Restaurants & COVID-19: Crisis communications strategy for coronavirus [Updated: 5/20/20]

Restaurant COVID promotional ideas

Restaurants & COVID-19: Crisis communications strategy for coronavirus [Updated: 5/20/20]

This post will be updated as long as we fight together to keep Red Lentil open. Last update: 5/20/20, 11:15 AM

This is what you want to hear: This strategy is working.

It’s 4/8/20 at 5:54 PM. We’ve been running this scheme actively for several weeks now. When everyone else shut down, we’ve managed to not only support this small local restaurant. We learned today from the owner: All his bills are paid. I cried. Openly. I’m exhausted. He’s exhausted. But it’s working—and that’s everything.

As a strategist, these are the moments I live for. The real results. Not just “how much” you’ve done or shouted into the void, but the impact. I welcome you all to steal whatever will help you to stay active and open. We will continue to update as we go…


We have worked with Red Lentil Vegan & Vegetarian Restaurant for about a decade now.

We were with them during the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, when the police chased the suspects right past their door. And we were with them for the brunch they offered—for free—to heal the neighborhood.

We were with them to design and launch their sister restaurant, and are with them now as they plan their foodtruck offshoot.

We have been with them year after year, through sold-out Harvest and Valentine’s dinners, when Chef Pradhan competed to Beat Bobby Flay, from gift card sales to stirring up support for awards. We have tweeted and ‘grammed and emailed and designed and managed and coordinated. Via half-hour text threads or 10-minute phone calls, at odd hours and on weekends, we have supported this amazing team.

And now… we are with them through COVID-19.

The chef-owner—now more than just a client, a dear friend—wanted to try to stay open. Fortunately, as of today (initial writing, 3/25/20), he’s still able to provide takeout and delivery.

Thus far, we have put together the following strategy, and it is ever-changing as new information spools out and new opportunities arise.

Stay positive.

It’s incredibly easy to give in to the fear or try to use customers’ fear to create a reaction (namely, sales). Differentiate yourself by NOT doing that. Customers are already afraid—not just for your restaurant, but for their own financial security and health safety. Instead, show how life is going on, but how you are also taking the proper precautions. Share the support you’re getting from the community, and give back. And don’t forget to say thank you often.

New tip! Give them something to work on at home.

As much as we want every endeavor to drive sales, sometimes sharing a recipe or dish idea can stimulate fans in a new way. Chef Pradhan is from India, and he wanted to share a dish he loves that gives him comfort. So we posted it to social and encouraged people to make it at home. The response was heartwarming.

Instagram story stickers and action buttons

Instagram Story order food button

On April 15, Instagram / Facebook announced that they would be allowing businesses to use stickers in their stories to “direct people to a website where they can order food delivery or buy gift cards.” There is one caveat: You have to be signed up with one of their approved partners:

  • Gift cards: Square, Kabbage, Raise, Yiftee
  • Order food: Caviar, ChowNow, delivery.com, DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates, Seamless, Uber Eats

Since Red Lentil uses a different gift card vendor than those listed above, we used the Order Now button for food pickup. We then created an Instagram story and added it as a highlight.

Be cost-conscious.

You don’t have to discount everything or offer coupons right away. People want to help and they expect you to be watching your bottom line and taking care of your staff. Plus, discounts age badly. Once you start offering them, you will likely have to keep offering them, in more and more creative ways.

New tip! Staff video & re-posts – honor their contribution & loyalty.

We paired the ongoing Great American Takeout with this lively, short video from the kitchen.

It’s not just the staff you need to honor. Those men and women who come in week after week, the regulars from a distance—those people are your lifeblood. Ask them to take a happy photo or quick vid with their food, post the details on social media, and say thank you, thank you, thank you.

If a customer shares some love for your food in an Instagram story, re-share it to yours. Reciprocity is everything right now.

Coordinate a contest.

With a local food blog: In exchange for gift cards they can hand out to their audience, they will promote that the restaurant is open for takeout and delivery on their Instagram account. @onlyinbos is a Boston-centered hub for news and information—with 144,000 followers. The contest ran only from 8 AM to 9 PM over a single day. The statistics on response from the Red Lentil Instagram page are below. The final numbers from @onlyinbos were:

  • 51,072 people reached
  • 56,815 impressions
  • 1711 likes
  • 1527 comments
  • 14 shares
  • 11 post saves

Instagram contest restaurant

Stats for a week’s worth of posts on Instagram. Saturday: schedule change announcement; Monday: informational post about the WSJ’s health safety tips for takeout; Tuesday: call for Great American Takeout; Thursday: contest from @onlyinbos

Find state and/or city directories.

Many states are offering lists of restaurants still open for takeout and delivery. For instance, carryoutma.com from the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and the directory being hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, where you can submit your restaurant for inclusion.

In New York City, submit through the New York Daily News. And be sure to update the delivery apps you normally use, where delivery times, hours, and menu changes are checked pretty often by patrons.

Do a simple Google search for similar directories in your area. Your chamber of commerce, Mayor’s office, or similar neighborhood association can likely point you in the right direction.

(Can’t find one? Start one! Get a group of restaurants together and create the resource for your area. Be sure to tell local press—they’ll love the content, trust us—to help push your place into the spotlight.)

Stay relevant.

Time is a little fluid right now, and many people are feeling out of touch. You can help patrons feel grounded, safe, and—dare we say, a little more normal by reminding them what else is going on. For instance, during the week of Passover and Easter, we reminded the customers that Red Lentil is a certified Kosher restaurant.

As the state laws change, we’re responding to those changes. It’s very important to be responsive to what is happening on the state and city level. Don’t expect your patrons to know!

Ingredient-specific posts

What is it about your food that people LOVE? Now is the time to highlight that. For Red Lentil, it’s all about healthy eating and healthy lifestyle.

  • We used the fact that they had hit 1800 Instagram followers to toss out a lighthearted “celebration” post asking them which Red Lentil dish was their favorite. Within a day, it received 44 likes, 11 comments, and 1 share—and reached 675 people.
  • We had the idea of a smoothie special, but wanted to be cost-conscious. The chef confirmed that people were frequently ordering one called “Immunize.” Great name, great post idea!

Monitor social media and Google Alerts for press hits

Like these pickups from WGBH Boston (highlighted below) and from The Infatuation, which paired the restaurant and Jurassic Park as ideal quarantine dinner + movie partners. We re-shared on social media and added to their News & Events on their website.

Still to come: Live broadcast from WGBH highlighting Boston restaurants, including Red Lentil. 

Source local area social media accounts.

Monitor social media for mentions, stories, and posts. Pay particular attention to those offering to share with their followers which restaurants are still serving food. Retweet, share, etc.

Restaurant COVID promotional ideas

Connect with movements.

Like the Independent Restaurant Coalition, founded by Tom Colicchio and other top-name restauranteurs and chefs, to help restaurants during the pandemic.

Work your goodwill network.

All the charity events. All the donated food. All the catering gigs. Red Lentil has been active in the community and very generous over the years, so the chef could easily reach out and communicate to local vegan groups and corporations that they were still offering takeout and delivery. Those relationships led to increased exposure for the restaurant by way of their members and colleagues.

Gather support for the Great American Takeout.

Across all social media platforms. We found out about the launch of the Great American Takeout late. The text thread from my side went something like: “You have an order there? Great. Take a photo, send it over… No, move the smoothie down in front… Can you try one with the takeout menus tucked under? … She already took the food. OK, we’ll run with it.”

Share RELEVANT news and tips (not rumors!).

In a supportive, positive way with customers, thank them for their continued support and help them understand how to take precautions.

Announcements and schedule changes

Via social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), we promoted that they are still offering takeout and delivery. Also, we created a website popup to announce the change in hours and service.

Note here that we didn’t make the messaging negative, didn’t say: “Dining Room Closed” or “COVID-19 Update.” Instead, we positioned the copy to tell people—without having to make them read—that the restaurant is still operating, this is how, and this is how to get in touch.

And we will continue to promote and support, monitor and spread the word to help our client and friend to stay afloat during this incredibly difficult time.

If you need help, ask.

We’re not just some faceless restaurant marketing agency here. We dive in. We strategize. We track. We monitor. We’re right there with you, at the moment you need us. And we’re looking out for you. At any time, during any crisis.

This post will be updated as long as we fight together to keep Red Lentil open. Last update: 5/20/20, 11:15 AM

For more information on how small businesses can survive COVID-19, check out our interview with Mailchimp’s podcast Call Paul, available on all major podcast streaming platforms.

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Sarah Williams

Founder & director of 816 New York and passionate about all things strategy.

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