For hundreds of years, wars in this country involved the dispatch of (mostly) young (mostly) men to fight a distant enemy on someone else’s land. Even Pearl Harbor and 9/11 had only a limited impact on the day-to-day routines of American citizens. And both, arguably, wound up stimulating the economy.
Not this time. Today, for the first time since the War of 1812, the United States has been invaded, shattering the rhythms of day-to-day life and upending the economy.
If you’re reading this, that much you know. But as dark a picture as I paint here, it’s darker for some than others. Obviously, those taken by the pandemic first and foremost. It’s a tragedy and a terrible lesson in misplaced resource allocation, a misconceived and too narrow definition of “national defense,” and an indictment of all of us for lacking the imagination to prepare better for what a pandemic really means. There were voices (Laurie Garrett, for instance, and Michael Olsterholm) who sounded the alarm long ago. Like a bad Hollywood film, we just collectively shrugged and build a fourteenth nuclear aircraft carrier.
Even among those of us not directly afflicted, there is gradation to the risk this virus poses long-term. Most of you reading this letter will be restauranteurs, entrepreneurs or others in what the US Labor Department dismissively calls “the Small Business sector,” (a little sector that makes up 44 percent of all US economic activity). For those of us whose living depends on the restaurant trade, we’re told these are the worst of times. But they could be the best of times, too.
Let me explain.
For most sectors of the economy and their workers – in the US and elsewhere – the past three-week period has been a game changing event. The immediate challenge has involved drastically reduced or even disappearing revenue streams and various calculations about how to bridge the period between the start of the lockdown and its end. Is there government aid available? Can I raise my business line of credit? Can I get a rent or tax deferral? Can I provide some help to the employees I have to send to the lifeboats without sinking the entire ship?
These are questions of survival and they are the natural first thoughts that came to all of us once we got past “am I going to die?”
Sometimes, though, it may seem as though those of us in the restaurant industry are particularly burdened. So much of restaurant industry revenue – outside the drive-up window fast food chains – relies on the dining experience: being greeted at the door, ushered to a table, experiencing atmosphere and relaxed as you’re waited on served the meal of your choice. Losing the dining experience has hurt and there is no way to pretend otherwise.
The downstream effects of the revenues lost have hit staff (furloughs, layoffs, and increasingly, restaurants shutting down); suppliers (everyone from florists to delivery drivers to farmers) and service providers (cleaning companies, florists and laundry firms). The impact on idled staff is the most personal and the most disturbing. So many work for minimum wage and augment that income through tips. A few can hold on augmenting delivery or curbside pickup, but even a small restaurant cannot support its former wait staff on so much less.
How much less? The National Restaurant Associated estimates that its 2020 industry-wide revenue projections of $899 billion for the year will be $225 billion lower, and that’s if things get back to some kind of normal by June 1.
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Don’t Waste a Good Crisis
As scary as that is, the fact is the vast majority of you will survive it. I’m not being glib or a reckless optimist, I am just falling back on my own career as an entrepreneur – one whose career survived the dot.com crash of 2000, living in New York during the 9/11 downturn and the 2008-2009 disaster known as the Global Financial Crisis.
Cash on Hand (CoH) is one way to survive, and if you’ve got it, God bless you. But I didn’t have CoH and most of you don’t. So the scramble listed above – credit lines, government aid, etc… is the fallback. But that makes any good entrepreneur very uncomfortable. It makes it sound very much like your survival is outside of your control.
But there are important things you can be doing right now. First, use this time to prepare for the future. In between begging your mom for money and serial dialing the government’s emergency relief hotlines, think deeply about things that will ensure you emerge from the lockdown as resilient as possible. Here are just a few possibilities:Treat Delivery and Curbside Like a New Initiatives Not an Emergency Fix
Even in the most sedate and established restaurants, a number of factors were already starting to challenge the quintessentially 20th Century vision of sit-down dining as the be-all and end-all in the business. Delivery, for instance, has exploded in recent years thanks (in part) to the establishment of dedicated meal delivery firms like Door Dash and Uber Eats. By and large this is not about your local pizza guy mothballing the mopeds and laying off delivery staff. Instead, what was going on in the past two years was a major change – demand growing quickly for delivered meals from traditional “slow food” restaurants.
“Restaurants have missed the boat on technology and especially delivery,” says Michael Halen, chief restaurant industry analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, told me well before the COVID-19 outbreak. “Over time, I think doing delivery in-house is really going to be the solution. Millennials really do want their food on-demand. They want it delivered to them. So it is something that every restaurant out there has to discuss.”
As the lockdown drags on, treat the adjustments in menu, staffing, supply and logistics as a pilot. We all can’t wait for the day when we can walk into a bar or restaurant and stay a while. But for now, while we’re all limited to social distancing, treat the new routines like a case study in how it will be done going forward.Show Them You Care
In 2000 or 2008, it was alright to say to a furloughed or laid off employee, “Really, it’s not personal. It’s business.” The crises of the moment were financial, and the great dice game of capitalism, we all rolled snake eyes.
That’s just not the case today, and you know it. People, literally, are living or dying because of their genetic inheritance or their socio-economic situation. For all the terror a pandemic lockdown throws into you, the restaurant owner, it is clear to you and to all your loyal customers that this is a lot harder on your waiters, sous chefs, maître d’s and other staff.
“You don’t choose to be a waiter to get rich,” says T.J. Provost, a veteran Newport, R.I. waiter himself and a former lecturer at Johnson & Wales on hospitality service. “The restaurant life has other attractions besides money, so that means for servers, money is often tight.”
For all the ills of the outbreak, there are silver linings. Like grocery store clerks and EMTs, restaurant workers now rank as heroes in the public mind – essential workers in American society. They’re on the job, risking all, and feeding not only those just plain bored of what’s in the cupboard but the millions of Americans whose lifestyle has never included cooking. They are, very literally, a lifeline to millions.
One-way restaurants are showing they care is “Go Fund Me” campaigns. From stories New York eateries like Joe Allen to local joints like DeLallo’s in rural Pennsylvania, owners who establish and then seed these lifelines will be remembered not only by staff but by the loyal customers who love them.Cultivate Your Customer Relationships
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is an old cliché, but it’s survived this long for a reason. Now is not the time to go dark, though the temptation to shut down completely and ride it out at home is powerful. But staying in touch is not only possible in these digital times, but essential to maintain the vital relationships you worked so hard to establish, and to reach out to new customers in these difficult times.
In some ways, you need to put the current plight in perspective. Imagine, just for an instance, that this pandemic occurred in 1980 instead of 2020. A lockdown of the US economy in that period would have unfolded in an era before personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, or really any mature approach or strategies with regard to food delivery or curbside pickup. The lockdown literally would have meant no revenue, no fallback, no online ordering or delivery firms, and bankruptcy for a great deal more of us than will be the case.
But today, your customers remain within reach even if they cannot sit in your dining room. For the past few weeks, my company, Targetable, has been donating a two months without charge of our Facebook and Instagram of ad generation to restaurants around the country. Thousands have taken us up on the offer and report that revenues immediately rose again once they launched their first campaign.
Our advice has been to market takeout, delivery and curbside as aggressively as possible. Targetable’s app-based platform allows you to:
Jonathan Walker, Senior Vice President for Restaurants at Nathan’s Famous, the national chain, attested to the platform’s power in a recent interview with QSR Web.
"Targetable is fairly new in the industry, and it's forward-thinking technology like this that we are searching out to make Nathan's Famous more successful across the country, especially during our current climate," he said. “Targetable will roll out to franchisees in the coming months, allowing them to create area-specific campaigns to drive sales and customer engagement, something we know they need as they work to communicate with customers and drive sales as the uncertainty around coronavirus continues.”
Put the power of Targetable to work for you today – at no cost for two months, which we hope will be the duration of the emergency. And in the meantime, let’s fight back together.
Start advertising takeout, delivery and curbside today!