mandatory reservations, gathering information for contact tracing, etc.)
- Update your website with any changes to your operation ( hours of operation, a new restaurant layout, etc.)
- Beyond dine-in, provide information about other ways customers can order from you, including online ordering or any third-party delivery apps
- Share any major menu adjustments or changes to your restaurant reward program
- If you’re using reservations software, get feedback from diners about their experience
- Publicize any deals or special promotions you’re offering as part of your reopening
While there may be no grand reopening for most restaurants, you can market your reopening in a way that gets customers excited to dine out again, but also helps to manage expectations.
Learn how to set up an email marketing strategy for your business in 6 easy steps.
No Time Like the Present
The transition to a new normal will be a long and careful process for many restaurateurs. While this may not be the breakneck pace you’re used to, take advantage of the time to give your marketing plan a much-needed update.
Simple restaurant marketing activities, like creating content, optimizing your online presence, looking at partnerships, and preparing for your re-launch will help you stay top of mind with your guests and prepare them for a new era of dining.
Let them into your world with some savvy marketing and they’ll reward you with loyalty in the months and years ahead.