All business sectors are surely trying their best to keep the show going while navigating this coronavirus crisis. But with recent dine-in bans on restaurants and bars in many states, the hospitality industry is probably one with the toughest road to travel.

Instead of pulling back on marketing, reallocate marketing efforts to increase your voice and ROI by targeting your most important market segments: employees, current customers and suppliers.

 1st, 2nd  and 3rd Lines of Defense: Employees, Customers and Suppliers

These three groups are and will always be the most important, though sadly often not recognized as such. This is more than polite conversation; current customers, employees and suppliers are the base on which any recovery will be built. You know where they are, how to reach them, and you can do so much more efficiently than with any other market segment.

Even with budget cuts, we can speak more loudly than we have before to these important groups.

Protect your primary resource – employees  

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Even with operations limited to carry-out, the need to re-emphasize basic common sense around hygiene and sanitation goes without saying. Still, adjustments to internal policy and procedure may have to be made, and it won’t hurt to make those policies and procedures more visible to the customers – whether they’re visiting your website, mobile app, stopping in to pick up orders or dining in when the closure orders are lifted.

Below are a few other tips to make sure employees know their importance in your foodservice operation.

  • Support employees as much as you can when they need time off for medical care
  • Tell them in no uncertain terms that they are the engine driving the business. Execution is everything and only they can deliver the customer experience that builds customer loyalty and a strong reputation.
  • Offer advanced safety and hygiene training, incentives and contests around safety
  • Write and visibly display for staff and customers new policies, procedures and necessary action steps in bullet form
  • When lay-offs are necessary, let those affected know that they will be given first consideration when it’s time to re-hire
  • If you are in a position to hire, take advantage of the opportunity to recruit while other operators lay low or even lay off workers. No shame in poaching here!

Don’t forget your true bread-and-butter:  current customers

Even during a ban on dine-in operations, restaurants can do some things to keep current customers coming back – now and when diners return.

For now, double all efforts to make sure everything is done right for existing customers. Forget about going on fishing expeditions for new ones – protect the base, the foundation on which your rebound depends. This doesn’t mean you don’t attempt to reach those potential customers who live nearby. On the contrary, this is another great target that’s often overlooked.

Here are a few ways to do retain current customer loyalty.

  • Emphasize your commitment to customer safety, enjoyment, and accurate and timely fulfillment of their carry-out orders
  • Place a “can’t-be-overlooked” bounce-back offer in every carryout bag (won’t hurt to include a message that communicates your appreciation)

Pro tips –

o  Make offers valid for not more than a week

o  Give the customer choices, rotate offers – a free item, or discount on next purchase or perhaps a larger discount for orders over a certain size or dollar amount.

  • Re-emphasize the value and benefits of patronizing your restaurant
  • Offer more cashless alternatives to pay. The advent of so many digital payment platforms could be a godsend for employees and customers during a time of heightened health concerns.
  • Promote gift cards and gift certificates for use later
  • When dine-in operations resume, print a new menu every day and leave it with the customer. Explain that this is to reassure to the diner your restaurant’s attention to health and hygiene, AND for the customer to use at home when placing future carryout orders.

 Don’t forget: Suppliers are part of your market

Suppliers are crucial too! Work with suppliers to keep costs low.  Sadly, some restaurants will close, so it’s in the suppliers’ interest to do all they can to help you to continue being a reliable customer.

Some ways to do this include bulk orders in return for price discounts or better payment terms, making efforts to build better rapport, and letting your suppliers know you’re in it for the long haul.

The news about the impact of this virus on the economy changes almost daily.  Until we have a more definitive forecast, my advice is to resist the urge to retreat. Dine-in traffic especially absolutely must be encouraged to come back. They are the easiest to reach and the operational effort to make the visit great is beneficial to guests as well as every single person on the team (read: job security).

With good fortune, our nation and the world may side-step any true catastrophe related to coronavirus. But with appropriate marketing, maintaining momentum can deliver sales that not for the effort would not have been realized.

For latest updates on coronavirus and the impact on your restaurant, visit the Ohio Restaurant Association to learn statewide news, or the National Restaurant Association for national news.

If you’re a restaurant owner or manager, how are you communicating to employees, customers and suppliers during the dine-in moratorium?

Stay safe, everyone!

Julius C. Dorsey Jr. is a member of the Ohio Restaurant Association Board of Directors.