Marketing Tips for Restaurants Coping with the COVID-19 Crisis

Shock, fear, and panic — All these feelings raced through my mind when I heard the news that restaurants were no longer allowed to provide dine-in experiences to patrons in my state (Colorado). The impact of the COVID-19 crisis is scary and unfamiliar enough, and now on top of it all, my family had to start thinking about how our business was going to survive.

My family’s restaurant/brewery, A.K.A. Kitchen, started less than two years ago as a passion project for my brother. As someone who has studied under critically acclaimed chefs such as Richard Blais of Top Chef, he had a life-long dream of owning his own restaurant. So our family rallied around his dream and made it our dream. 

As many small business owners know, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (not to mention the bank accounts) have been poured into our establishment. From renovating the building with our own hands, designing and creating menus, running and funding the day-to-day operations, and even our own marketing… it’s all been done by us. So my first thoughts when I heard about the ordinance put in place for restaurants regarding Coronavirus were:

  • What if this doesn’t work? 
  • What happens to our business? 
  • What happens to the families we employ? 
  • We have to make this work.

Entering “small business survival mode” for my family’s restaurant

Being a small business marketing expert with Constant Contact, survival mode kicked in and I knew I had to act quickly and efficiently. In this article, I’m going to share with you the actions I took (and continue to take) to preserve my family’s restaurant and keep business going, even as the coronavirus continues to change the way business is done around the world.

But before we dive in, a quick note on safety. It’s hugely important to remember as you work to support your business during this crisis, that you do so in a way that is safe for you, your staff, and your customers. Before you do anything else, make sure you have familiarized yourself with and implemented all CDC-recommended guidelines. 

Here’s what restaurants should do immediately (if you haven’t done so already)

Before I tell you the five priorities that are guiding our marketing right now, let’s talk about where these priorities are implemented.

Before you do anything else, make sure your basics are covered. Use this infographic to guide your initial response.

The marketing guidelines I’ll go into below are focused mainly on your restaurant’s website and social media, but you’ll also want to make sure to send out an email update to your subscribers, update your listings on sites like Google My Business and Yelp, and place signage in and around your physical location. These updates should contain basic information like:

  • Changes to your restaurant’s hours
  • Updated service availability (likely takeout and/or delivery only)
  • Precautions you’re taking to keep customers safe

Updating our restaurant’s website

Now might be a good time to sit down and update your restaurant’s website. I had been wanting to update our restaurant’s site for a while, and this situation pushed me to get it done so that we could rely on it for our marketing efforts during this difficult time.

Even more so than before, your website is like the “home base” for your restaurant business. It should provide a quick overview of the information that people need about who you are and what you offer, in a timely manner, and direct them to take action. In this case, the action is to place an order. 

TIP: If you don’t already have a website (or if you could use a new website), Constant Contact is currently offering free websites to all new and existing email marketing subscribers.

I’ll admit — our old website did not do this. It was a bit convoluted with a lot of unnecessary pages and endless clicking to find what you needed. 

So I did a complete overhaul to our restaurant’s website using Constant Contact’s website builder. I was able to make it a space for our customers to act quickly and to get the timely, essential information they needed to do business with us.

Our new website features the most important information customers need right on the homepage.

5 tips to protect your restaurant business online during uncertain times

We’re all navigating this situation as it’s happening, and it can be overwhelming, but you’re not helpless. As difficult as this crisis is, it’s an opportunity to build trust with customers and to show your community who you are and what your business is all about. 

Here are the five priorities that have guided our restaurant’s online presence, and have made a huge impact on our business’s stability during the crisis:

1. Be informational and timely

There’s a lot going on right now and things are changing quickly. It’s important that you recognize these changes and clearly communicate how you’re responding to them. When you respond, so will your customers. 

Share with them the safety precautions you’re taking. Inform your audience on current regulations and laws. Become a resource to your patrons so they not only see you as a place to eat but as a business that’s informed. You become the “go-to.” 

And when your customers see how informed you are, they will be more likely to trust that your business is taking precautions seriously and that it’s safe to order from you during this time.

2. Be accessible and show your customers their options

What options are you offering to customers right now? Call-ahead ordering? Curbside services? Online-ordering or delivery? Make it as easy as possible for them to take action. 

Don’t hide your call to action behind multiple clicks. Make it as obvious as you possibly can! You can see in the image above that our website features a big “CALL TO ORDER!” button right on the homepage, and when you scroll down, there are even more options, including online ordering.

Make all of your customers’ options clearly available to them on the homepage of your website.

3. Offer items other than food and beverages

People are looking to support local businesses right now in any way possible. Gift cards and merchandise are great options to offer. 

TIP: Encourage people to buy several gift cards but in smaller amounts to give away as gifts. Not only are your loyal customers expanding awareness of your business, but you’re also receiving immediate revenue and setting yourself up for more business later. Depending on your average price per patron; say an average bill is $30 – when those who come to redeem their gift cards use their $10 they’ll also need to spend an additional $20, bringing in additional revenue later. 

If you’re selling merchandise, set up an online store within your website so your supporters can rock that swag during their video conference calls, creating brand recognition. You can even encourage them to post photos to social media of them wearing merchandise as a way to further support your small business.

4. Use SEO (search engine optimization) tools to make your restaurant easy to find online

While we are all self-isolating at home, there are more people online now than ever before. Make sure that those who are searching for local restaurants can find you. Constant Contact has easy-to-use SEO tools that will help boost your visibility through organic searches. 

When using these tools and creating content for your website, make sure to use keywords that searchers might use when looking for a restaurant like yours. You’ll want to do a little bit of keyword research, but in general, you should be including highly relevant terms in your content like “restaurant,” “delivery,” “takeout,” and the name of the city/area you serve. 

Google matches those keywords when your customers are looking for you, which will help push you to the forefront within search results.

5. Keep your message positive

Easier said than done right? Of course in times of uncertainty, it’s important to communicate sensitively. But there are enough news outlets that are covering the negative. Right now, people need positivity. In fact, they’re craving for it.

Our restaurant has dedicated this “season” to reinforcing the relationship we have with our audience. We promote neighboring businesses that we love and support. We’ve created humorous promo videos giving our customers a reason to laugh. 

I personally have written dozens of hand-written notes on our to-go boxes, hoping it will bring a smile to someone’s face. You can donate perishable items to your employees that have been furloughed from your establishment or to local homeless shelters. Whatever you have the capacity to do, SHARE THE LOVE and make sure this story is told throughout your website and social media.

We’re writing personal messages on our to-go boxes to encourage and thank customers during this difficult time.

Remember — you’ve got this.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say there are things that we can control in this unimaginable situation and things we cannot. Your website alone will not save your business. However, it is one thing that you do have control of and it’s certainly a component of your marketing strategy that can increase visibility and help to stabilize your cash flow. 

Don’t go down without a fight. You’ve got this. And you’ve got us. Take a moment to check out the resources for restaurants below, make a plan, and get to work.

More resources for restaurants

Free COVID-19 Restaurant Action Plan
Download our Restaurant Action Plan and learn specific steps you can take to find solutions and protect your restaurant.

Small Business Support Kits
Tools, resources, and support to help you navigate these challenging times as a small business owner.

Relief for Restaurants and Bars Impacted by the Coronavirus
Yelp’s relief program, including assistance with advertising and free tools to help your restaurant get through this.

COVID-19 Response and Recovery Resources for Small Businesses
We’ll be updating this page continuously as we develop and find additional guidance for small businesses dealing with this situation.

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