Just as the dot-com bubble burst of the early 2000s ushered in more streamlined and consolidated technology companies (like Google and Amazon), the downturn of the restaurant industry at the hands of COVID-19 could look much the same. Though COVID-19 has impacted restaurants of all sizes, it is the small, locally owned, independent restaurants that have suffered most—already functioning on shoestring budgets with small teams and even smaller support networks, and without sizeable “rainy day” funds to keep them afloat. Unfortunately, it is those small, locally owned independents that bring unique character to a community or neighborhood. While some will weather this storm to come back stronger and more resilient than before, it is inevitable that many will give way to more corporate and financially stable restaurant groups.

It’s likely many of these new restaurant concepts will be financed and operated by entrepreneurs, flush with cash, from other industries and disciplines. Who will these “new restaurateurs” be? How can they retain the culture and character of independent restaurants? And, most importantly, will they truly understand how to build a sustainable restaurant brand that will be successful in a post-COVID world?

With those questions in mind, we offer some advice for the “new restaurateur:”

Understand the Guest

One of the advantages of locally owned restaurants is their firsthand knowledge of their guest demographics, likes and dislikes, interests, and concerns. Not only are independent restaurant owners more likely to be connecting with guests in their dining room, but also standing alongside their guests at community events or even living in the same community. These ties allow for a deeper, more personal and organic relationship to be established. To achieve this same guest connection, new restaurateurs should look to their on-site teams. Developing a community outreach program, even prior to opening, will enable a restaurant to build a foundation of goodwill with future patrons. Once open, manager KPIs should integrate metrics that tie back to community engagement and guest relations. Creating ongoing partnerships with other local businesses and organizations can help entrench a restaurant into the local conversation, as well as give the restaurant team a more holistic understanding of its guests. 

Hire Local Talent

Just as community involvement can help reinforce a new restaurant’s brand recognition and connection to its guests, so too can employing talented hospitality professionals that are already ingrained in a city. Coronavirus upended the restaurant industry and thousands of talented hospitality workers are looking for steady jobs. By hiring local, a restaurant’s impact is twofold: One, it helps to reinvigorate the local economy by bringing back jobs, and two, the restaurant staff will have an intimate understanding of the market and target customer. Additionally, many restaurant employees have developed their personal brands and local followers, which can be incredibly helpful to draw new guests, generate ideas, and create opportunities within a restaurant space.

Focus Your Energy

The pivoting we have seen across the industry throughout the pandemic has been, in one word, impressive. From selling groceries, to prepping cook at home meal kits, to cocktails to-go, the hospitality industry has stepped up to the challenges presented by responding with creativity and resourcefulness. But guests are looking for consistency in offerings. There are a lot of businesses vying for their attention, and it can be confusing to weed through the noise and have any clarity on what exactly a restaurant is offering and when. So, keep it simple. Whether it is carefully curating menu items, fine tuning hours of operation to optimize traffic/sales, or more heavily investing in fewer marketing efforts, now is the time to go deep, not wide. Restaurants need to be critical in evaluating “must haves” versus “nice to haves” and use the data and metrics to determine what should stay or go.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

COVID’s impact on restaurants has had a ripple effect through the innumerable suppliers, vendors, and contractors that service them. Knowledgeable, creative, and strategic restaurant-adjacent professionals abound in every city across the U.S. and are eager to be a part of the post-pandemic restaurant revival. New restaurateurs can tap into these resources and build up an external team of support staff with varied hospitality experience from before and during COVID, that can be invaluable in the post-COVID era. As restaurateurs look to establish a marketing strategy, one option to consider is an outsourced marketing solution. In this trying time for operations, growth, and planning, it’s easy to quantify the benefits that come from hiring outside marketing experts with a broad skillset and lower overhead than creating and managing an in-house team. Similar to outsourcing IT, finance, or human resources, bringing in an external team of diverse experts under one roof who can cover the roles of CMO, internal team and agency partner(s) all in one, lessens both the cost and time required to recruit, manage and retain an internal team.

There are many lessons to be learned from the pre-pandemic restaurant and hospitality model, and new restaurateurs will have the advantage of entering the industry at a time of rebuilding and reinvention. They can shape the trajectory of the industry and the communities where they reside. Heart, soul, perseverance, and ingenuity are the foundation upon which restaurants are built, and by engaging with the community, hiring local, focusing efforts, and bringing on talented support teams, the new wave of post-pandemic restaurants can continue to uplift and enhance that spirit.

Marlo Fogelman is an attorney licensed in New York and Massachusetts, and the founder & CEO of marlo marketing. She is a member of the International Society of Hospitality Consultants and serves on the Executive Committee of the YPO Hospitality Network. Founded in 2004, marlo marketing is an integrated marketing & creative agency specializing in all things hospitality, lifestyle and CPG. www.marlomarketing.com 

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