Digital marketing for restaurants during COVID-19

The complete guide to digital marketing for restaurants in the midst of a global pandemic.

Digital marketing for restaurants during COVID-19

We all know most fine dining restaurants won’t survive the coronavirus crisis. Right?

Okay, wait just one second.

Some of these high-end places—culinary giants like Canlis and Alinea—are literally jamming up traffic in the neighborhood and running a waitlist of 1,000 orders each night. It’s an impressive feat even during business as usual, but during the worst pandemic and economic crisis in decades? That’s incredible.

Canlis is a great example of a high end restaurant that used a great digital marketing strategy to drive sales during covid 19

What’s their secret?

For one, they pivoted better and faster than anyone else did when COVID-19 hit. Canlis switched to selling drive-through burgers, but the traffic disruption it caused was so bad, they pivoted again, switching to only doing home delivery. Alinea’s restaurants offered a single three-course takeout menu focused on comfort food each night—a big move for a brand that built a world-class reputation on its dine-in experience.

Maybe that boat has sailed, you think. Maybe it’s too late to play catch-up.

But here’s the thing. Few people realize how much both restaurants used digital marketing to stay connected with their customers and get the word out.

In fact, they’re still doing it, even as you read this.

In this post, we look at why digital marketing for restaurants is so crucial during a pandemic, how these unlikely businesses have made it work, and the most practical (read: free) ways yours can, too.

Why digital marketing for restaurants?

We’ve talked a lot recently about what restaurant businesses can do to adapt to COVID-19 and its new reality. From setting up food delivery service right as the lockdowns hit to figuring out what happens when the economy reopens, the pandemic has forced everyone to adapt fast to make it through the crisis.

One thing is clear in all of this, though—the new face of your company is now digital.

Digital marketing for restaurants can seem like a small concern during a crisis. You don’t want to fret about food photographs and Facebook and Instagram likes as you’re setting up your new delivery ops and pivoting your entire menu for it. We get it—that’s just not what you need.

But when the dust settles, and your restaurant’s new menu is ready for customers?

That’s when reaching out to customers and having them feel strongly about your restaurant becomes essential. The online food delivery space is getting more crowded by the day, and it’s hard to make your marketing stand out if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Chances are, your sales have already been hit hard by COVID-19, and your delivery and takeout volume isn’t anywhere close to your dine-in numbers just months ago. Digital marketing helps you get new customers in the door. And if you can make them feel good about your place, their coming back is as simple as feeling hungry and clicking a few links.

So how does one do that?

Digital marketing for restaurants involves taking professional photos to post on social media

Digital marketing tips for your restaurant business

We’ve put together two crucial digital marketing for restaurants tips from Canlis and Alinea—and some general digital marketing know-how—to make sure yours is up to scratch.

1. Understand your customers
2. Bring your restaurant’s personality
3. Use strong visuals
4. Get on board with SEO
5. Build communities on social media

Understand your customers

If you only have time to do one thing for your digital marketing strategy for restaurants —and for your business in general—this is it. We can’t stress this enough.

Alinea’s cofounder Nick Kokonas spoke on the Tim Ferriss Show recently, and his account of how Alinea adapted its menu is a masterclass in understanding what your customers really want from you.

“We have to do it inexpensively, because no one’s gonna want to spend two hundred dollars on a pick-up meal. It’s also tone deaf—we’re in the middle of a frickin pandemic, right? It’s gonna have to cost like thirty, thirty-five bucks. It’s gonna have to be comfort food, because it’s still kind of winter here; it needs to be highly delicious; it needs to be transportable, and it needs to beat the shit out of ordinary delivery food.”

To put things in context: a typical dine-in experience at Alinea costs around $350 per head.  

Alinea pivoted fast, but they did so knowing exactly what their customers need during these extraordinary times. Familiar comfort food for the winter lockdowns, made with fresh premium ingredients, that travels well and justifies its price point over regular delivery food?

That’s empathy, right there.

All good marketing works because it makes customers feel like they are heard and understood. Take the time to listen deeply and meet them where they are—your customers will feel like you’re in their corner. Their loyalty will keep them happy to support your restaurant, rain or shine.

Bring your restaurant’s personality

A brand personality refers to the human traits that people see in your brand. People tend to read human characteristics into things—a process psychologists call anthropomorphization—and brands with strong personalities are easy to remember and connect to.

Just think about the motorcycle brand Harley Davidson for a moment. Did tough, rebellious, freedom-loving, and masculine come to mind?

So, what’s the personality of a successful restaurant like Canlis?

Canlis is a fine dining restaurant, and its marketing before the coronavirus shows this. Clean, modern plates and sleek prep stations; guests in suits and evening dresses; crisp white shirts and gray aprons everywhere. There are a few fun photos here and there, but they’re very brief glimpses into staff activities rather than core to their identity.

The canlist instagram account is an example of how social media can be used in a digital marketing strategy for restaurants
source: @canlisrestaurant on Instagram

But now?

The post-COVID-19 Canlis is still put-together, but it’s way more fun loving and all about the average American. Its redone website is simple, with pastel colors and logos that recall the early American West. On Instagram, its recent pictures are full of whimsical moments, homely meals (think Hawaiian pizza and enchiladas), and smiling employees hard at work in t-shirts.

Alinea restaurant's digital marketing strategy is another example of good digital marketing
source: @thealineagroup on Instagram

Canlis digital marketing strategy shifted to comfort food to serve its community, but it also brought out the more casual side of its personality. Sticking with its pristine fine-dining aesthetic would be, as Alinea’s Kokonas put it, completely “tone deaf” given what’s going on.

Remember that the Canlis digital marketing for restaurants playbook may not work for everyone. A pizzeria may need to distinguish itself from all the other pizza shops aiming at the everyman, and a wine shop serving wealthy, refined customers might want to keep doing that instead.

So start thinking about your restaurant’s personality and how you can bring it together with your customers’ needs today. You’ll need to tailor this to the customers you know, which means flexing your empathy muscles and looking into their heads, to figure out how they really see you in their lives.

Use strong visuals

Digital marketing for restaurants is almost entirely about the visuals.

Sure, video and podcasts are great ways to get attention. But your customers see far more than they hear when they go through your social media, and visuals are always the first thing they interact with on your website, social media, and shopping pages.

A full guide to visual design—which should be consistent across your website and social media—is far beyond the scope of this post. We’ll leave you with a few quick tips pulled from Alinea and Canlis to spark your imagination:

  • Stick to one style. Alinea’s is clean, modern, and elaborate, whereas Canlis prefers a more gritty, casual feel.
  • Think about the small details. Fonts, proportions, color schemes all matter, and both restaurants nail it here.
  • Find someone with photography skills, or hire a pro.
Examples of excellent high end photography used in a restaurant's digital marketing strategy
  • Highlight favorites and specials. Is the design for Taco Night homely and casual or full of brushed metal countertops and delicate glassware?
  • Make sure your design looks as good on mobile as it does on the computer
Using illustrations in a a digital marketing strategy

Get on board with SEO

Search engine optimization (SEO) can seem intimidating to those unfamiliar with it. It seems like just the sort of thing you need a dedicated marketing person for.  

Well, yes and no.

Mastering SEO requires a specialist, and even at RouteBasic we reach out to our friends in the marketing industry when we really need something special done. At its most basic, however, SEO asks for just three things that anyone can start doing right now:

Choose your restaurant’s niche(s)

If you’re a mom-and-pop café, you may feel that since almost everyone drinks coffee, generic keywords like “cafe”, “coffee”, and “pastries” will get people to your shop.

But think about it—Starbucks, Tim Horton’s, and Dunkin Donuts sell similar products. With their massive marketing budgets, do you think your websites and ads will show up against theirs on the front page of Google?

The solution: Get as detailed as possible about what your restaurant has to offer, then do your best to bring this across in your digital marketing strategy. “Specialty coffee”, “gluten free pastries”, and even “healthy vegan lattes” are all easy ways to get specific and draw the customers especially interested in these niches.

Find the best keywords for your restaurant within that niche

Search engines are machines, and machines care about precise language. Especially when they’re trying to make sure customers get exactly what they’re looking for.

If you’re a coffee shop, do your customers usually search for “craft coffee”, “specialty coffee”, or simply “best coffee near me”? As a Thai restaurant in Lincoln, Chicago, with a killer bowl of pad thai, do you go for “Thai restaurant Lincoln”, “Thai food Lincoln”, “Thai restaurant Lincoln Chicago”, “Lincoln Chicago pad thai”, or...?

You’ll have to do keyword research to figure that out. Thankfully, this is much easier than it sounds.

SEO is an important component of digital marketing for restaurants

Open up the food review sites in your area—Yelp, Google Maps, and Foursquare are a good start—and look at which keywords your fellow restaurants are using. Then, see if you can figure out a combination of keywords that play to your restaurant’s specific strengths (maybe your prawn pad thai is legendary), reach the people in your niche (who lives in Lincoln, anyway?), and focus on something important that your competitors don’t (do they want midnight delivery?).  

If you want to get into the weeds with this, you can use Google Keyword Planner and Neil Patel’s Ubersuggest—excellent tools with real data on keyword searches and how competitive each keyword is.

The best part? They’re both free (and so is RouteBasic). You’re welcome.

Put those keywords in your website and social media

Search engines look at the text on your website and social media, but they also look at a few things besides: title tags, meta descriptions, alt text, blog posts, and schema markup, and backlinks.

That seems like a lot.

Thankfully, the guys at Better Bistro Media have done us all a solid, with this sfree guide on how to check all these SEO boxes. Find an hour or two this weekend, pull it out, and get caught up on these simple techniques. You won’t regret it.

Build communities on social media

During business as usual, customers interact with service staff, bartenders, and other professionals the moment they walk through the door. From the front-of-house manager to servers—even chefs and sommeliers for some—your staff knows that reaching out with friendship and empathy helps guests feel at home while they enjoy a delicious meal at your table.

Why should this be any different during a pandemic?

Your customers still enjoy your meals and interact with delivery staff, though they may not get the same level of customer service from drivers with a delivery platform. But with technology, you can tantalize them with exciting pre-releases of delicious meal ideas, serve them at their actual homes, and remind them about the experience hours and even days later—all using social media.

Adding social media to your digital marketing strategy for restaurants is incredible for engaging customers and making them feel involved.

You want to be prompt and clear about the essentials (opening hours, specials, how delivery works, etc.) while finding creative ways to involve people in the fun. A contest for the cutest soft toy at dinner or the best drink pairing can add laughter to an otherwise standard meal delivery. Maybe offer some recipes or culinary tips for all the other meals they’re cooking, while you’re at it.

These platforms are also very much a two-way street. Reach out, listen to feedback, and ask good questions. You’ll learn how to be there for your loyal customers even better than before.

Right now, digital marketing for restaurants is the sharpest arrow in your quiver - use it well

It’s easy to think of successful restaurants during this time as lucky or already in a good enough spot financially to turn things around. What else could explain their success, even as the entire food service industry struggles with the coronavirus crisis?

Alinea and Canlis seem like that at first. But look closer, and you’ll realize that the same tools and techniques they use are free, open to everyone, and extremely effective if done right.

Here at RouteBasic, we see digital marketing as something of an equalizer. Sure, the big chains are in a league of their own with their resources, but everyone else has access to the same technologies and knowledge needed to make it work. It simply takes time, willingness to learn, and some good solid effort—oh, and a bit of patience along the way.  

Like our delivery app, which helps food businesses run delivery in-house using efficient routing, these digital marketing tips are meant to help you use technology to take your restaurant to the next level.

So pull out your laptop (or mobile), tinker around, and tell us how it goes!

Need a free route planner to manage restaurant food delivery? Take a look at our 1-minute video and give RouteBasic (available on iOS and Android) a try! You’ll be surprised at what you can do with the right tools.