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Why Digital Media is More Important Than Ever for the Struggling Restaurant Industry

The restaurant industry has a wild and difficult ride through the COVID-19 crisis. Danny Klein, Director of Digital Content for QSR Magazine & FSR Magazine, discusses how the media fits into that picture.

COVID-19 has impacted virtually every business in every industry, including the media world. Whether it is established brands or emerging franchisors, every brand is having to pivot their messaging to meet consumers where they are. Now, digital media is more important than ever as the restaurant industry searches for relevant, up-to-date information in such a strange and uncertain time. 

1851 publisher Nick Powills and franchise lawyer Charles Internicola spoke with Danny Klein, Director of Digital Content for QSR Magazine & FSR Magazine about how COVID-19 has affected the media landscape, the franchise space and the restaurant industry as a whole. 

For franchisors, franchisees and any business leaders struggling to adjust to the new normal, these insights can offer major benefits.

The Restaurant Industry

In the media, there is shared hope that the restaurant industry has made it through the worst of this crisis. This optimism comes from an increase in sales numbers due to an increase in third-party delivery, and from the slow reopening process we’re seeing in states across the country. The restaurant industry has taken a lot of steps to become more efficient — this is a survivor's field now. 

Depending on the brand, however, the light at the end of the tunnel may not be so bright. There is still a major element of uncertainty in terms of the success of reopening. Therefore, there is still a lot of tiptoeing when it comes to how the media celebrates the end of this crisis. 

When it comes to delivery, the first-party method is likely on the rise as consumers demand safer, more controlled services. For restaurants, this can be a good thing, as first-party delivery is much more profitable. Many restaurants are adding first-party delivery services for the first time. In addition, curbside delivery may be the most powerful tool for restaurant owners coming out of this crisis. 

Overall, many restaurant owners are optimistic that when dine-in returns, their take-out business will stay stronger than before. 

The Media Landscape

For many industries, the media is a major part of the story. This crisis isn’t just impacting the businesses that trade publications are reporting on — it is impacting the media landscape as well. For ad-revenue-generating businesses, this crisis has resulted in a very difficult situation as well. 

The media landscape is pivoting dramatically, adjusting all stories to be more relevant to COVID-19. The popularity of digital content is also increasing. For example, QSR and FSR Magazine are both seeing an increase in digital engagement as users look for more information. The online platforms are seeing more traffic than ever before, especially on FSR Magazine, where the industry is struggling tremendously.

There may be pressure for media outlets, particularly trade publications, that are reporting on struggling industries. The media has a lot of power when it comes to the future of these brands. It is important for writers to stay up-to-date on relevant information, especially as things change so quickly, in order to provide the most valuable content. Brands are looking to the media for stories, best practices and insight.

This crisis is actually creating a more vulnerable, deeper storytelling process for many media publications. Empathy and compassion are more important than ever. 

The Missed Story of the Independent Restaurant

Six months from now, the story of what happened to the independent restaurant owner may take a backseat to reopening success stories. The overall devastation to the single-unit operator, whether it be franchised or otherwise, will likely be the story six months from now that publications are all trying to catch up on. 

Although there will likely be a ton of opportunity for major chains, with landlords eager for bringing in drive-thru operations, it is important to remember where that available real estate came from. Independently-owned restaurants increase the quality of the overall industry as they drive chains to be more innovative and responsible, so it will be a real tragedy if independent restaurants become a thing of the past. 

Many were saying that this would accelerate the process of getting bad, uninventive restaurants out of the industry. Still, it is important to keep in mind that many small, mom-and-pop restaurants are happy operating without technology and are therefore going to close unfairly because of this crisis. 

When it comes to the PPP loans, the disaster of major chains taking so much of the funds — even if they did give it back — is another insight into how the independent restaurant is treated unfairly. Now, the second round of funding is coming too late for many restaurant owners. 

The Disconnect in the Franchise Industry

The franchise industry is still misunderstood in the foodservice space. Many franchisees operate essentially like mom-and-pop, small business owners, with corporate support on the backend. 

Moving forward, we’ll see how different segments emerge from this crisis. The increased availability of real estate after 2008 unfortunately led to a lot of operators growing when they weren’t ready. Hopefully, COVID-19 has the reverse effect, in which the operators growing are more prepared than ever.