Think of your favorite local restaurants: the mom and pop locations that have been in business for decades, the new artisanal spots that recently moved in, and the dive-y joints that feel like an extension of your home. According to a summer report commissioned by the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), 85% of these independent U.S. restaurants will go under without ample financial assistance from the U.S. government. Two weeks ago, IRC released a new statement bluntly titled: “Neighborhood Restaurants and Their Employees are Out of Options and Congress is Nearly Out of Time.”
Without bold Congressional action, restaurant and bar owners are left to their own devices to finagle new business approaches in an attempt to survive a challenging winter ahead. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise by the day, hitting new mind-boggling heights, new dine-in ordinances are being introduced on state and country-wide levels. At the end of October, new indoor dining restaurant bans began to take effect across the United States—with Chicago taking the early lead—and more states report considering closures by the day.
To state the obvious, a winter-time ban on indoor dining is significantly different than the spring and summer-time limitations that so many restaurants and bars muddled through earlier this year. Without the usual outdoor options of street-side meals and park picnics, restaurants are facing a dark and gloomy winter. Luckily, U.S. restaurants have a guide to look to for managing a wintery season of sheltering-in-place.
“Northern hemisphere restaurants would be wise to take a page from the playbook of some of their southern hemisphere counterparts,” Juan Garcia, founder of restaurant rating and review site Foodporn tells me. “In Melbourne, Australia, for example, the entire winter months of July to October were spent in stage-four lockdown; meaning restaurants, cafes and bars were completely closed to dine-in customers. This forced a transformation never before seen in Melbourne hospitality.”
While Melbourne’s winters don’t come with the blankets of snow expected in much of the U.S., sun-accustomed Australians were not eager to dine outdoors in the nippy 50 degree winter weather, so restaurants and bars were forced to find ways to generate income and engender landing brand love without bringing diners to their establishments.
Importantly, Garcia, tells me, Melbourne restaurants’ chefs and employees became social media mavens, taking to the platforms in order to keep customers informed and entertained. Key to these posts was the attempts to cultivate a sense of community and intimacy. Many chefs hosted videos from their home kitchens or gave tours of the back-of-the-house pantries.
At Maha, a high-end Middle Eastern restaurant in Melbourne, chef Shane Delia of launched his own cooking series during the shutdown. Each Friday evening, Shane logged onto Instagram to conduct live, instructional videos to teach various cooking techniques, sometimes alongside a guest chef.
“These videos offered viewers and would-be guests a behind-the-scenes peek at the restaurant and cultivated a one-on-one relationship with Shane and the guest chefs and cooks he went live with each week. Shane often filmed these videos from his own home, inviting the viewers inside his personal space, which added an additional intimate dimension for the viewer and strengthened the relationship between the customer, Shane, and the restaurant,” says Garcia. Similarly, Attica chef Ben Shewry shared several of its legendary recipes during “Cook-A-Long Cook-Ins” via social channels.
Over at Atlas, in South Yarra, Australia, head chef Charlie Carrington has paired instructional videos with an at-home meal kits delivery business, where boxes are filled with prepared ingredients. These 30-minute meals allow people to “travel from home,” the brand states. Two weeks into the home-kit delivery and virtual engagement plan, Atlas had two of its most lucrative days on record, according to reporting for Smart Company.
During their winter months, other down under establishments took up many of the same tactics as restauranteurs in the northern hemisphere, converting their once-sit-down-restaurants into ingredient markets, offering family meal packages, and creating customer loyalty programs. Melbourne’s Shawcross Pizza reported “a huge uptick in sales during the pandemic by leveraging its digital channels to drive ordering and promote their loyalty discount,” notes Garcia. Loyalty club members saved 25% per order by entering the cheeky code ‘FCKCORONA’ at checkout and received free food when they reached a milestone number of points.
Restaurant and bar owners in the U.S. are battling a public rightly concerned with dining out. According to recent findings by market research firm Datassential, 44% of Americans say they “definitely avoid eating out,” a number that’s up 24% since March and 2% since the end of October. But other opportunities are presenting themselves to American food business-owners.
First, U.S. restaurants may see an uptick in orders around the holidays. “Consumers making different holiday plans are open to using foodservice this year, particularly to supplement their meals with prepared side dishes, appetizers, and desserts. Meal kits and delivered meals could also drive sales, more than merely being open for dine-in traffic on Thanksgiving or other holidays,” Datassential shares in their latest report.
Further, many people, particularly Gen Z and Millennial diners, are game to try out new winter outdoor dining concepts. More than 60% of total Datassential survey respondents, across generations, note that cabin, igloo, or greenhouse seating, heated tables (like Japanese kotatsu), and heated patios enclosed by plastic or plexiglass are “very” or “somewhat appealing” dining options for this chilly season.
After nine months of quasi-quarantined culture, many are yearning for the days when can return to the hubs of social life: restaurants and bars. Some may be willing to sit in a plexiglass cubical because, at the end of the day, we’re all tired of lives spent at home in isolation. But, we also need to hope that there are local restaurants and bars to return to once it’s safe to re-open. Without government assistance, it’s up to us, the eaters, to support our local restaurant and bars, and it’s up to the business owners to make us experience-and-community-hungry patrons eager to spend our time and money with them—at home and online.
“The key to reopening successfully is the relationships you build with your customers,” says Garcia, who has now been able to watch the Australian market recover from their winter shutdown. “Building community around your brand means staying power. Remember that, and you will do great things in the weeks and months ahead.”
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