7 (More) Things Successful Restaurants Will Do in 2021

February 1, 2021 | blog | By Julie Ondrusek

Even as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, President Biden’s promise to administer 100 million doses of the vaccine by May means light on the horizon for the restaurant industry still struggling to find its footing. QSR, pizza, and casual dining restaurants, as well as independents, continue fighting to increase traffic and revenue — at best, to keep 2021 from looking like 2020, and, at worst, to stay alive.

In our last blog, we looked at seven operational things restaurant owners can do to be more successful in 2021. Once the operational side of the house is in order, it’s time to look at ways to bring in more customers. In part two, we’re looking at seven marketing and advertising ideas to help restaurants increase their traffic and revenue in the coming year.

Take a new look at your core customers.

A year to 18 months ago, you may have had a solid grasp on who your core customers were, and you still might. But if it’s been a while since you analyzed where the majority of your business is coming from, now would be an excellent time to take a look. Traffic is going to be slow to return and the opportunity to bounce back strong will come from evaluating the change in your customer base and how they use you. The pandemic that dominated 2020, and looks to be with us well into Q3, has altered the restaurant landscape quite a bit; changing eating habits, buying patterns, and frequency like never before. One of the smartest tenets of advertising and marketing is first understanding WHO you should be communicating to. In the past year, there’s a better than even chance the profile of your core customers may have changed and there’s also a good chance you’ve picked up new customers you wouldn’t normally include in your core audience. It’s important to understand those new folks as well.

The best way to build restaurant momentum is capitalizing on the patrons you already have coming. Confirm you know who those people are and first focus your attention on them.

Look to your POS system for insights.

How much time are you spending digging into the data in your POS system and what meaningful intel, if any, are you finding? There is no shortage of options when it comes to point of sale systems that could run your house and if it’s been a while since you upgraded, or simply don’t think you’re getting the help you should from the one you have, now would be a great time to see what’s out there.

Do you know where else your guests shop and dine? Do you know if they consistently order the same items every time they visit or change it up? Do they only visit during a single daypart or with the same size party? Do you really know which promotional messages are driving real sales transactions? The best new POS systems offer actionable insights that can not only save you time and money but inform your communications and give you a roadmap for the months ahead. Can you navigate the dark with a flashlight powered by old, weak batteries? Sure. But think how much better things would look with a strong, clear beacon.

Lean in to digital.

It’s no great surprise that we’re in the middle of a digital revolution, but what may surprise you is how fast the pandemic sped things up, and the extent to which there will be no return to what “normal” was before. Coronavirus drove a rapid migration to digital technologies and, as we recover, that migration is here to stay. To put that in perspective, according to a McKinsey & Company report titled “The Next Normal: The Recover Will Be Digital,” the pandemic “vaulted [us] five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks.” Just look at restaurants.

According to The NPD Group, digital restaurant orders from mobile apps, text messages, and the internet grew by a whopping 138% in the third quarter of 2020 compared with the same quarter the year prior. If customers weren’t on board with digital before the pandemic, they certainly are now. Wendy’s now attributes 5.5% of total sales to digital channels. For Burger King, it’s 9%. McDonald’s attributes 20% of their sales to digital now, and for Papa John’s, 60 to 70% of all sales come via digital channels — up from 30% just five years ago.

Restaurants are building customer relationships with apps, they are rewarding new and existing customers with FREE items, and, through compelling promotions, they are attracting volumes of repeat business.

If you’re not maximizing your mobile experience and making it easy for your customers to patronize your restaurant through your own site and via third-party delivery services like DoorDash, GrubHub, UberEats and Postmates (not to mention Caviar, Seamless, Deliveroo, FoodPanda and BiteSquad) you are falling further behind your competitors every day. The vital role digital is playing in ordering, pickup, delivery, and sharing of new product information continues to grow, as do the restaurants leaning in to it.

Look at your loyalty program.

1) Your loyalty program should be easy to join, easy to log into, and even easier to follow. Make it too complicated, or make your customers jump through too many hoops, and they’re out!

2) Your loyalty program should be fully digitally integrated (see the “Lean In to Digital” bullet point above) and work equally well online, or through an app.

3) Your loyalty program needs to offer real value for being a member. Customers don’t expect you to give them the store, but earned rewards should be attainable at fair levels of patronage. For example, AMC Movie Theatres offer a $5 reward for every $50 spent (10/1), while Texas DQ offers a $5 reward after five trips spending at least $5 (5/1). Rewards for frequency and spend can’t feel like winning the lottery. And remember, it doesn’t hurt to throw in freebies every now and then, and not just on the customer’s birthday.

4) Your loyalty program shouldn’t be a one-and-done, sign-up-and-forget-about-it proposition for your customers. Misguided owners use loyalty programs strictly to harvest email addresses and cell numbers. Good loyalty programs focus on building a relationship with your customer. Like any healthy relationship, that requires steady communication, trust, fairness, and a lot of love.

If you don’t have a loyalty program, or haven’t updated yours recently, now’s a great time to develop one.

Share big news.

Whether in-store, over the air, or through your digital channels, focus on sharing big news with your customers in 2021. If you don’t have any news, work with your agency partner and create some. Not only will sharing news build relationships with your customers, it signals there’s something exciting and new going on with your brand. It says, “Hey! We’re still here” and nudges your customers to think, “We need to see/experience/eat/drink/try what (your restaurant) has got going on.” New remodel? Delicious new food and drinks on the menu? Redesigned drive-thru or curbside pickup area? Outdoor dining coming this spring? New improvements to what your dine-in experience is now, and will be like once the pandemic is quelled? All fantastic news to share with the customers who love you. They miss coming to see you almost as much as you miss them. Stay in touch and give them reasons to come back to see you and they will.

Understand and communicate value.

Telling restaurant owners the pandemic has taken a hard financial toll is the very definition of preaching to the choir. And yet, the fact remains, by necessity or regrooved behavior, restaurant patrons are paying more attention to value now than they were a year ago. Diners not only want value – they expect it. Not only that, calculating value isn’t as easy as it once was. Where before the value equation involved food, service, and price, it now also involves safety, especially when it concerns casual dining, where customers are more likely to eat in. Are you giving your customers cues that tell them you are putting their health and safety first? I’ll never forget when the pandemic was a month old and before restaurants shut down, a group of us went out to lunch and found a greeter standing at the door, holding it open for us and spraying down the handle of the exit door each time somebody left. At that moment, we were still concerned about eating out, but were put at ease that this restaurant was taking the pandemic seriously and doing what they could to minimize our risk. Continue to analyze your value proposition and the role safety is playing in it. That new equation is here to stay.

Overcommunicate to your customers.

Finally, until the pandemic is under control and dining traffic and revenue return to pre-2020 levels, overcommunicate to your customers. That doesn’t mean flood them with emails, texts, and in-store POP. It means communicating with intention. Develop a series of compelling (ideally, insight-driven) reasons to reach out to your customers and then engage them in conversation. As we said before, your customers miss eating, drinking, and socializing with you as much as you miss them. We all crave connection. We miss being together. And when the perception of risking your health for a single meal begins to wane, diners will come back. Until that time, the best thing you can do is continue building the relationship. Find new ways to engage. If you’re not delivering or offering curbside pickup, start. And don’t forget about new customers.

According to an August 2020 report from McKinsey, 75% of US consumers tried a new shopping behavior during the pandemic with 36% of consumers saying they tried a new product. While that study wasn’t directly connected to restaurants, it does suggest people are opening their consideration sets while the world is upside down. Give new patrons a reason to come see you. Put out a beacon heavy on quality, service, and safety, and then be prepared when customers give you the chance to deliver. Hang tough and don’t give up! Better days are coming.

JULIE ONDRUSEK is partner and director of client services for  LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

ad agencyadvertisingadvertising agencychallenger brandchallenger brand marketingchallenger brandingchallenger brandsCMOcontent marketingCOVID-19creativeculturerestaurant marketingrestaurantsThe Voice of The Underdogtop 10 Dallas Ad Agencyunderdog

Julie Ondrusek

at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


We challenge underdog brands to think differently. We help them find their voice, and urge them to blaze new trails to make sure they stand out from the pack. Whether you need an agency of record or support on a project, we are here to help you win.