May 26, 2020

3 Key Restaurant Marketing Tactics to Reopen & Recoup Sales After COVID-19

After months of dining rooms with no customers and reservation books empty of reservations, American restaurants are slowly showing signs of life again. Across the country, COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted, allowing restaurants to open their doors and kitchens again. Instead of rushing back to their favorite dining spots, customers are ordering up caution and a wait-and-see approach before venturing out to eat. More than 50% of people say they are going to wait at least a month or more before eating inside a restaurant again. This sentiment increases when looking at older Americans (67%) and women (64%).

This leaves the already ailing restaurant industry in another challenging but not insurmountable position. There are things that restaurant owners and managers can do to entice customers back in, despite the environment of fear and apprehension.

When Marketing Your Restaurant, Sell the Memories Not the Meal

It might seem counter-intuitive, but the majority of people do not go to restaurants to eat. In fact, 66% of Americans view mealtime as a valuable opportunity to connect with family and friends; 64% love trying new restaurants, and 63% enjoy the social aspect of dining out. The restaurant industry is built on food, but simultaneously embracing the experience economy will help drive customers who have lacked social engagement for months back.

“I miss sitting around with my friends over a good meal and talking about everything—work, movies, football, just life. Those are the best meals, and I sometimes don’t even remember what I ate.” – Jim

The path to successfully crafting memories for guests starts with two things: brand strength and storytelling. First, know where your restaurant excels. Do you have the best burger in town? Maybe craft cocktails are your thing, or your patrons rave about your Bolognese. Whatever it is, own it because when you serve that one-of-a-kind dish, you’re also serving up a one-of-a-kind experience.

“Yeah you can order beignets, but there is nothing like getting a fresh beignet in New Orleans, or deep-dish pizza in Chicago, or fresh seafood when you’re at the beach. The food tastes better because of the experience surrounding it.” – Casey

The second part of this equation is weaving your brand’s story throughout the restaurant. If the menu is full of French recipes, the décor, music, lighting, and furniture should not be the same as a barbecue joint. Details matter in storytelling, which is why it’s important to use every inch of the restaurant to tell the unique story behind it.

The Power of Price to Win Back Restaurant Patrons

The National Restaurant Association estimates that the restaurant industry lost $80 billion in just the months of March and April. Now, to make matters worse, the restaurants that can open are having trouble getting people to visit. The financial one-two punch has an already limping industry straining to show signs of life. In the midst of this turmoil, slashing pricing is the last thing that restaurants want to consider, but it might be the most effective way to get customers back.

“All the studies show that price mitigates fear, trauma, and anxiety, so if restaurants want customers to come back, they should lower their prices or offer specials,” said psychologist Dr. Stevan Lahr. Research shows that 83% of Americans are fearful that lifting restrictions will lead to more COVID-19 cases. Any behavioral economist will tell you that people align their actions around two pursuits—to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Humans concurrently balance these self-interest axioms and, more often than not, go with pleasure. This means, if a restaurant offers a sale or special that is enticing enough, people will forget about how afraid and anxious they are and visit.

Start by targeting your loyal customers with a personalized note inviting them to return to in-restaurant dining and offer them an incentive for their continued support. For those who stopped ordering from your restaurant altogether during the pandemic, price promotions featuring your brand’s favorite dishes and just-in-time personalized favorites will peak their interest. The customers you have gained during the pandemic should not be forgotten. They have fallen in love with your food, now it is time to sell the experience you serve when dining inside your establishment.

Segmenting your customers and approaching them directly with a personalized message and incentive to return will endear them to you and your business. It strengthens your relationship with them and helps ease the anxiety that many are feeling right now when thinking about going out to eat.

The Ones Who Got Away: How to Think Creatively About Upselling

Let’s face it. Not everyone is going to feel comfortable coming back just yet. Some 34% of Americans say they are still “very” concerned about contracting COVID-19 and are not ready to venture out anytime soon. Other people either are considered medically high-risk or have family members who fit that description and are forced to elongate their quarantines. However, there are still ways you can capture their loyalty and business while helping your bottom line. It’s all about the upsell.

Upselling has long been a restaurant industry favorite for dine-in customers. Customers say they’re finished eating; the waitress brings over a tray brimming with delectable desserts; the customers relent and order one of everything. You know the drill. Apply this sales technique to all of your customers—dine-in and takeout. While customers are waiting for their order, ask them if they would like a dessert to take home. A lot of states have eased their alcohol regulations during the pandemic, so maybe you want to offer the customer the Chardonnay that pairs perfectly with the salmon she ordered. If your restaurant serves breakfast, there is the opportunity to sell the customers a breakfast quiche that they can warm and serve the next morning. The point is that upselling customers should not be relegated to diners who are eating in your establishment. Be creative with how you can entice customers to spend a little more in exchange for an additional experience with your brand.

Rewarding customers can also entice them to spend more. A restaurant rewards program that rewards diners for spending can actually influence them to spend more. Data shows that members of restaurant loyalty programs spend an average of 23% more than non-members. The more they spend, the more they earn, and the more the restaurant benefits.

The National Restaurant Association projected that the restaurant industry would make $899 billion in sales in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the nation. Those economic hopes are now a painful memory of what could have been, but the future is showing signs of life. Customers are quietly starting to reemerge from their quarantines to visit their favorite restaurants and bars. No one knows when, or if, life will ever return to the pre-pandemic “normal,” but one thing Americans can remain confident in is that restaurants will always be the places people gather to socialize, to celebrate, and to create memories.


  • Reopening restaurant dining rooms to customers who aren’t ready to return is affecting restaurants’ bottom lines.
  • There are ways restaurants can entice customers to return despite their fears about continuing infections.
  • Showing the strength of your brand, targeting customers, and upselling takeout orders will prove to be economically advantageous to restaurants.