Restaurants & COVID-19: Holiday communications strategy during coronavirus
This post is a continuation of the former ongoing post “Restaurants & COVID-19: Crisis communications strategy for coronavirus,” which we started back in March 2020. That seems like decades ago, as we take on the holidays with our friends at Red Lentil outside Boston.
The restaurant was able to sort of glide onward from the summer, once everything started opening up a bit in Massachusetts and due to their most loyal customers, but we knew as COVID cases once again began to rise come fall that the holidays would be a challenge.
Plus, everyone is tired. The chef and staff are tired. The customers are tired. The entire northeast U.S. has been overwhelmed by COVID fatigue.
But this time of year is unmistakably the most revenue-producing for any restaurant, so… on we went.
The Red Lentil Harvest Dinner has been the restaurant’s number-one revenue generator for over 10 years. Most years, it sells out with 4 seatings. Additionally, they host a dinner for the Boston Vegetarian Society over the Monday and Tuesday preceding Thanksgiving.
Our challenge this year was to figure out how to promote and hold both events—while not knowing whether or not the dining room would be mandated closed by the state by the time Thanksgiving rolled around.
Step one: stay positive. Step two: figure it out. Quickly.
Takeout wins the day
We planned for the Harvest Dinner as usual, promoting that all COVID protocols would remain in place, that seatings would be limited, and that party size would be limited. Then we proposed to the chef a takeout option: We offer family-style meals for 4-person and 6-person parties, with a fixed price, for pickup.
As reservations for dining in barely trickled in, the chef was devastated. But as we showed sensitivity toward the re-emerging uncertainties of the time and promoted the takeout option, we gained momentum.
We had built a landing page with an online intake form to pull in orders. Customers could choose one of two options for each of five courses, all packaged family style, and then select a time for pickup on Thanksgiving Day.
Holding a dining event—virtually
The Boston Vegetarian Society was its own separate concern. We didn’t want to have to build an entire e-commerce setup for a client who already suffered from an injured marketing budget. We also wanted to avoid no-shows, which is a huge problem when asking people to commit without paying up front.
So we created non-refundable, non-transferrable tickets, using the restaurant’s online gift card system (GiftUp!), that BVS members had to buy before they could pick up on the corresponding days of the event. The QR codes associated with the gift card “tickets” would be scanned in the system by Red Lentil staff as people arrived to pickup.
And to promote the event (and tease the presentation of the Harvest Dinner takeout option), the chef posted a video of the meals being boxed on the day.
Strategic planning was 80% of what we offered during this push. As far as creative and digital deliverables, we offered social media posts, email marketing pushes, landing page design, and Facebook event prep. And of course managed the backend, including ticket sales, takeout orders coming through the site, and customer service requests and questions coming mostly via social media channels.
If it weren’t for our proposed takeout dinner strategy, this year’s Harvest Dinner would’ve been a complete loss for the restaurant.
But the chef also continued to post preparatory and thank-you messages to his customers, always being mindful that community has been what has kept them afloat all along.
Due to the success of the Harvest Dinner takeout strategy, the chef decided to completely forego in-house dining for Christmas Eve. Since the Christmas Eve event is usually smaller in terms of revenue, we’re bundling it with a $5 gift card to boost interest and offering more relaxed pricing.
In terms of promotion, we will do the same: social media posts, email marketing, landing page, Facebook event, and management of the process. We were overwhelmed by the response.
The restaurant took in over 125 orders, over 350 meals, and generated over $12,000 in revenue!
Every year, we offer a Black Friday promotion, as well as two Christmas promotions for gift cards. Since all the restaurant’s cards are now digital, this is easy to automate and promote, using coupon codes for bonus savings. So at least this process felt familiar to patrons (and to us!), and gift card promotions are rolling out via social media, Facebook offers, and email marketing.
This year, despite COVID-19, the restaurant saw a 148% increase in gift card sales with 143% more gift cards sold. While in-house dining revenue was down due to Massachusetts state health regulations, our efforts to promote takeout and delivery—and especially the huge success of the Christmas Eve Vegan-at-Home event—helped keep the restaurant and its staff afloat during an otherwise disappointing season.
What Not to Do
Go easy on your customers this holiday season. They’re feeling just as overwhelmed as you are, and money is tight for most. Try not to clobber them with too many things at once. Make smart choices and spread the revenue out.
The chef has been working with a mobile app developer during the second half of the year, mostly to do away with third-party apps that charge exhorbitant fees. (If you want to help a restaurant, call in and pick up your food!)
The app developer launched the app and a loyalty rewards program tied to it in December. They wanted to promote all that publicly—note that it also drives revenue for the app developer—during December in the midst of one of our heaviest promotional periods.
We stepped in and strongly disagreed. January is typically a dead time for revenue after the frenzy of the holidays. We advised them to wait until after New Year’s and then get people jazzed about a new app and a rewards program that would, in the long run, save loyal patrons money.
The chef took our strategic advice. We were able to work with the app team to ensure that while we soft launched during December by updating the website, we did not overwhelm the audience with messages for new services at the same time as we promoted events and sales.
If you need help, ask.
We’re not just some faceless restaurant marketing agency here. We dive in. We strategize. We track. We monitor. We’re right there with you, at the moment you need us. And we’re looking out for you. At any time, during any crisis.
For more information on how small businesses can survive COVID-19, check out our interview with Mailchimp’s podcast Call Paul, available on all major podcast streaming platforms.