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How Customers Support Bars & Restaurants, Even When Closed

March 24, 2020

The coronavirus crisis is changing society, in some ways, permanently. Things like remote work, for example, are proving their utility to the general population. People are realizing that there are ways to communicate with and support others even while adhering to strict social distancing measures. And usually those ways involve technology.

Typically a customer supporting your restaurant means dining there. But as our new reality has made clear, there’s more your past, present, and future customers can do—from a distance—to support you. A lot of folks don’t quite know how to help their favorite restaurants right now. But if you remain in contact with them and ask them for the following five things, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how open they are to it.

Write a Review (or 10)

A staggering 92% of customers read reviews before ordering from or visiting a restaurant. Of those, 77% prefer peer reviews to restaurant critic reviews. The reviews on Yelp, Google, reservation platforms like OpenTable, and ordering platforms like GrubHub and DoorDash have become the jumping off point for interacting (or not) with a restaurant.

Here are some more figures about restaurant reviews:

  • A one-star increase on Yelp can boost restaurant profits by 9%.
  • 75% of people stay away from restaurants that have negative reviews about cleanliness.
  • 84% of customers trust online reviews as much as they trust personal, word-of-mouth recommendations from friends or family.

It’s clear: getting customers to write reviews for your bar or restaurant is instrumental to getting your restaurant exposure and orders from first-time diners.

But, shockingly, only around 12% of customers leave reviews. Roughly one out of every eight customers holds the health of your restaurant in their hands. Are you willing to take that risk, especially now, when the stakes are this high?

If you’re doing right by your customers, then ask every one of them for a review. Increasing that 12% number will go a long way to getting new eyes on your menu and new sales rolling in. And that helps not only during this unprecedented crisis, but afterward when business-as-usual resumes. Use your mailing list, social media accounts, text on your receipts, or fliers attached to takeout and delivery boxes to encourage customers to leave reviews. Ideally you'll have a lot of delivery orders rolling in because many restaurants can deliver alcohol now.

Customers will do it if you ask. And it will make a big difference for you.

Make Noise on Social Media

In line with leaving reviews are social media interactions. The idea, as with above, is that your online visibility increases where people are. And that’s on review and social media sites.

Here are two points to drive home the importance of social media:

  1. Out of all brand mentions on Twitter, 32% are food and drink brands. That’s the most, by far, and exceeds the 17% for clothing and accessory brands at number two.
  2. Restaurant guests are more likely to leave high Facebook ratings than high ratings on any other review site.

Social media, then, serves a very similar purpose to reviews. In fact, the line between the two can blur at times. Instagram posts can be  reviews, and Yelp-like review sites can be a forum for people to interact and share their experiences.

They both allow people to provide and receive seemingly inside information about their personal experience. This unbranded, unsolicited information is literally just as good as physical word-of-mouth recommendations. It’s the social proofing phenomenon. People tend to accept and emulate the actions of others, even strangers, in an attempt to engage in behaviors that have been socially vetted by a group. 

So, in the same breath that you ask for your customers to leave a review, ask customers to share their experience on their preferred social media platform. It doesn’t even have to be a post or picture, something as simple as a “like” or “share” has the same effect. Of course, for this to work, you should maintain an active and engaging social media presence.

Join Your Mailing List

Building a mailing list gives you a third avenue to get in front of once and future customers while also providing another lever to encourage reviews and social media interactions.

Email marketing has one of the highest return-on-investment (ROI) in marketing, too. EZCater estimates that restaurants get about $38 for every $1 spent. The reason that’s so high is because building a mailing list is much more “permission based.” That means the person who gave you their email address has given you “more” permission, in a sense, to contact them than the person who followed you on social media. The folks who joined your mailing list have raised their hand and said “contact me directly.” That means they’re excellent leads, and that explains the high ROI.

The bigger your mailing list, the more reliably you can depend on the performance of email marketing during lean times. Like asking for reviews and social media interactions through your mailing list, cross-pollinate again and ask for mailing list signups on social media platforms.

All of these online methods build off of each other. The better one does, the better the others do. You want to stay in touch with your customers, and ideally, they want to do the same. Social media is good for this, but email is even better.

So, If you have a mailing list or newsletter, ask your customers to join so they can stay up to date with your business and learn how they can best help and support you. If you don’t already have a mailing list, it’s easy enough to set up

Purchase Gift Cards

Gift cards can be especially helpful during the coronavirus crisis. While they make great gifts and customers can buy them to spread the word about your place, that’s not their primary benefit. Reviews, social media, and email marketing are for spreading the word. Gift cards are about cash infusion. They give you cash now and release you from having to provide immediate goods and services. We like to think of it as a “reverse-Wimpy.” That can be immensely helpful as sales dry up and staff are sent home.

And, luckily, restaurant gift cards are the most popular gift cards by category, with a gift card market share of around 35%. Also, a study by First Data reported that 72% of gift card customers spend more than the original gift card value. That means that, if gift cards aren’t selling, you can afford to discount them.

Here’s a useful guide to setting up gift cards for a small business. You can also look into hospitality-specific dining bonds from SupportRestaurants.org. A dining bond is like a savings bond—customers purchase the bond at a value rate to redeem for full retail value at a later time. So, that’s to say, they’re like a discounted gift card.

Buy Swag

Branded merchandise is popular among customers, especially younger ones. That makes it profitable if you do it right, which is why we included it in our steps restaurants can take today to survive the coronavirus crisis.

The “doing it right” part is crucial. Just having some shirts and hats, even if you have a loyal group of customers, doesn’t compel them to buy. Your merch has to play on why your business is memorable.

A good rule of thumb when creating branded merch is to take your food seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. A restaurant t-shirt should not be a profound meditation on your deepest values. It should be fun.

Here are some great examples of bars and restaurants doing this successfully:

Goldburger obviously thinks community is important, and they reference it with a playful riff on a local sports team. Monty’s Goodburger has links on their site to pet adoption, and their merch has a shaggy dog on a skateboard. Kuma’s Corner in Chicago supports the counterculture, and their t-shirts play to that. In each case, we see a fun way to communicate a core value.

If you can pull that off, you’ll be able to capitalize on an existing resource—loyalty of customers—and make high-margin sales that serve as free advertisements. It doesn’t get better than that.

Help Them Help You

Asking for these five small commitments from your customers and prospective customers can pay off big. Both during the tough times and the easier ones. A lot of these also make it easier to communicate the ways your restaurant is changing to react to the crisis or why ordering food from restaurants is safe.

One easy way to go about this is to start with a flier that you attach to every takeout and delivery that goes out asking for a review, sharing your website (where they can sign up for your mailing list) and social media accounts, and encouraging them to “like and share,” as the saying goes.

Once you start building some momentum on your email list and social, you’ll find it starts snowballing. The public isn’t indifferent. They don’t want restaurants to disappear, either. Some of them just need a little direction.

If you or anyone you know is in need, please check out our list of bar and restaurant relief funds and the ways to support hospitality staff during the crisis, including ideas to replace lost wages. All of which can be found in our coronavirus resource and information hub for bars and restaurants.