In the wake of COVID-19, pivoting has taken on a whole new meaning, and few restaurants represent success in this “new normal” like Bywater in Warren, RI. Upserve has been following co-owner Katie O’Donnell in the last few months to get a pulse check on how Bywater is running tests and analyzing data to improve their margins, find new customers, and drive more revenue.

Bywater’s best practices for pivoting your restaurant in a pandemic:

  • Use email and social media to establish trust with your customers and guests. Strike a balance between personal and professional with your content and images. 
  • Keep your menu and offerings interesting: partner with other restaurants, chefs, and businesses to keep your customers ordering every week.
  • That said, don’t chase away high performing menu items. Guests will come back for their favorites. 
  • Pay attention to your Pmix (product mix) on a daily basis, people want different food on different days of the week.

Keep the Conversation Going with Guests

For their cozy, upscale casual restaurant, takeout was “a steep learning curve,” said Katie. “It was a lot of trial and error. The reason Online Ordering has taken off for us is we’ve tried to stay a step ahead.” When the pandemic hit they shut down 24 hours before it was mandated by the state. They briefly re-opened for takeout, but then determined it wasn’t safe for their staff and customers. “We weren’t sure it was in the best interest of the health and safety of our staff and guests, so we closed again,” she said. “Establishing that baseline of trust with our guests from the get-go was important.” 

Jen Lial Photography – Pre-pandemic plating at Bywater

While planning to re-open, they reached out to Upserve to set up free Online Ordering so they would be ready. Again, Katie reached out to her guests on social media: she shared the sanitary precautions they were taking, how they decided to only bring back local staff to reduce community spread, and what decisions had gone into the shutdowns. “The messaging felt consistent to our guests: personal, professional, no cries for help,” she said. “I haven’t shared how nervous or scared I am, I’m just sharing what’s happening with our family and what our specials are. I’m sharing that we’re in it together. I’ve tried to keep the social media pretty positive and not dwell a lot on how difficult things are. But I always try to add something heartfelt every month or so to really talk to people.” 

Building + Optimizing an Online Ordering Menu

When setting up their first online ordering menu, Katie looked at her Upserve Menu Magic Quadrant. “We went into Upserve HQ to pull our best sellers that we knew people would come back for,” she noted. “We set up our online menu so we could keep labor costs low, streamline our menu, and sell the crap out of everything to keep revenue high and costs down.”

As the pandemic dragged on, Katie kept an eye on her Pmix to make sure they were constantly iterating on their menu to improve revenues. She noticed that guests preferred to buy cocktail mixers at a lower price point vs. to-go cocktails which had a smaller revenue margin. “People have vodka in their house,” she said with a laugh. “They just want a creative mixer! So even though we can sell the whole cocktail, it made more sense financially to just sell the mixer. The profit margin is so different when you have to think about packaging.”

A portion of Bywater’s online ordering menu

She’s also constantly testing the order and organization of her Upserve Online Ordering menu. Bywater originally had their menu set up the way you would for dine in: Food, followed by drinks, followed by add-ons. But her hungry guests weren’t making it all the way down the menu past the food. So she ran some tests. Now, when guests access her Online Ordering menu, they are greeted by pantry items and books (setting the tone to open their mind for other purchases besides food). Next, you reach cocktails. “We realized we had to have three menu items there to make it look visually interesting. Our food menu doesn’t have photos but for drinks and dessert we NEEDED a visual component.” Bywater now has a part-time staff member just to take photos of menu items and assist with social media. Upserve recently found that customers with photos on their online ordering menus see on average, 60% higher revenues.

The next item on the menu is wine, and offerings there have also shifted based on data and analysis. They found that their lower-cost bottled wines, that could be easily acquired from the neighborhood wine store, were not as big of a draw as potentially higher-priced, more exclusive wines that they only have access to as restaurant owners. “We realized we could bring in cooler wine at a 100% markup and still move it at a pretty brisk pace.”

After scrolling through all that temptation, guests arrive at the food. “We run the Pmix in Upserve every night to see what’s selling and look at the graphs,” Katie said. “We refine the graph to just show the top five things and break it down, so I’m using the Upserve Menu Quadrant more than I ever used to.” 

Katie has found that they need to be more nimble because take out is different than dine-in in terms of attention span. “You get more direct feedback with to-go, especially with a pared down menu,” she said. “If you don’t have the thing they want, you won’t make the sale. They’ll click over to a different restaurant. You lose the sale in a direct way vs. dine-in, where they’re already seated at a table and they’ll just settle for something else on the menu.”

Katie and her staff are using Upserve analytics to take a hard look at who their regulars are, who the highest spenders are, and how to keep both engaged through a mix of hard data and anecdotal feedback. One insight she has uncovered is that they may be switching up their menu too quickly. “We keep underestimating how popular things will be,” she said. “Last week we took our fish and chips off the menu and we had a 40% drop in sales and non-stop calls about it. People want what they want! So we brought it back and sales were back up. If we were open for dine-in we’d never run a single menu item for this long.” 

No restaurant owner would choose to be in this predicament, but focusing purely on Online Ordering has shifted how Katie plans to run dine-in at Bywater going forward. “We’re so focused on changing it up, that we’ve overlooked the long-term audience for certain dishes or specials,” she said. “Now, only when sales start to drop organically do we take things off the menu.” 

Diversifying Revenue + Finding New Customers

Looking at models from restaurants like Canlis, Bywater put together a box of local produce, wine, and treats that could be tacked-on to a to-go order. They sold out of their first run and made $13,000 in the first week – all money that stayed in her small community of business owners. 

“The first CSA boxes were huge,” Katie said. “We let it be an organic social media-driven thing which was good because we reached our bandwidth in terms of what we could produce.” They quickly pivoted to special occasion boxes for Mother’s Day, which quickly sold out and generated press and buzz for the restaurant. Now, they’re formulating a subscription box service that would provide a curated box every month with different partners. 

There were lessons learned here too: Katie didn’t love the presentation or the profit margin on their first box. “I wasn’t as strategic as I could have been,” she said, “By the second, third, fourth box people were feeling like it was so valuable for the cost because I suddenly had the purchasing power to not pay market prices. I was able to negotiate with our vendor collaborators but also write huge checks to them, AND give more value to the end consumer.” Every partnership for this initiative is also an opportunity to reach more potential diners and guests, as each vendor will promote the box, and Bywater, to their social media audience.  

Katie suggests restaurants trying on this tactic focus on a theme for each box and then work around that theme to fill it. For their Father’s Day box, Bywater is going for a grilling theme. They’ll work with a local butcher to provide prime cuts of meat, packaged alongside classic Bywater sauces. ”What great wine goes with that? Is there a book about grilling that fits? It all builds around what we would do at Bywater,” she says, ideally making the boxes an extension of their dine-in experience. They also promote the boxes with social media components: a video from a local pasta maker, preparation suggestions for the vegetables, or even a live wine tasting on Instagram. “We’re trying to recreate normalcy but have fun with the fact that it’s not normal,” she said. If people want Bywater in their lives, but takeout gets boring, the boxes create a way to bring Bywater in peoples’ homes.”  

Jen Lial Photography – Katie serves guests pre-pandemic at Bywater.

Moving Slowly Toward Re-opening for Dine-in

Bywater is part of a small contingent of restaurants pushing back on re-opening restaurants in Rhode Island. They have considered a patio dining scenario without table service to keep social distancing in effect, but have yet to move forward with that plan. “As long as we’re still announcing how many people have died I don’t feel like my business needs to open for indoor dining,” Katie said. “We still need different ways to support the industry, but it feels like we’re in the minority. I just don’t know how much to get in front of it because it’s so political.”

As always, she came to her guests with a direct and thoughtful message on social media. “It was incredibly well-received, I got no pushback at all,” she said. “Our key guests want us to make the best decision.” 

They’ve also shifted their hours to accommodate online ordering demand. They are closed Monday and Tuesday, and serve up a comfort food menu on Wednesdays when they re-open for the week. “We’re not going crazy with the plating, things are a bit less fussy. We’re moving away from big entrees. We’ve learned to scale things down a bit and go for value in other ways versus size,” she said. “We’re trying to incorporate local seasonal produce, but it’s still focused on easy comfort foods people can take home. We’re just setting it apart with quality and preparation, trying to be as detail-oriented in the dining room as we are with our takeout.” 

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