How to Thrive in a Pandemic: Dawn Gribble of Virtual Solutions Offers Tips for Restaurant Success

A discount offer is more likely to generate interest and conversions when it's rare, Gribble says, because customers view it as a bargain they can't miss.

Politics has pushed COVID-19 coverage further down in the headlines in recent weeks, but the coronavirus hasn’t gone away—and many medical experts predict the pandemic will worsen as temperatures drop in the fall and into the winter. Pizzerias have weathered the storm better than most in the restaurant industry so far, but operators must continue to think ahead and plan for a challenging winter. In this new series of articles, we turned to leading pizzeria operators, chain executives and consultants to get their advice on how operators can keep their doors open through the remainder of 2020 and beyond.

Dawn Gribble, CEO, Virtual Solutions
Dawn Gribble of UK-based Virtual Solutions has more than 20 years of experience with F&B and hospitality brands, working with award-winning boutique hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, international food brands, celebrity chefs and influencers. A family-run business, Virtual Solutions provides clients and customers with exceptional digital experiences across every touch-point and has been growing and evolving with digital techniques and trends since 2005.

PMQ: Assuming the coronavirus actually worsens in the fall, what’s the no. 1 smartest move a pizzeria owner can make to keep their doors open?

Dawn Gribble, CEO of UK-based Virtual Solutions

Gribble: Get online if you haven’t already. We’ve seen a lot of restaurants adopting delivery, curbside collection and contactless takeaway. Whether they’re using their own website and ordering service or appearing on a third-party ordering app, customers are able to place orders and spend with the restaurant. But it’s not enough to just be online or listed on a third-party app. To really get ahead, pizzeria owners need to make use of social media. Facebook and Instagram are especially useful for sharing information (opening/closing times, featured dishes, special offers, etc.) These channels, along with Twitter and messaging services, also provide another level of customer experience and options for customers to place orders.

Just remember the golden rule: If you think your content (photos, text, videos, etc.) is “good enough,” then it’s already failed and should not be posted. If you’re not excited by the content, why should your customers be?

Related: Grimaldi’s CEO offers tips to help pizzerias thrive in the COVID-19 pandemic

PMQ: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve seen restaurant operators make during the pandemic?

Gribble: Stopping their marketing and advertising to save money. Even if you’ve had to shut your doors, it’s not a smart move to completely stop marketing and updating your social media channels. If you aren’t visible online, when there’s an increasing number of people using the channels due to self-isolation and lockdown, they will forget you’re there.

It’s vital to keep content flowing, whether it’s recipe ideas, video clips (such as dough-spinning, prepping toppings, behind-the-scenes, or even a short look at cheese bubbling on a cooking pizza), trivia or images, you’ve got to keep your business in the eyes of the public if you even want to stand a chance at getting their attention when you’re open again. I think Henry Ford said it best: “The man who stops advertising to save money is like the man who stops the clock to save time.”

PMQ: Assuming the U.S. unemployment rate don’t improve significantly by the fall, how can pizzeria owners create a sense of value for their cash-strapped customers?

Gribble: Don’t rush to reduce prices or flood your page with special offers. If every post or piece of content your customers see on their social feeds is money off, they’re not going to be interested in paying full price for anything. Instead, look at your dishes and the ingredients you’re using. What makes them better than your competitors? What makes them better than buying a frozen pizza? Give your customers compelling reasons why your pizza is the best.

This also means using emotive and descriptive language. Don’t say “it tastes good”—think of more creative ways to describe your dish. Talk about the smooth melt of the cheese, the fresh, tangy tomatoes, the hint of herbs that blends with the sauce to create depth. Make your customers hungry!

Related: Restaurant survival tips from Richard Bailey of Client by Design

Create package deals that are themed. For example: Romantic Dinner for Two could include a large pizza, tear-and-share garlic bread and a nice drink (even a bottle of wine if you sell alcohol).

There’s nothing wrong with posting the occasional sales post or offer, but it must be occasional. It’s more likely to generate interest and conversions when it’s rare, because customers look at it and see a bargain they can’t miss, whereas if you’re posting sales constantly, they look at the post and think, “Meh, I’ll get the next discount.”

PMQ: Any other tips?

Gribble: Give some serious consideration to your opening times. If you’re in an area that sees a lot of breakfast and lunchtime trade, you should look at feeding customers throughout the day. For example: breakfast pizzas, dessert pizzas and selling individual slices/by the slice orders. This could even be combined into a Meal Deal type offer—a couple of slices of pizza, a drink and a side dish or small dessert.

Focus on healthier ingredients for the whole family and make a feature of how you’re making these changes to help support people who are losing weight but still want to eat well.

Above all, be creative and don’t panic.