For the past two months, life’s main course has been infused by the gentle flavour of ‘apocalypse’ with a side of ‘what the hell is going on.’ My personal remedy to the abject confusion has involved obsessively reading about what happens to humanity during major crises, from the Spanish flu to the Global Financial Crisis and the fall of the Roman Empire.

We tend to do this as humans—look to the past for clarity, for data sets, for some kind of roadmap out of the chaos. But, as I’ve seen with our clients over the past couple of months, you can never really map a tidy path out of a global pandemic; at a certain point, you kind of have to do the best with the knowledge and resources that are available to you, and then jump.

Which brings us to today’s big question: How have those jumps been faring so far? And with the likelihood that things will not completely return to ‘normal,’ what should we be planning for next? With restrictions easing and restaurants already re-opening to small groups, we’ve been working with our clients to turn their plans into clear and friendly roadmaps for eager diners. And in the spirit of being in this together, we wanted to share a few of those insights, as well as the welcome surprises we discovered in the process.

First comes the shock, then comes....?

By mid-March, the sudden (and often conflicting) wave of announcements left many of us in a state of shock. It had something to do with being treated to the complete tasting platter of uncertainty: emotional, economic, existential. For business owners, it meant having to navigate extreme uncertainty at time-lapse speed. As it happened, Matt Swieboda —one of the formidable minds behind Sydney bars Love Tilly Devine, Dear Sainte Eloise, and Ragazzi—knew that all bets were off, and yet the stakes remained higher than ever.

“We knew that a lot of what we had built over the past several years was now in jeopardy,” he explains. “But our first priority was really to bring enough revenue through the door to continue paying our full time and visa-holding staff. That meant, decisions needed to be made quickly with a lot less diligence than what we are used to.”

For Dear Sainte Eloise, that meant pulling together produce boxes in an effort to keep people fed, their staff on the payroll, and to ensure small scale farmers weren’t suddenly left without their vital restaurant supply chains. And beyond those decisions—that also came in the form of a drive-through wine pick up at Tilly, and fresh pasta packs at Ragazzi—everything had to be communicated with customers in real-time. Exhausting, but necessary stuff. That’s where we came in (oh, hey!), by turning those new products into a responsive comms plan in a rapidly shifting landscape. It was our job to relieve some of the pressure by assessing and tweaking messaging daily, shooting new products as they landed, creating wholesome at-home content to avoid the constant SELL SELL SELL, as well as acting as a kind of social hotline to equally-as-overwhelmed customers.

In crisis management, they call this the stage of risk assessment and response. In more human terms, we call this taking a deep breath, making a collective decision with the team, then letting customers know exactly what is going on. The sooner, the better. As my boss, Buffet Co-Director Sophie McComas-Williams wrote on March 16: “This is not the time to go dark on your audience, this is a time to connect.”

Pulling off the almighty pivot

In times of immense upheaval, acting swiftly and communicating with clarity and empathy is something we expect from brands, from politicians, and from our bosses—that is to say, from anyone in a position of leadership. Great! But what next? We pivot. And what exactly is a pivot? To ‘pivot’ is a buzzword used a lot in the startup world, usually because these kinds of businesses operate in volatile environments and, as such, need to remain responsive. You throw down this wild card when you’ve found your business model or product is no longer working—say, due to a contagious virus that has traveled the world flipping tables left, right and centre.

Globally, there has been much talk of hospitality facing an existential crisis. As an industry at the frontline of this economic downturn, we’ve had no choice but to do things that would have previously been unimaginable (ie. premium outfits setting up Uber Eats at the risk of damaging their brands). We had to do this to survive but also to provide value to the communities we serve. To paraphrase Twitter’s advice to brands, it will never be a good time to capitalise on a health crisis nor to use fear as an opportunity to sell people things they don’t need. But it is a time to think about your role as a business in the wider-community and to realise your responsibility to the people living in it.

Over at Archie Rose, founder Will Edwards made a tough but necessary decision within days of the first round of lockdown announcements: to help bolster a nationwide shortage, he’d divert the bulk of their resources away from making spirits and serving cocktails behind their award-winning bar, to producing hand sanitiser. It meant being able to immediately redeploy their 15-strong bar team who were affected by the government’s order for bars to shut on March 20.

As Archie’s Head of Marketing Victoria Tulloch tells me, the decision had a lot to do with assessing the tools the business had at its disposal—including the required federal licenses, dangerous goods approvals, access to raw materials, and expertise, not to mention a team of willing and suddenly freed-up bar staff —before throwing everything they had at this new and unfamiliar challenge.

“We held daily morning and afternoon progress meetings, we hit the phones to suppliers to secure packaging which was incredibly challenging. After that, we got an in-house label created, the production teams reviewed distillate availability and re-worked production schedules, and by 23 March after only a couple of days working around the clock, we pre-released our first 7500 bottles,” she says.

Those sold out in less than an hour. Almost two months on, Archie Rose has now produced upwards of 100,000 bottles, hiring an extra 14 friendly hospo faces to the bottling line. But what about the comms? Involving your customers at every turn is a lot of work, but it is important work. Let’s not forget that they are not only the people who make it worth it, they are the ones who make it possible to exist in the first place. The commanding marketing team at Archie Rose knew this. And so from day one until now, we worked closely with them to plan and produce a journal issue, multiple eDMs, and last-minute shoots. On top of that, there was the fielding of thousands of customer DMs, social updates, and regular programing across all of their owned social channels.

I wrote their quarterly report for this period, and it made one thing immediately clear: marketing during a crisis works. This isn't just my opinion, either. There have been numerous studies made over the past 100 years that say the same.  When it came to digging into Archie Rose’s performance results, they were up on almost every metric, from followers to engagement. The numbers don’t lie. But there were also some pretty cute notes left in their comments.

Take time to understand how your customers' needs have changed

Historically, crises mark the rare moments in time when power flattens and shifts, behaviours change and new ways of existing emerge. Even as we welcome the latest round of restriction easing, it’s important to ask: do my customers want me to keep offering these unexpected yet useful products? We mean that literally: ask them what’s going to keep them coming back next time they drop by to pick up dinner. You may be surprised at what you find. 

For Manny Sakellarakis of Brisbane’s 1889 Enoteca it meant reconsidering something that was previously unthinkable; as it happens, a common theme during crazy times like these. “From talking to a few of our peers, I don’t think restaurants in our higher-end dining space really ever saw ourselves as fitting into the takeaway game or price point. I’m now happy to say, we were wrong. Our customers love it, and one even said the other day: ‘I love your restaurant and food and I want to eat it more often but I sometimes don’t feel like getting dressed up and coming in after a long day or when I have an early start.’ Crazy to say it, but I think this is definitely going to be part of the new 1889 Enoteca.”

Another silver lining came with the launch of Vino a Casa, a natural wine delivery service that co-founders Manny and Dan Clark (who imports many cult minimal intervention Italian wines under the label Addley Clark, alongside his work with 1889 Enoteca), had previously kept pushing to the bottom of the list. “It forced us to finally execute an idea that we had been talking about for years,” says Manny. “Now we have multiple wine offerings, our own branded packaging, and 500 fresh white cartons on the way. In many ways, we were forced into it by circumstance but it really has turned out to be such an unexpected positive.”

Final words? I got some for you.

The other day over Slack, Buffet Content Editor Molly Urquhart wrote, “I’m not sure things will be the same when this is all over.” She’s not alone. I keep coming across variations on this sentiment from people from all walks of life. The subtext being: remain optimistic, but remain prepared as we head into this next phase. Based on our Prime Minister’s advice, some degree of social distancing will be required for months to come. And with that in mind, consider those newfound tweaks to your business when it comes to fleshing out a long term plan, à la 1889 Enoteca.

Remember too, it’s safe to assume your community wants to continue supporting you should they have the means to do so. The 13.4 million people hashtagging #supportlocal says so. But so does the hours we spend on our clients’ accounts each week, communicating with diners who not only like, but LOVE, your work. 

Really, when it comes down to it, these have been tough times for us all, and that solidarity, that knowing we’re all in this together, makes the loss and uncertainty slightly less nightmarish. Our community is coming together in ways that may help us imagine a more local, more connected future. At least, that’s what the closet optimist in me hopes.

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