Independent restaurants need your B2C intervention — now

By Earl J. Wilkinson

International News Media Association (INMA)

Dallas, Texas, United States

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Local news media companies are in a unique position to rescue small, independently own businesses — notably restaurants — in today’s COVID-19 crisis by creating hubs connecting them to their readership bases. 

This doesn’t necessarily have to be: 

  • A long-term market play.
  • An action to show your news brand cares in today’s crisis.
  • Elaborate.

Yet all three could prove true in time. 

News media companies connect readers with advertisers. While that value chain is strained in the current crisis, it’s a chain that exists and needs immediate re-thinking.

For independent restaurants, an extinction level event 

Local restaurants and bars, especially, have felt the vertigo moment after governments have shut them down to put teeth into social distancing. Yet they have rapidly — in a matter of 7-14 days — reinvented themselves as takeout food providers. Curbside pickup of food orders is the new normal. Some have repositioned bartenders and waiters to home delivery to avoid layoffs. Some are even offering surplus rolls of toilet paper their customers won’t use the next few months. 

Unlike national and global food chains, which have corporate backups during this economic downturn, the independent local restaurants and bars are facing an extinction level event. “Buy local” is an old mantra made more relevant in this moment, as evidenced by #thegreatamericantakeout hitting Twitter in the United States on Tuesday. 

In the United States, the National Restaurant Association estimates 75% of independent restaurants won’t survive the ripple effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns. 

Why not UberEats and Doordash?

Many restaurants have gotten beyond historic hesitance and flocked to UberEats and Doordash (among others internationally such as Deliveroo in Europe), which are amazing on-demand delivery apps that connect:

  • Restaurants.
  • Customers.
  • Drivers/deliverers of food.

The hesitance from local independent restaurants is mostly about commissions and sign-up fees collected by the online marketplaces as well as slow payments. We can argue later whether this is deserved, yet for reasons ranging from imagination to scale to a small business mindset, the local restaurants still hesitate. They are not moving fast enough.

Takeout marketplaces — like UberEats and Doordash in the United States and Just Eat in the United Kingdom — brilliantly organise restaurants by genres. A “one-to-many” network works well in this environment. A “many-to-many” network has no chance of succeeding. The winners in a “many-to-many” network are those that have long, loyal relationships. 

What publishers can do now 

At bare minimum, every local community should have a Web site championed by the local news publisher listing every local restaurant databased. Name of restaurant, address, telephone number, Web site, whether they are taking orders, a link to a menu, when your information was last updated. If your own internal database isn’t sufficient to make this happen, take the collective wisdom of your advertising team and create the database. Go door to door if you have to. Charge nothing for this service. 

You want to save as many of those mom-and-pop restaurants as you can. And when this is done, you want your community to look back at what you did and call you “savior.” 

A challenge to news industry vendors 

I put to the vendors serving the news media industry to consider creating this idea yourself or banding together with other vendors something like I’m outlining above. Maybe it’s a plug-in to the system that you use.

This may not be in your wheelhouse. Yet if Jaguar and Rolls Royce can produce ventilators and Apple and Tesla can manufacture medical supplies, I challenge the vendors serving the news industry to consider this idea. 

Inspirations from a publisher and visitor’s bureau 

A leader on this front is the Support Local initiative built in recent days by Gannett and the USA Today Network that officially launches Monday. They are going beyond restaurants to support local businesses in general. Here are some fantastic twists: 

  • Online tool to add your local business. 
  • Ability to buy a gift card to a local business. 
  • An alphabetical listing of the local businesses, organised by city, and robust mapping functionality. 

Gannett, subtly yet firmly, discusses in its Support Local mission statement the “special relationship” with its local businesses across nearly 300 markets throughout the United States.

The Charlotte Visitors’ Bureau in the United States created a "Pitch In. Take Out." section on it Web site, they organised by restaurants, craft beer, bars and pubs, and wine and vineyard.
The Charlotte Visitors’ Bureau in the United States created a "Pitch In. Take Out." section on it Web site, they organised by restaurants, craft beer, bars and pubs, and wine and vineyard.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. state of North Carolina, the Charlotte Visitors’ Bureau created a version of Gannett’s concept with Pitch In. Take Out.

  • Narrowly on Eat & Drink, they organise by restaurants, craft beer, bars and pubs, and wine and vineyard.
  • They then organise these venues by neighbourhood. 

In Germany, local publishers are working on a variety of programmes: 

  • “GemeinsamStark” is the name of the NWZ campaign that collects offers from companies, associations, and people to connect during the lockdown. 
  • Rheinische Post offers for its online portal RP Online free advice for customers interested in online marketing. 
  • The initiative #OSstickstogether by Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung (NOZ) has within a couple of days 300 submissions representing a broad span of the local businesses: from restaurants delivering food to dance schools offering online courses. 
  • Schwäbische Media Digital relies on a fres,h newly created platform for neighbour help and local trade offerings. Their motto, “Schwäbische brings together,” is an interactive marketplace and network portal for citizens, companies, and helpers.  
  • From the Südkurier, the regional news media company in the region of the Bodensee, a similar initiative called #SKconnects (#SKverbindet) enables regional companies to publish a free announcement to reach customers. 
  • Der Tagesspiegel has collected for diverse shops a voucher/coupon site

In the United Kingdom, Gannett sister publisher Newsquest is offering all independently owned businesses a free advertisement to help them spread their “shop local” message to customers. 

Meanwhile, India just yesterday implemented a 21-day lockdown that includes e-commerce establishments and restaurant delivery. Home deliveries are being obstructed, including Amazon. The gap today is that nobody is aware of how to make home delivery work that is supported by the government. This is another hub opportunity for publishers, especially on a local level.

Options for you to consider

I figure there is a range of ways you can address this idea as a publisher: 

  • Option 1: At minimum, a static Web page that smartly organises local information. 
  • Option 2: A databased microsite that more smartly and finely organises information. 
  • Option 3: A microsite, like Gannett’s Support Local, with action-based tools like “add your own business” and buy a gift card. 
  • Option 4: Of course, you could somehow mimic what UberEats, Doordash, and others do. You could create a hyper-local delivery network. 

You can imagine the downsides of Option 4: Apps, delivery personnel, back-end technology. It would be a bold move. And this could all be unnecessary in eight weeks. Or restaurants will naturally migrate to the UberEats and Doordashes of the world.   

Gannett has created a Support Local microsite, with tools like “add your own business” and buy a gift card.
Gannett has created a Support Local microsite, with tools like “add your own business” and buy a gift card.

My vision can only view local news publishers as bridges from yesterday’s reality to today’s reality. Perhaps there are smarter people than me who can look to tomorrow and imagine Option 4. 

The only local entities that have the immediate relationships and vision for this are the local newspaper, local government, and perhaps local chambers of commerce.

Is the juice worth the squeeze?

About Earl J. Wilkinson