Depending on where you’re located, your city may already be starting to loosen restrictions to reopen your restaurant for dine-in service (or may be discussing that possibility for the near future).
Unfortunately, any restaurant owner who thinks (or probably more accurately, hopes) that they can simply revert to how they conducted operations and marketing pre-COVID would be remiss in considering how customer needs and sentiment have drastically changed. However, when taking into consideration the widespread feeling of uncertainty and knowing exactly where to quell these fears for your customers, you can have a smoother transition into the new normal.
Work through these steps to develop an organized plan for reopening, communicate it to your customers clearly and thoroughly, and leverage a few methods that are unique to the restaurant industry.
Table of Contents
Create a plan of operations
If you don’t yet know what this new normal will look like, work through these steps to make some fundamental decisions into how your restaurant will perform operations upon reopening. When you’re done creating a method that follows government regulations and meets your customers needs, share it with all employees and consider creating a piece of content for them so they can study up.
1. Look to state or county-specific restrictions
First and foremost, these rules are the ones you don’t really have a choice but to follow. On the other hand, this can make some decisions you may have struggled with now become very black and white.
Many regions are adjusting maximum capacity, adding testing requirements, or implementing a curfew to temper high amounts of traffic that could put everyone at risk. You can start out on a site like this one from NPR that aggregates all COVID restrictions by state, but searching your official .gov state website or your county website will give you the most information.
You can also leverage these laws in your messaging about decisions you include in this step to explain to customers that you’re in compliance with a state law, it’s not your personal decision that they need to leave your restaurant by 10 pm.
2. Find accurate health and safety information
Checking reputable sites will help you decide the most effective methods for ensuring health and safety. These are some topics you may want to consider:
- Best cleaning materials and cleaning frequencies to eliminate viruses on surfaces
- Most effective protective equipment, and how much of it is reasonable to require customers and employees to use
- Latest documentation on COVID-19 symptoms so you can restrict customers and employees who exhibit them
- Recommended amount of distance between people while they are at your business (the CDC says at least 6 feet)
3. Leverage insights from customer questions and comments
If you’re trying to figure out what will make customers feel comfortable at your business, you might as well get the answer straight from the horse’s mouth. Tap into discussions about your business on social media in these three places to hear what they want from you specifically, or just businesses like yours in the area:
- Your mentions
- Your DM’s
- Searching your business name
- Searching your industry and location
Move on to questions in Google My Business or other listing aggregate sites. If customers are asking “Will you still keep curbside pickup available?” or “Are you going to make it possible to social distance while dining in?” They are probably hoping you will provide that service.
If your restaurant contact information is set up in such a way that you frequently get phone calls or direct messages, find a way to document relevant comments from those as well. Really any avenue of customer input is fair game for gleaning these insights.
4. Include employees
Opening up in the most intentional way possible is all about caring for the well being of our fellow humans, and employees are no exception. Get a sense of policies that would make employees feel the most safe and able to focus on their job, as well as anything they may have heard from customers while they were out on the front lines.
5. Create a process for fielding customer messages
Questions, comments and concerns will be coming in through just about every avenue possible. To make sure accurate answers are out there and customers feel heard, decide who is responsible for monitoring each of the following channels and responding to users:
- Social media
- Listing sites, like Yelp
- Google My Business
6. Create a strategy to assess the success of your plan
In order to make sure you’re running your operation to the highest possible level of success, you’ll need to implement a strategy to evaluate the response.
GatherUp CEO Aaron Weiche recommends using first party reviews to gather answers to questions, such as these ideas:
- Q: Rate how well did our team follow our COVID-19 guidelines
- Q: Rate how you feel about our process for your health and safety
- Q: Rate your feeling on our social distancing guidelines and signage
- Q: How would you rate the ease of our process?
- Q: How would you rate the speed of our service?
- Q: How would you rate your overall satisfaction?
- Q: How likely are you to purchase again from us in the coming weeks?
Decide where you will generate this feedback, whether with a survey on an iPad in-store or an email you send to everyone who placed an online order, and train your employees on how you expect them to guide customers toward the feedback mechanism. Keeping tabs on these answers will allow you to be agile and remediate whichever methods are missing the mark.
How to create your reopening messaging
People are scared. 68% of Americans say they are concerned that state governments will lift coronavirus-related restrictions on public activity too quickly, while one-third reports experiencing high levels of psychological distress. And that’s understandable—as every marketing email likes to point out (guilty), these are indeed unprecedented times.
Your main goal in messaging and tone should be to garner feelings of security among your customers. Keep this list of concepts in the back of your mind while writing your messaging in order to evoke a tone of security
- Authoritative: “We have a plan of action for you, and it’s based on facts.”
- Empathetic: “We understand your concerns, because those are also our concerns.”
- Flexible: “We know everyone is experiencing a different level of comfort, and we will do what we can to accommodate you.”
- Transparent: “This is the experience you can truthfully expect to receive when you patron our restaurant.”
- Informative: “ “Here is everything you need to know about visiting our restaurant again and how we came to these decisions.”
Once you’ve got a good handle on how you will relate to your customers using tone, consider including these topics into your content to drive home that feeling of security.
1. Emphasize health and safety
Customers want to know how you’re keeping them safe, and how you’re committing to keeping your employees safe. For this topic, it will most likely be more effective to list out your new health and safety protocol in a list of tangible items, rather than simply saying you’re improving health and safety conditions with no real evidence.
Luckily you’ve already figured this piece out when deciding on your plan, so now you just need to polish it up for customer content. This list of initiatives can be a combination of government restrictions, decisions you made based on health research, and ideas taken from feedback.
2. Show off your social proof
When the theme of the times is uncertainty and fear, reviews that provide a sense of security and an inside glimpse to the real experience will be paramount.
If you don’t already have a lot of reviews on Google, Facebook, and major listing sites for the restaurant industry like Yelp, make a review generation campaign a priority in the coming weeks as your prep to reopen.
In your review generation campaign, you’ll need to place emphasis on two things:
- High Aggregate ratings
82% of customers expect an aggregate rating of three or more stars. 47% want a four-star rating or higher. 12% of customers won’t touch a business that has anything less than a full five-star rating.
- Recent reviews
86% of customers feel a review that’s older than three months is irrelevant. 48% of those customers only care about reviews submitted within the last two weeks. Even worse, only 1% of customers actually pay attention to reviews that are older than one year.
If you aren’t sure how to kick start your review generation, use this guide from Grade.us.
Don’t forget to take stock of and clean up what you’re already working with. If you have unanswered questions, reviews that you haven’t responded to yet (especially negative ones), or any inaccuracies in your listings, now is the time to get it straight.
The last step in garnering social proof is to be social, and show it off. Here’s a few ways you can do it:
- Embed a review carousel on your website
- Use the text from reviews to make your own visuals and implement them into your website, emails, social posts, or other communications
- Share positive messages on social media from your followers
- Screenshot positive reviews and share them on social media captioned with an appreciative comment
- Add links to popular review sites so users can go check it out for themselves
3. Leverage user-generated content
Restaurant marketing generally skews toward being highly visual. Are you tapping your full potential of photos that could communicate what’s so great about your restaurant’s experience?
First, be sure that you have a presence that can be easily searched and tagged on major social media platforms, but most notably Instagram. Target Table says that Millennials are 99% more likely to rely on social media and online reviews than Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers, and they predict that Instagram is a popular source of information for Millenials deciding between restaurants.
Once you make sure customers can tag your account or tag themselves at your location, keep an eye out for the pictures they take. If you see any that make your food look particularly delicious or show off the most photogenic part of your decor, ask them if you can share it on the restaurant’s page.
Instagram accounts meant to round-up all the best food places in a city are also becoming increasingly popular, so don’t forget to send your best pictures to be featured to drive more customers that want to recreate that photo.
4. Address common questions
Get out in front of the issues that are on your customers’ minds. In the same way that you used your Google Q&A, social media mentions, or search queries (on both social and search engines) to get inspiration for which changes your customers prefer, use these questions to guide you in what you should address.
In the time it takes for a customer to have a question and scour your various digital assets searching for an answer (and then hoping it’s up to date), there are a handful of touchpoints where they may find it easier to simply go to a competitor. Feature answers to these questions front and center in messaging, but also make sure you’ve directly answered the question where the customer asked it.
5. Be flexible
If you’ve been offering the option to do curbside pick-up, you don’t have to nix this accommodation across the board when your restaurant reopens if you have the resources to continue it. Everyone will be at a different point in their comfort level, personal health risk, and knowledge of information about the pandemic, so allow that grace and space and do what you can to meet customers where they are.
In addition to simply allowing this grace and space in your operations, be vocal about it in your messaging. Let customers know that if they need an accommodation you didn’t think to offer, they should feel comfortable in working with you to implement that flexibility and work with them to ultimately build that relationship and brand loyalty.
Marketing channels to use for your reopening
Once you’ve gotten your new processes nailed down and you’ve prepared how you’re going to message your restaurant’s reopening to customers in a way that makes them feel secure, make sure you deliver the news on all major channels of communication.
Your website is the first place restaurants should make sure all offerings, hours, and health and safety initiatives are up to date. The latest information should be clear and easy to find, and we’ve seen restaurants typically use one of three methods:
- Add a Coronavirus-specific page to your website that visitors can access directly from a main navigation bar
- Use an eye-catching banner that leads them to a round-up of changes they can expect
- Moving the normal home page content below the fold and making COVID updates the first thing visitors see, front and center
Biscuit Bitch in Seattle opted for a red banner that linked users to a blog post directly from the owner explaining the decision to close and how they will decide when to reopen.
While local burger chain Li’l Woody’s nixed their usual homepage content to put updates where you can’t miss them.
Once you’ve got your information thoroughly laid out and easy to find, finish preparing your website by adding your social proof. You have a range of options for displaying your best reviews, from embedding a feed that pulls the reviews from the platform the live on, to more artistically featuring customer quotes in various places on your site.
Customers will most likely want to make sure you aren’t only curating good reviews, and since they’ll probably check out Yelp anyway, make it easy for them. Link out to your listing on any major aggregate sites if you aren’t already featuring the reviews themselves on your site.
Add links to your social media channels so users can get a look at others’ experiences at your restaurant, and most importantly, check out those drool-worthy instagram posts we discussed.
Pro-tip: It may be tempting to embed a grid of your Instagram posts onto the page, but there’s evidence that this is a big SEO no-no and may relegate your restaurant to the bottom of the list when customers are searching locally for somewhere to eat. Link out to your Instagram so they can find it, but if you’re featuring the images from your Insta, just repost them as normal images on your website.
Google My Business
Google has recently created several different features in their Google My Business (GMB) offering to support small business, and in some cases, restaurants specifically.
GMB added a special COVID-19 Post type that appears higher and with increased visibility in the GMB panel in your search results. At this point in time, you can only populate these posts with text and a link. Similarly to the website banner, this will help you catch the eye and direct customers toward your COVID updates before they get too into the weeds searching for answers on your GMB and wondering if they’re up to date.
For restaurants specifically, GMB added new attributes to easily showcase if you offer take-out, delivery, and dine-in. When editing your GMB profile, be sure to check all the applicable options for these attributes. These services will appear from the very first view of the results and will be visually highlighted with checks and X’s, so updating these is a top priority for managing your GMB presence.
Google also released a COVID-19 feature called “Support links” where customers can access donation links, gift card links or both to help financially support that business. When you set this up, leverage the field where you can write a short personal message to customers letting them know that you’re grateful for their support or how their donation will be used.
Lightspeed reports that the following sites are the top 10 places customers will go when they’re researching options for restaurants. You’ll see there’s some overlap with your Google presence and social media, but once you have those polished up, you should make sure you have a robust presence on at least a few of these listing sites.
- Google My Business
- The Infatuation
The biggest key to using listing sites to communicate COVID changes with customers is to keep every detail consistent with the information on your Google My Business, or your local search rankings will most likely suffer as Google—and probably your customers—struggles to figure out which restaurant hours are the accurate ones. If you have multiple GMBs for different locations, make sure to link the listing to the correct GMB, not just the general version.
Yelp is obviously the big dog from this list, and they’ve implemented several new features specifically for restaurants to show which services and COVID accommodations they offer.
Yelp has added categories like “curbside pickup”, “accepting donations”, and the others you see featured at the top of the list on this side panel. Make sure to check all that apply to your business, because they’ve constructed the features so customers can filter only by restaurants that offer the accommodation they’re looking for.
Yelp has also introduced a customized banner meant to provide the most breaking news update about your restaurant, such as the reopening date for dine-in services. Yelp rolled this out slowly, but the platform says it has been used by nearly 224,000 businesses and is available to all businesses.
Because of its instantaneous nature, many customers will visit your social media sites looking for timely updates. This is a place where you can provide those updates, but also answer questions and provide a behind the scenes look at your restaurant’s processes.
First, create a concise post of the more pertinent information about your reopening. If you can, avoid putting a link in the post in order to increase its organic reach, then post it and pin it to the top of your profile. If the update changes, repeat the same process, unpin the old post, and pin the new one.
Decide who on your team will be in charge of monitoring social media mentions and directly responding to customer questions or problems. If you see questions that tend to be recurring, it may help to share them with your own accompanying text, or on Twitter “retweet with comment.” This will allow you to share the question and answer with the rest of your followers by letting them in to your authentic conversation.
Besides that, just update update update! Schedule your social media and show off images of your new branded social distancing floor stickers, photos of the team wearing masks, or the popular dish customers seemed to miss the most while they couldn’t dine in at your restaurant. Anything that shows followers how you’re working hard through preparations for reopening and gives them that insider glimpse will invoke that feeling of security you’re aiming for.
Email is a great, direct way to let customers know you have some information that applies to them. The challenge, as any email marketing expert will tell you, is getting a list.
If you offer online orders, reservations, any other sort of online purchase directly from your website, you’re one of the lucky few—you already have a list of customers, provided that you made email a required field for these processes.
For other restaurants that don’t garner long lists of emails from these sources, the most effective way to get email addresses is to add an opt-in form to your website. If you aren’t sure how to set this up, use online guides that walk through easy, out-of-the-box form plugins meant for website owners who aren’t super-savvy developers.
Now you just need people to actually opt in to the opt-in. What can you offer them through email that the general public doesn’t have access to? Many restaurants incentivize subscribing to emails by providing exclusive discounts and news about promotions. Let them know what they’ll get in the same place on your website that you place your opt-in form.
One more way you can gather contact information is by offering a rewards program. Rewards programs work wonders for building brand loyalty—after all, why buy a muffin from one place when you could buy a comparable muffin from the cafe down the street, and also be rewarded with future savings or perks? As a bonus, to become a “member,” customers will need to register with contact info like their email address, which you can use to deliver content to.
In store signage can be helpful in guiding your customers’ behavior once they arrive at your restaurant, especially for changing flow or promoting social distancing. If there’s a direction customers should walk to arrive at the pickup counter, map it out for them with arrows or stickers. If there’s anywhere people typically wait in line, designate safe distances between all who are waiting in line.
This is a great opportunity to have fun with it and make what would have been fairly standard directives fit your brand or a local theme.
Final thoughts on reopening your restaurant
As restrictions in some states may begin to lift, taking a three-pronged approach to communicating changes with customers will help ensure a seamless experience for everyone:
- Decide the right operations processes for your restaurant
- Create content that includes all the elements discussed above
- Distribute it thoroughly on all possible marketing channels to keep everyone updated
The best part? Most of the principles in this guide can be universally leveraged during any changes your restaurant implements for any reason in the future. Do these three things, and you’re likely to be visited by customers who know exactly what to expect from your restaurant, and are looking forward to their next visit after they receive it.