Restaurants and Social Movements: When Should You Speak Up?
Whether due to various controversies surrounding the pandemic, social justice issues, or something else, restaurants have become the frontlines of many social movements. In fact, restaurants and social movements have often gone hand-in-hand, from sit-in protests to Jim Crow laws, to the LGBT community standing together against intolerance at the Stonewall Inn. It’s easy to think that these are especially divisive times, that today we’re somehow more attuned to the various inequities of the world around us. However, the primary difference between now and then is the efficiency by which we connect and communicate, a modern conceit realized by smart technologies. As a restaurateur, whatever choice you make, the world sees you. So when is the right time to speak up or stay quiet?
Superficially, restaurants may seem like apolitical neutral zones, places for respite and warmth but food and companionship are integral to society, so restaurants are community hubs. Through building community, the relationship between restaurants and social movements is at its most obvious, and here is the easiest step in determining your next move: listening. Listening is a powerful tool, both in processing difficult conversations or in having them.
First off, follow the news. Listen and read about the world around you to gauge where you personally might stand. Beyond that, though, an effective listener is attentive to the details, setting ego aside to focus on the bigger picture. Is what you hear from your staff the same that you hear from your customers? Is there room for nuance? Is there a way that you can helpfully or productively engage? Is the subject of conversation recurring or a flash in the pan? Carefully measuring out these variables is an integral first step in establishing your future messaging.
Having considered your options, now it’s time to decide your next steps. Are you making signs or posting to social media? Are you prepared for whatever outcome you might face? For example, if you’ve made a controversial statement, are you ready to face the public backlash? Are you willing to engage in a dialogue with your customers either in person or online? Will you face the possibility that your stance —whether it’s your political affiliation or position— can impact your sales? It’s safe to say that most people are on social media, meaning that irrespective of your audience, you have the potential to reach a lot of potential customers.
Consider the Cost
Unquestionably, there is a cost between restaurants and social movements, regardless of the perspective you take. There is a cost for not saying something if it’s a big enough cultural event, and there is a cost for responding. But ultimately, this boils down to your legacy: how do you want to be remembered? For example, it’s simple to write a social media post or donate to a cause of your choice. Those costs are calculable. But what’s the long term cost for your action or inaction? And more importantly, what is the cost of your response?
Consider the following when assessing your risk:
- Cause marketing works. Studies indicate that customers are 87% likely to follow a brand that supports a good cause.
- What can you do if you are review bombed? Bad reviews can decrease your revenue by 5-9%, but you can get ahead of these problems by listening and reacting accordingly.
- You could become the subject of scrutiny, from government attention to public outrage.
- The bigger the controversy, the more likely it that you may suffer a loss to your reputation. A hit to your reputation can lead to a long term struggle to regain public trust.
For some restaurateurs, messaging is an integral part of encouraging the community. Whether it’s supporting veterans or social justice movements, it’s important enough to take a stand and let your community know where you are. While that may have the potential to discourage some customers, it’s primarily hyperbolic reactions that are the most costly. For example, there are consequences for publicly denigrating marginalized communities and one that has had real-world repercussions.
While you can calculate the cost or reasonably assess the risk for your socially-conscious initiatives, sincerity is not measurable. No matter your cause, if your message is perceived as insincere, you will shoot yourself in the foot. The main idea behind sincerity is building customer loyalty: that they trust your intentions and give you the benefit of the doubt. In presenting something insincere, you run the risk of damaging your reputation.
Don’t let your message become a joke or something that trivializes the message in choosing to speak out. Surveys indicate that younger generations care about causes and will back a brand based on their ideological perspectives. They listen to your message, and they look for people like them. If the perception is insincerity, then it reads as exploitative.
Now Stay Sincere
Guests are skeptical of targeted advertising through algorithms and geo-fencing. The best way to prove your values is to let them bear out through time and reputation. Stick to your guns and keep the same message throughout. Again, inconsistency will lead to more backlash than whatever you’ve settled on.
It’s difficult to imagine showing kindness in the face of aggressive guests, especially when their anger is targeted at safety protocols. Still, a conventional part of any customer-facing position is to be polite whenever possible. Here we circle back to cost and to listen. If you have advocated for something, a movement, a position, or cause, take the time to follow up with your guests and consider their negative feedback as well. Consider and re-evaluate your position after again weighing the cost.
For example, if you hang a symbol or sign that upsets a guest, take the time to explain why. If you are sincere in your message, you may have a long road ahead in gaining hearts and minds, but patience is a virtue that many lack. If guests feel ostracized, then you have lost their trust and loyalty. Taking the time to consider alternate perspectives while kindly and patiently explaining your own cultivates a safe space for discussion.
Keep in mind that there is a time and place to feed the proverbial trolls. You can’t please everyone, but if you show kindness and patience, you have a higher opportunity of building rapport and community. You can’t control the actions of others, though, so know your limits.
Innovative cause marketing campaigns have paid off big, especially when that message is combined with consistency and sincerity. No matter your age, guests are invested in what your restaurant stands for. The relationship between the restaurant and social movements is a long-term investment that breeds loyalty, return visitors and a community that your guests will continue to support.
Looking to learn more about crafting your brand? We have you covered. Read “Restaurant Branding Strategy: Crafting an Identity” to determine your best path to your public image.
About the Author
Syd was a content marketing specialist, which are fancy words for writing pretty to tell a good story. He likes writing things about food, drinks, and music. He’s a musician himself, a father of two, and loves his wife a whole lot. At home, like the rest of the world right now, he’s finding time to play with the kids and create art.