Jan 24, 2024 - Business

How some restaurants won COVID

Illustration of a large neon restaurant sign showing a trophy symbol and the word "EATS"

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The COVID-19 pandemic wasn't all doom and gloom for restaurants. Through ingenuity, savvy and smart pivots, some managed to find success.

  • "The restaurants that embraced [change], especially early on, tended to do better than those that didn't," Hudson Riehle, vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association, tells Axios.

The big picture: Victory in the COVID era hinged on restaurants' willingness to make strategic changes, Riehle says.

  • Examples: Adding takeout and delivery, pairing down menus, limiting schedules, finding new revenue streams (like wine and supper clubs) and embracing new laws allowing for cocktails to-go and streetside dining.

Case study: Before the pandemic, Richmond, Virginia restaurateur Patrick Stamper's two-year-old burger joint, Beauvine Burger Concept, was doing fine, but business wasn't remarkable.

  • That changed in March 2020 when he and business partner Kelsey Aiken set in motion changes that helped them "win COVID," as Stamper tells Axios.
  • Immediately pivoting to takeout and delivery has put them in an even stronger business position than ever: Their sales are more than double what they were pre-COVID.

Flashback: In mid-March 2020, Beauvine transitioned from a full-service, dine-in restaurant to a major takeout and delivery operation.

  • They added phone lines and turned the dining room into a food packaging assembly line. Servers and bartenders became phone operators and delivery drivers — as did the co-owners.
  • They printed up flyers and stuffed them under neighbors' doors.
  • They hung a massive "OPEN FOR DELIVERY" banner on the restaurant, posted constantly on social media, and created a guerrilla marketing campaign comparing their cheaper delivery cost to that of third-party platforms like Grubhub.
Beauvine Burger Concept in Richmond found success by leaning into takeout early on. Photo: Courtesy of Beauvine Burger Concept

The result: The first Friday that dining rooms were shuttered by Virginia mandate, Beauvine set a sales record.

  • They broke it the next day, then the Friday after that, and so on for the first few months of the pandemic.

By the numbers: Beauvine and other restaurants that made similar changes are now benefiting from consumer behavior shifts that have stuck around post-pandemic.

  • Before COVID, off-premise dining accounted for 61% of all restaurant traffic, per the National Restaurant Association.
  • During the pandemic, it was around 90%, and today it's 74% — good news for takeout-heavy joints.

The bottom line: Stamper credits their success to the skeleton staff that stayed on — and not having any pride about the former business model to hold them back.

  • "We didn't hesitate. We didn't stop," he said.
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