How to turn your cafe or restaurant into an online business to survive and thrive during isolation
(April 10, 2020)
Out of all the industries, yours has taken one of the mightiest hits. At the moment of writing this, your venue has probably closed or you have reduced your offerings to mere takeaways.
In order to survive, you might have already taken the next step by going online. And if you haven’t yet, you should. In this article, I’m going to tell you ideas, frameworks and strategies that not only could allow you to survive but also potentially thrive.
Yes, that is a big promise. So maybe you’re sceptical. I understand. But, to be fair, I know a thing or two about your industry and the online world.
For starters, I’ve worked in the hospitality industry for over ten years as both an employee and a food writer.
Now I run Brew Copy, a brand storytelling studio for e-commerce businesses in the food and drink space. In other words, I help people like you connect with customers and, ultimately, sell stuff meaningfully online.
And, lastly, some of my clients, as well as friends who own hospitality venues, are already using these ideas, frameworks and strategies. And they’ve worked.
Your ability to survive rests solely on the following idea
Before Covid-19, your business was successful because you were indispensable. Repeat customers came to you because you offered something no one else had in your community.
I’m talking about nuanced differences here. You might have offered the best coffee or the most exclusive natural wine selection in the suburb (that’s what brought people in the doors), but what brought people back is something that goes beyond the commodity you’re selling.
I’m talking about the community you built, the community that offered honest connection — the community that a certain type of person wanted to be apart of, even if you did make the odd luke-warm coffee or bugger up their vegan pesto.
But now, seeing as that community was limited to your brick-and-mortar store, you’ve lost that community. Well, perhaps not all. But a good chunk.
And you’re not going to get them back by shouting “Support Local Business” on social media. In general, people don’t buy from you to support you. They buy from you to support themselves. Okay, maybe folk are a more generous than that. I just wouldn’t rely on charitable acts alone.
So here’s the question you have to ask yourself:
How are you going to become indispensable again? How are you going to help individuals in your community help themselves during this time?
Here comes the fun part. You know all that creativity you summoned to create a thriving venue out of nothing? Well, nows the time to channel that again. You’re going to have to reinvent yourself to connect with your community differently, become indispensable to them in a different way. If you want to survive, you will have to transfer that community you built in-store to the online world.
Why you already have an advantage
The most valuable asset online is what we call a permission marketing base. In short, permission marketing is the act of people permitting you to contact them. The alternative is to interrupt them with ads.
The most overt forms of permission marketing are people subscribing to your email list or social media accounts. This way, you’re able to communicate with your customers directly, offer products and services to them directly. And in a world where attention and trust are becoming increasingly scarce, permission marketing is the only way forward.
Usually, a virtual business that’s starting would have to invest a lot of time and money into building a permission marketing base.
But you already have one. You already have a community of people who trust you, who want to hear from you.
Whether every person in your community follows you online is not the point. You can ask them to connect with you online later. The point is you have already earned their attention and trust.
But what do you sell online?
Unless you work with Uber Eats, you probably don’t have the resources to deliver ready-made coffee or food. And even if you are working with Uber Eats, your margins are probably too small to survive on takeaway alone.
So, to create another income stream that’s more viable, you will need to sell other products which you can deliver. Obviously, what you do offer will depend on your venue. But I’ll make a few suggestions.
Alcohol, coffee beans and fresh produce are three things people will never want to be without. So why don’t you offer a subscription service? You can provide a fortnightly or monthly delivery. And you can offer a number of packages, tailored to the varying preferences in your community. Remember, your community already trusts you as far as booze, coffee and food go. And you know your community’s palette better than anyone. So feel confident when curating the packages.
For a wine package, you might include sourcing the best bottles from local, independent winemakers for under $20. Or, a mixed 6-pack of the best-value natural wines this month. Or a selection of the most obscure and underrated varietals. You’re the expert. Get creative.
For a coffee package, you could include two of your favourite single-origins. And you could work with your roaster to create your unique blend. And then you could sell that blend in 250-gram bags to your community.
For a food package, you could include staples like milk and eggs and seasonal veggies. If you get your produce from local, sustainable farmers, then that’s even better. Or maybe now is the time to get in touch and build relationships with a few producers.
You could also turn your home-made sauces or jams or pickles (or whatever) into takeaway jars to create home-care packages.
You know about Hello Fresh, right? Well, be Hello Fresh for your community. Work with your chef(s) and put together meals. And then deliver these meals with all the ingredients and instructions so people can make your restaurant-grade meals at home.
*Remember, your community knows you are struggling. So don’t worry about branding your packaging or anything. Simply write with a nice pen that this is your blend or box of wine or box of food which you have put together so people can drink and eat your offerings in the safety of their own home. And maybe sign the package with a charming personalised message. Know what I mean?
You can also extend your range. If you’re a cafe, think about offering coffee equipment that people can buy to make coffee at home. You can add a personal touch and upsell by including coffee beans and recipes.
The same goes for booze: special wine glasses. Or what the heck. Why not even a home-brewing kit? That’s something a few beer enthusiasts would like to get stuck into while at home.
Oh, and I know I said you can’t deliver ready-made coffees. But you can. Here’s how: Only serve filter or drip coffee. You know, the black coffee made in big batches which you can hold in gigantic thermos’.
Filter coffee in such a thermos can stay bloody hot for over two hours. So you can drive around in a car, serving coffees in your neighbourhood (and only in your neighbourhood).
You can deliver from 7–8 am. People can order and pay in advance the night before. For example, you could say, “All orders have to be in by 6 pm.”
In the morning, you look at the orders and addresses and make the exact amount of coffee you need and deliver.
Then, you could accompany the coffees with little personalised notes or, during easter, offer hot cross buns, too. You see, the goal is to bring joy to peoples days just as you did the in the cafe.
Okay, okay, we’ve talked about what you could offer online immediately. And, as you can see, the possibilities are manifold. But here’s your real ticket to surviving and thriving during this period:
Collaborate with other local businesses
You have leverage. You have a permission marketing base with a community that others don’t have. This means you can partner with other local businesses and bring their product to consumers which they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
Think about it. Say you’re a winemaker who has a garage full of wine but no followers, no permission marketing base. And then someone like you comes along and says, “We have thousands of followers who we can sell your wine to.”
By doing that, you become an indispensable middleman/woman between your community and other products and services during a time of scarcity and disconnection. I repeat: You become indispensable.
The possibilities of collaboration are endless, really. Local florists, ceramics, other venues and chefs, farmers, woodworkers, winemakers, breweries…
And what if they have a following, a permission marketing base, too? Well, that’s even better. You can both sell each other’s products and increase your audience, because, remember, you’re only delivering to your local community. You! In your car. Don’t rely on other people to ship your stuff. That’s another logistical kettle of fish. Stay local. Hand-deliver. Champion that personal touch, because I’m sorry to say, but that’s all you have. You can’t compete with international e-commerce food and delivery services. But you can compete when you focus on the local community with whom you’ve already built a relationship.
Did you just complain about not having the resources to deliver door-to-door?
How to deliver your products door-to-door without running around like a headless chook
Firstly, you only have to deliver to your immediate community — a 5km radius, maybe.
Secondly, you shouldn’t do deliveries every day. Hell no. Do deliveries once a week. Say, Friday. So you can knock out your orders in an afternoon. More than that, by only delivering once a week, you create scarcity.
You can say, “We have limited fresh tomatoes from Jerry and Jenny’s farm an hour out of town. Plus, we have only 12 bottles of Nancy’s minimal intervention chardonnay which was voted best white under $30 last year by Craig, the wine critic. Make sure your orders are in by Thursday to get your weekly stock of [Enter your cafe’s name here] ‘s goodies.” See what I mean by scarcity?
And if they don’t get their orders in, well, they’ll have to wait, won’t they? And it will be your job to be open and transparent with them as to why there are provisions regarding deliveries. Communicate with your community like you would in any reciprocal relationship. People will understand. And if they don’t, you don’t want them as a customer anyway.
So far, we’ve covered why you need to become indispensable, why you’re in an advantageous position to transfer your venue online, what products you could sell, who you could partner with, and how to deliver products without jeopardising your mental health or budget.
Now, I’m going to tell you a simple e-commerce strategy to bring all that above into being.
The more comprehensive your e-commerce strategy and execution, the more successful you will be. That is obvious, of course. But some people think you can bang up a website with a ‘Buy Now’ button and think you’re going to sell which is unicorn-and-pixie-dust talk. It would be like standing in the street in your underpants and a wine bottle screaming “Wine. Buy now!” Even your mother wouldn’t buy off you.
A simple e-commerce strategy
For starters, you want to re-configure your website. After all, you’re not just a brick-and-mortar store anymore. You’re an online one, too. So you need to behave as such.
As a bare minimum, here’s what you need: A website with an online shop, email marketing platform, and social media.
I assume you’re already handy on social media. And here, on Instagram and Facebook, is where your followers are. So I’m not going to talk about a social strategy here.
After all, this e-commerce world is a vast subject. So I’m going to skim lightly over emails and your website, okay?
Before I explain how those channels work together, understand this: Email is still the most effective way to communicate with and sell to your audience.
According to McKinsey, email consistently pulls 40% higher conversion rates. By conversion rate, I’m talking about converting people to buy something. The term sounds a bit mercenary, I know. But this whole article is mainly about making sales during this challenging time, right?
Email has the potential to be more effective for a couple of reasons.
On social media, your post or message can easily get lost. You’re at the behest of the algorithms. This is why you should treat socials primarily as a brand marketing platform. You should create pretty images and meaningfully engage with your audience. Not to create a sale, necessarily. Just to behave in a way that will ultimately attract attention and trust.
With emails, you should also meaningfully engage with your audience. But you can also use direct marketing techniques which is about encouraging a sale, a task you have to do time-to-time, of course. The art of direct marketing is the art of communicating the value of what you’re offering in a way that encourages people to buy at the end of it. And as McKinsey noted, email is the best platform to help you achieve that.
This is why you should work at building your email list. Ask people in the community to sign up. That includes the people who follow you on Instagram. Don’t be scared to ask again and again. Consistency is key.
Then, to encourage people to hand over their email addresses (because we all need a bit of a flame up the backside from time to time), you can offer 10% off their first purchase. Or you can provide something of value in exchange, like a thoughtful email newsletter or a downloadable recipe.
For content for email, think about creating a weekly newsletter with updates and offerings your community will find of value. Create a day where you send out a new recipe. Recipe Thursdays. Something like that. Think of something that will engage your community and promote your product.
Alright. Email marketing platforms. There are crap-loads. I use Mailchimp. It has certain limitations. But if you’re new to this, it’s a good and cheap option.
The important thing about your website is not to overcomplicate — to provide everything your customer needs to know, FAST! But that doesn’t mean you can just stick a big fat photo up with a Buy Now button, as we’ve discussed.
A quick rant: I’ve seen a bunch of hospitality venues go online in the last three weeks. And the large majority are incredibly bereft of information, devoid of empathetic communication. And, as a consumer, that’s frustrating. Even though I like going to venues, I certainly don’t feel compelled to buy from them online. Just as you demonstrate an effort to make people feel welcome at your venue, do so online.
Before I talk about your web-layout, I want to glaze over platforms. There’s a reason Shopify is the go-to for e-commerce businesses. The platform is the most robust and the front-end (your pretty layouts) is easily-linked to the back-end logistics. While other platforms—like Squarespace—offer e-commerce solutions that seem like good-enough options at the beginning, there are often limitations which might bring about headaches in the future.
So, please, do your research. While you’re in a rush, don’t rush this. Changing platforms down the track—when all your inventory is already set up—is incredibly time-consuming and expensive.
Now let’s talk structure. A pretty solid web layout includes the following: A landing page, an “Our Story Page”, Shop, Blog. Also, seeing as you will have specific delivery-instructions, you could have a page dedicated to describing that. Or maybe, you could have a page explaining your subscription model (if you have one).
Arguably, the landing page is the most important and, often, the most poorly executed. So let’s break down that one.
You’ll come across many opinions as to what your landing page should look like. And, really, unless those opinions are your customers, you shouldn’t listen to any of them. As a copywriter, I’m interested in helping brands create an effective website—one that brings about sales, not just pleasure to onlookers. So while your landing page may differ if you have done your customer-research, there is a general layout that the most successful e-commerce brands use which, for now, I recommend you follow.
As a general rule, your landing page should welcome people, as well as direct readers to other areas of your site.
So, first, you can have a big call-out. The call-out can send people to pages that detail more about you and your offering, or you can lead people straight to your shop.
The next stage is to show your range of offerings with a button that leads folk to your shop.
You can then explain your unique selling propositions, like Who Gives a Crap has done below. For you, this might include things like:
- Restaurant-grade meals you can cook at home
- Put together by your favourite chef
- Local produce from independent growers
You can then direct people to a page we mentioned before: a page that explains your products and delivery services.
Next: Put a little bit of copy about you — your story. And, again, direct them to your full story on your About page.
Next: Recent blog posts. Okay, I’m a writer. So I’m going to champion having a blog. This allows you to tell stories behind your producers and products. Also, you can write recipes and instructions for making good coffee. You know, anything your customers will find of value.
Plus, blogs help your organic SEO. So if you’re looking for takeaway food in Bondi, for example, your cafe may end up being one of the top suggestions on Google.
Lastly, ask people to subscribe to your email and connect with you on socials. And then you have your footer. This is all easier said than done, of course. But you can do it.
The best thing about creating an online brand is that you’re not just building an extra income stream for your business now. You’re potentially building another profitable arm for life. Not only that, you’re brand will be more valuable, because your assets aren’t just tied up in brick-and-mortar. You will have a tangible way of showing how your online following brings in extra profits. Again, I don’t mean to sound mercenary. But I think I’d be small-minded to not centre much of what I’m saying about helping your business to thrive, given this time of financial scarcity.
Phew, almost done.
But I have one more point. And while you may not be in a place to explore this yet (we want to get you online as quickly as possible), what I have to say next will certainly allow you to build an online brand that has influence and impact.
At the beginning of this article, I spoke briefly about not just selling your products. After all, you’re more than that. The products you offer fall into a larger narrative.
And that larger narrative encompasses your story, your values, your personalities, philosophies — everything. So, as a brand message strategist (someone who specialises in this), I recommend you unearth some of these qualities. It will give you clarity about who you are, and who you are here for you and, in turn, what you say and how you say it. And now, during this pandemic, this will give your brand a certain gravitas.
In short, understanding your overarching narrative will help you create a cohesive message and cohesive content which, over time, people will begin to recognise and adore you for.
But we’ve already been through a lot today. So I’m not going to cover that here.
If you’re interested in exploring that further, though, I offer a free 5-day email course when you sign up to my email. The series coaches you through unearthing a bolder story, finding your unique brand voice and creating an on-brand content/ marketing strategy. You can subscribe HERE.
I hope you do.
To wrap up, I created this article because you may be struggling, along with many others. We are walking through unchartered waters. And that is scary. But the more we can support each other and work together and share our gifts and knowledge, the better we will all come out of this. Maybe, we can even thrive in this new world.
So, if you know of anyone else who might need this article, please forward it to them. There’s enough for us all to survive and thrive.
Best of luck. I wish you health and abundance.
I’m offering a discounted one-on-one coaching call for cafes and restaurants who need the extra help getting off the ground. If that’s something you need, click HERE.