Whether it's done over social, digital or traditional media, sharing the proper message, one that gains trust and confidence, will determine the success of your reopening efforts.

Ask any restaurateur and they will tell you that social media is one of the most important tools they use when trying to get the word out about what’s happening at their restaurants. This is especially true during the coronavirus health crisis, as operators reopen their businesses after months of either offering limited service or temporarily shutting down.

David Jones, co-founder and CEO of the Blazing Onion fast-casual chain says getting his message of safety out to guests and employees has been one of the most important tasks he’s taken on. Using the right words and tone to reach a mass audience during the crisis was and is mission critical.

Largely relying on the power of Facebook, Jones began a messaging campaign to let guests know that the Mill Creek, Wash.-based burger chain was open for takeout and delivery, and was following the most stringent safety protocols issued by government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

During the off-premises-service-only period, Jones has written about creating a contact-free environment, proper social distancing, and the importance of hygiene and hand washing. He also urged guests to plate their food and throw away the delivery packaging, and wash hands vigorously before enjoying their meals.

That first message reached nearly 35,000 people, garnered 72 comments and 102 shares. As engagement has increased, Jones is following up with additional posts on the protocols deployed as the restaurants begin to fully reopen, what operating during Phase II is going to look like, and how small businesses are fighting to stay alive.

His recurring message is simple and complex at the same time: “I promise you, we are working hard to make things safe for us and all of you. I will continue to monitor our own behaviors and strive to make corrections when needed.”

Amplify any way you can

Jones is not alone. Restaurant operators across the country are eager to reopen, get their employees back to work again, and see customers come in for the dining experiences they’ve missed. Sharing the proper message, one that gains trust and confidence, will determine the success of your reopening efforts.

It’s no secret that coronavirus has devastated the restaurant industry — $80 billion in lost sales and more than 8 million employees laid off or furloughed — and that was just through the end of April. Now, as states loosen up stay-in-place restrictions and begin restarting the economy, operators are trying to figure out how to reopen and let the public know their doors are open once more.

The big question is how do you let everyone know? Beyond TV ads, there are several ways.

Direct mail: People are still at home, and they’re getting mail delivered to their mailboxes every day. Send them a note to let them know you’re back up and running, and ready to serve them when they’re ready to dine out again. Include a coupon or meal deal.

Digital media: Use your website to its best advantage. Post a letter from the owner or leader of your company on your main page announcing you’ve reopened and are excited to welcome guests back for a safe and satisfying dining experience. A great example is the message from David Gordon, president of The Cheesecake Factory, which explains what the chain is doing to ensure the safety of its guests.

Online newspapers are another way to get the word out. The Daily Independent in Peoria, Ariz., has a free feature allowing businesses to message if they’re fully open, or offering curbside and delivery services, and how customers can connect virtually.

Social media: Here are three ways to engage with customers.

  1. Straight-up messaging on LinkedIn, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.
     
  2. Start employee campaigns that use specific messaging you’ve provided along with personal pleas to spread the word that you’ve reopened. Employees can take the “swipe copy” you’ve shared with them and copy and paste it into their own posts to friends and followers.
     
  3. Ask returning customers to post reviews of their visits, leave feedback, or write their own social posts about your restaurant. Think about giving them a gift card, coupon or other small incentive to spread the word.

“If they write a social post and tag the restaurant, it could drive awareness of your reopening. Let them know how much they’re helping your business by amplifying your message,” says Ernie Santeralli, content marketing specialist at ActiveCampaign, Chicago.

Email campaigns: Use your customer database to invite customers to enjoy an actual meal at a restaurant.

Straight up signage: Whether its billboards, banners, curbside tent boards, or something else, create visual, visible, pointed messages for people driving by.

Phone scripting: Make sure all of your employees are versed to answer not only questions about dining on-premises but can quickly answer questions about what safety precautions are in place.

Upscale-casual Founding Farmers in the Washington, D.C., area, is using its website to let customers know it’s open for patio dining, but also continuing takeout and delivery service, along with its grocery store add-on. It posted a special FAQ-COVID-19 section on the site as well as a COVID-19 Reopening Resource Guide for guests to download.

Co-owner Dan Simons says that communication is at the heart of any genuine relationship. He knew that informing the community about how the company is moving forward — what they are doing and how they are doing it — would be well-received. “I know our guests want to dine with us, but it’s our responsibility to make them feel comfortable enough to follow through,” he says. “We want to tell them what we’re doing to make it safe for them to come in.”

Simons and his team also are using social media, email blasts and phone calls to share as much detail as possible.

“We’re showing photos and videos of what we’re doing, for example, we videotaped fogging with sanitizer and we’re conducting daily health screens of staff members. We feel it’s even more effective to show and tell guests about our commitment to safety.

“The better restaurants are about maintaining safety, the better society will do in keeping the virus in check and the better all restaurants will do in helping customers feel comfortable about dining out again,” he says.