Pandemic to Possibilities: a History of the Restaurant Scene from 2019 to Now
In the last few years, growth strategy in marketing independent restaurants has been a roller coaster ride of complexities, swift changes and even dangers. Restaurant groups and owners have seen their growth strategies turned upside down, again and again. And yet, many of them persevere to bring their passion for food to table (or takeout containers).
It’s a lesson for all of us in business that when you must adapt to change, you can. We’ll deep-dive into the vibrant restaurant scene in Cincinnati, OH for specific examples to inspire those in any industry.
2019 Growth Strategy in Marketing (The Old Days)
In 2019, independent restaurants could be classified by well-established categories, like:
- Fast casual
- Food truck
- Family style
- Casual dining
- Contemporary casual
- Fine dining
If a new restaurant fell into one of these categories, the growth strategy in marketing would be defined at the outset. For instance, fine dining offers a culinary experience at the highest price point, which includes impeccable service from a full staff and an impressive ambiance. Reservations are required, and there is certainly no carry out. Marketing strategies for new restaurants often revolve around concepts of exclusivity, with an invite-only grand opening.
In Cincinnati, the 2019 opening of the restaurant Branch exemplifies this approach. The restaurant’s sign was so small, passing motorists could never hope to read it. The only outside clue that a restaurant had opened in the formerly-abandoned bank building was a series of bright-yellow bird silhouettes in the windows. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported at the time:
“Branch is the most ‘serious’ restaurant to open this year, with Shoshannah Anderson in the kitchen of an old bank on the corner of Woodburn and Montgomery. The menu is adventurous and seasonal, and there’s a secret bar in the basement.”
Contrast fine dining with a buffet restaurant. Customer throughput and minimal front-of-house staff are keys to success. Get as many customers in, fed and out as possible from open to close. Meeting this goal often involves mass marketing to a broad audience. The only aspect buffets have in common with fine dining? No carry out.
In 2019, there were forays into online food ordering as a trend, but most independent restaurants weren’t focused on digital. Less than 20% of restaurants offered online ordering, and only 26% of delivery orders were made online.
2020 Growth Strategy in Marketing (Making it Work)
We all remember spring 2020 when the pandemic first affected the United States with lockdowns and uncertainty. It was a time of determining who was “essential” and who needed to stay home. Many restaurants didn’t make it through the year, including these 25 Cincinnati favorites.
But the Boca Restaurant Group’s growth strategy in marketing new concepts was a striking exception. Chef David Falk spent years assembling his crack team of chefs and front-of-house experts for his fine dining empire. Cincinnati restaurants included:
- Boca: modern French/American cuisine
- Sotto: upscale Italian cuisine
- Nada: modern Mexican cuisine (with locations in additional mid-sized cities)
When dining rooms shut down in 2020, Boca Restaurants were quick to pivot and offer carry-out. Many restaurants did. For many customers, eating fine-dining carry-out was a surreal experience—and not all fine dining menu options can survive a 20-minute car ride home in a paper bag.
Plus, what to do with all those valued front-of-house employees? Laying them off would scatter them to the winds, and assembling a new team in better times would be a difficult task.
The Boca Restaurant Group worked towards solving both of these problems with its lightning-fast implementation of “take & bake” delivery service Domo. Chef Falk explains the concept in this hastily-filmed video (mild language warning).
In the beginning, Domo was available only within a certain radius of its new commercial kitchen. Weekly menus were emailed out to Boca’s existing subscriber list and delivery time slots sold out in minutes. Over time, the process became more customer-friendly and less limited. As of 2022, Domo is a solid pillar of Boca Restaurant Group, filling a niche not served by its restaurants.
Today, Nada locations continue to offer online ordering through a well-designed portal found on the website. Customers picking up to-go orders are likely considered less disruptive to the dining experience of these contemporary casual restaurant locations. Boca and Sotto have returned to dine-in only, and reservations are difficult to come by.
2021 Growth Strategy in Marketing (Finding Normalcy)
2021 sees the re-opening of various elements of the economy in stages (depending on state-wide or local mandates). As mandates eased and/or went away, independent restaurants were tasked with answering questions like:
- Do we open for indoor dining or stay outdoor-only?
- Should we move the tables closer together or keep losing revenue?
- Should we keep all this Plexiglass we spent so much money on?
- Are QR code menus the way of the future, or do we need to print them again?
- Do we require masks to enter or not?
- Can we discontinue carry-out yet, or do we need the revenue?
Apart from safety concerns, inflation caused restaurant costs to soar. As reported in The Hill in November 2021:
“’It’s not like prices are going up a little bit. Some products are 50 percent higher than usual. It’s bananas,’ said Regina Simmons, owner of Tacotarian, a Las Vegas-based vegan Mexican restaurant.”
Taste of Belgium decided to respond to rising costs with a “Supply Chain Surcharge” of 8.5% on every check. Other restaurants simply raised prices… or went out of business.
It was still a year of optimism for the Cincinnati restaurant scene, with dozens of new restaurants opening. CityBeat identified “The 20 Hottest New Restaurants in Cincinnati Right Now,” with casual, trendy comfort food as the common theme for most new independent restaurants. Pig Candy BBQ is one such example, with an eclectic menu including all the BBQ staples, plus gluten-free waffles, vegan goetta and sweet potato cauliflower mash.
2022 Growth Strategy in Marketing (Addressing Key Challenges)
In 2022, restrictions are lifted, and every-day life looks more similar to 2019 than to 2020. Below the surface, though, are core changes that affect growth strategy in marketing any kind of restaurant. Independent restaurants can’t just go back to how they did things in 2019 and expect success.
2022 Key Challenge 1: Growth Strategy in Marketing Independent Restaurants
Labor is the first key challenge to address. Independent restaurants are increasingly suffering from a reduced labor force. Seven out of 10 restaurants report not being able to hire enough staff to meet customer demand.
Some restaurants cope with this challenge by opening fewer days—either through planning or through last-minute necessity. Carl’s Deli, a neighborhood favorite, uses its social media accounts to update customers on frequent changes in opening hours (and to beg for applicants to its open positions).
Some restaurants respond to labor shortages by eliminating services they may have offered during the pandemic. Dear Restaurant and Butchery doesn’t promote carry-out publicly. If a customer calls the restaurant, it might or might not offer carry-out, based on staffing for the evening. Alfio’s Buon Cibo offers online ordering, but has been known to cancel a customer’s order last-minute if staffing doesn’t allow both dine-in and carry-out service.
2022 Key Challenge 2: Growth Strategy in Marketing Independent Restaurants
Changes in customer behavior is another challenge. Over the last three years, customers have grown used to a wide variety of carry-out and delivery and an acceleration of the trend towards casual dress and atmosphere. Also, word-of-mouth networks aren’t working like they used to (remember that friend who used to tell you about all the new restaurants you have to try? That doesn’t happen as often in 2022).
Son of a Butcher Steakhouse (S.O.B.) opened in March 2022, luring diners in with the promise of a can’t-miss experience:
“The era of a stuffy steakhouse has now evolved into something magical. From the founders of award-winning Agave & Rye, who have been credited with accolades such as ‘Top 5 Hottest Brands 2021’ from NRN, as well as ‘Top 20 NEXT-GEN Brands 2021’ from FSR Magazine, we are excited to present to you, S.O.B. (Son of a Butcher). S.O.B. offers everything desirable in a top steakhouse without the white tablecloths, pretentious service and boring atmosphere. Our steakhouse has something for everyone, including USDA Prime cuts, Wagyu, Caviar, Shaved Truffles and Gold Leaf options as well as Fresh Seafood, Scratch Pasta, and memorable desserts.”
The restaurant has an aggressive social media presence, bringing the menu and environment alive with pictures and video. It also earns rave reviews from members of groups like Chowdown Cincinnati. S.O.B. has positioned itself as a fine dining restaurant that welcomes customers’ casual attitudes (without caving into carry-out).
What about Branch from our 2019 example? We’re glad to say it has adapted with the times and is thriving. Outside, the restaurant now features both a large banner and sandwich board sign bearing its name. The look is not as elegant, but it certainly gets the word out.
For more on growth strategy in marketing, check out our “Competitor Analysis Template for the Food Industry” or our Growth Strategy resources. And Subscribe to our Newsletter for the latest news.