2020 changed marketing for restaurants. Before, many restaurant owners relied on word of mouth or signage for passing foot traffic to advertise their businesses. However, once shelter-in-place orders landed across the country and customers stayed home, it became clear that businesses would need to use other tools and tactics to connect with their guests and drive sales in a post-pandemic world.

So, what have restaurant owners and marketers learned in the past year? We spoke with industry leaders from Scaffidi Restaurant Group, DK’s Donuts & Bakery, Shari's Management Corporation, and Kokomo about how their marketing plans have changed in 2021, what they’re looking forward to, and what they’re trying next. Keep reading to learn the top 2021 restaurant marketing tips from restaurant owners.

1. Build a web presence that markets your restaurant

If you haven’t already, now is the perfect time to polish your restaurant’s online presence. With customers stuck at home during the pandemic, off-premise dining quickly became the norm and being able to accept online orders was key to driving sales. As some restaurants start to open for dine-in, pickup and delivery are here to stay. Digital ordering and delivery have grown 300% faster than dine-in traffic since 2014, and show no sign of stopping.

To make the most of this trend, make sure customers can easily search for and find your restaurant online, as well as access the most recent information about your hours, menu, and ordering options. To get started, follow these tips to create a restaurant website designed to drive sales, including updating your website for search engine optimization, or SEO. Consider trying out Storefront, DoorDash’s commission-free online ordering platform that enables you to add delivery and pickup ordering directly to your website.

Additionally, do a quick Google search to see where else your restaurant already shows up online. You may want to look into creating or claiming your Yelp page, so that you can see and respond to customer feedback, as well as optimizing your Google Maps listing to make sure customers have access to all of the relevant information when they look up your business.

A strong digital presence can be a sort of “set it and forget it” marketing tactic for restaurants, helping direct hungry customers to your site with minimal intervention. Frankie DiCarlantonio, Director at the family-owned Scaffidi Restaurant Group, has continued to see a steady stream of online orders thanks in part to an accessible web presence.

Even as COVID-19 is declining, we’re still seeing people placing DoorDash orders. Third-party delivery is here to stay. The comfort and convenience of eating at home isn’t going anywhere.

Frankie DiCarlantonio

Frankie DiCarlantonio, Director, Scaffidi Restaurant Group

2. Tap into the power of UGC for social media marketing

Next, make the most of digital marketing tools to increase awareness and drive sales. One of the most powerful ways to connect with customers is through social media. According to Statista, there are over 112 million monthly active Instagram users in the United States—and all of them need to eat.

Mayly Tao, owner of DK’s Donuts & Bakery in Santa Monica, CA, scales her social media efforts by partnering with her followers to reshare user-generated content, or UGC.

UGC is an amazing way to scale your social media marketing efforts. I might be one person with an iPhone, but there are thousands of customers who can help me create and share DK’s content—and their posts are amazing from a different perspective.

Mayly Tao

Mayly Tao, Owner of DK's Donuts and Bakery

Social media marketing for restaurants can really pay off: a recent study from MGH Advertising showed that 42% of U.S. diners say they’ve interacted with restaurants on at least one social media platform and of that group, 66% said they’re more likely to visit or order food from the restaurant.

restaurant social media marketing

3. Use your safety signage as a marketing tool

In 2021, you may want to consider updating your COVID-19 safety signage. Brandi Scaramella is the Director of Marketing at Shari's Management Corporation, which manages three different restaurant groups across the western U.S.: Shari’s Cafe & Pies, Coco’s Bakery, and Carrows Restaurants. The first thing she did when she joined the team last year was update all of her restaurants’ COVID-19 safety signage, pivoting from being solely informative to a powerful marketing tool.

Early on during the pandemic, our signage about staying six feet apart and wearing your mask all felt very clinical and inhospitable. It was basically a big sign that said to our guests, ‘Don't come in here, we don’t want you here,’ instead of inviting them in.

Brandi Scaramella

Brandi Scaramella, Director of Marketing, Shari’s Management Corporation

Brandi quickly got to work creating new messaging that communicated a sense of hospitality while still complying with local safety signage requirements. Her favorite was a sign that read, “You don't have to socially distance from pie, but please maintain a safe distance while inside,” which makes guests smile and feel welcome, whether they’re dining in or picking up.

Cocos_Pies_Sign

Need additional guidance on updating your restaurant’s safety messaging? Check out the Reopening Guide for Restaurants, where DoorDash partners can order free in-store signage.

4. Boost your exposure by launching and marketing a virtual restaurant

Another restaurant marketing tip: grow revenue by creating a new brand and concept. Consider expanding your offerings by adding a virtual restaurant to your kitchen, which is when a kitchen launches a delivery-only brand using their existing location and staff. It’s a great way to grow sales, while keeping your operations costs low.

Shari’s Management Corporation did this in 2019 with Coco’s Famous Hamburgers, a virtual restaurant offering classic burgers under the Coco’s brand and kitchens. After the pandemic hit and dining rooms closed, the company saw an opportunity to expand Coco’s Famous Hamburgers to other locations, where it now operates out of the kitchens for Shari’s and Carrows. Today Coco’s Famous Hamburgers is offered exclusively through DoorDash and is 100% marketed using DoorDash marketing tools.

What’s interesting is that our Shari's locations have double the Coco's Famous Hamburger burger volume than actual Coco's locations serving the virtual brand. I think it speaks to how people like to try new things. Coco’s has a retro brand that’s comforting and familiar, but different enough from our other brands like Shari’s and Carrows that it makes people interested in trying it.

Brandi Scaramella

Brandi Scaramella, Director of Marketing, Shari’s Management Corporation

5. Remember hospitality is your biggest marketing moment

At the end of the day, going to a restaurant in 2021 is still a special experience for your customers, and it’s important to focus on preserving that even in a contactless environment. It’s one of the most abstract but important elements of your dining experience. Brandi recommends putting yourself in your customers’ shoes to understand what’s changed in a post-pandemic world, and what could be improved from a marketing perspective. She also recommends connecting with your staff for feedback.

Restaurant staffing—that’s really the next pandemic. Make sure to listen to your staff and collaborate with them to build a better experience for everyone. They’re your frontline to the customer, so help them remain resilient.

Brandi Scaramella

Brandi Scaramella, Director of Marketing, Shari’s Management Corporation

Similarly, Colin Denton, partner at Kokomo, a restaurant group of plant-based cafes in Vancouver, shares tips for retaining and motivating restaurant staff. His main takeaway: it’s about balancing hospitality with safety. When your team feels comfortable and supported, it’s more likely your customers will have a better experience, too. That human connection is your most valuable restaurant marketing asset.

Happy and well-trained employees contribute to happy customers, who become repeat customers, who grow your profits. A lot of businesses prioritize these in the opposite order, but you can get the same results by focusing on employees first, which also helps with retention.

Colin Denton

Colin Denton, Partner at Kokomo

hiring restaurant staff

What’s next for restaurant marketing in 2021

As we head into the second half of the year, marketing will play a critical role in welcoming customers back to their favorite restaurants—and marketers will need to pay special attention to both the on-premise and online experiences.

As Brandi put it,  “A restaurant is unlike any other brand because people have such a personal relationship with it. Birthdays, anniversaries, and good report cards are all celebrated by going out to eat with loved ones. Restaurants are where people make memories.” After a year of staying at home, there’s nothing more we’re looking forward to.

Need a partner to help you market your restaurant in 2021? Consider partnering with DoorDash to grow your business through unique marketing tools, online ordering, and delivery logistics designed specifically for your business.

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Ali Cottong
Copywriter
Ali is a freelance content marketer with a wide range of experience crafting content and strategy for brands that include a world-renowned design agency, a men's artisan boot company, that app you use to request money on your phone, and more. Ali originally earned her nerd cred as a world-class Quidditch player and has competed in the Quidditch World Cup twice. She currently lives in Oakland where she's traded her broomstick in for a bike.