A grilled steak and asparagus at LongHorn restaurant.

LongHorn Steakhouse

Darden's LongHorn Steakhouse topped the pack for local visibility.

COVID Restaurant Survival Starts with a Localized Digital Presence

There is significant room for improvement for restaurants’ local search results, a new study shows.

A challenge facing mall restaurants over the past decade was depressed foot traffic and the subsequent slide of the spontaneous occasion. The customer catching a movie and deciding to grab dinner, for instance. But this remained relative. "A malls" and prime real estate outperformed. Successful restaurants overcame ecommerce by becoming destinations in themselves. Yet whatever the challenges were, it was a softened traffic reality, not a zero-revenue one the likes of early COVID-19.

Yet there are parallels to the far broader crash. Restaurants today can no longer rely on their physical presence alone to attract customers. A lot of brands scrambled to address this on multiple fronts. Another Broken Egg asked managers to park in front (not a previous practice) to show potential customers business was happening. Eatertainment brand Pinstripes bought two wine barrels for each venue and placed them outside, with curbside pick-up signs on display. It also erected 15-foot-high “we’re open” flags to plant near the front door or put up in parking lots.

Still, though, these are necessary cues for the “passerby consumer,” of which there are fewer of today. Given the disruption in routines and workplaces, countless people plan every visit outside the house like it’s a vacation. This includes dining out.

According to November survey data from Revenue Management Solutions, two distinct consumer profiles have emerged during COVID—those who have dined out, and those who have not.

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Thirty-four percent of respondents said they had eaten in a restaurant in the past two weeks. Of those, 35 percent planned on dining out again “as soon as possible,” and 42 percent believed they’d do so “within 1–2 weeks.”

On the other side, 66 percent said they had not eaten in a restaurant in the past two weeks. And there, 25 percent planned to wait at least a month before dining out, and 45 percent did not expect to give it a shot until the pandemic cleared.

The takeaway is that restaurant goers are far more deliberate in decision-making than before. And so restaurants must tap digital avenues to feed those customer-to-business relationships so key to repeat visits that suddenly feel disconnected in a COVID climate.

At the Morgan Stanley Virtual Global Consumer & Retail Conference in early December, Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol said this of restaurant marketing: “2020 questioned traditional media vehicles as well as new media vehicles on what the right approach was to communicate.”

For the 2,700-unit fast casual, the answer was influenced by scale—the fact its 90-day active Rewards base ballooned from eight to 17 million members from March to December. And like a lot of restaurant chains, it pushed resources into digital media, such as a campaign featuring Washington Football Team star Chase Young that generated “well over a couple million views” through a Twitter video shared by other players and athletes.

“So a very efficient buy that had a great return that we'll probably do more of versus I think the guys did a great job of figuring out what television shows we want to be in and then the return associated with that,” Niccol said.

One thing stirring behind this dynamic, however, and something Chipotle alluded to as well, is the current consumer’s vision of loyalty compared to pre-virus days. There appears a more tangible sense of brand equity among COVID diners. They seek and stick to familiar brands that lead with trust. Zaxby’s CEO Zach McLeroy referred to this as a “new alliance of loyalty.”

“There’s a greater opportunity to impress those guests who may have never experienced a Zaxby’s and then build more loyalty with the guests you have,” McLeroy said. “And you do that by being more efficient, being more accurate, making sure the product is the best it can possibly be for the guest we have.”

When it comes to national chains, there is ample opportunity in this deviation. SOCi, a multi-location marketing platform, recently released its first “Top Restaurants in Localized Marketing Report” to examine how a localized digital strategy could address some of the pandemic’s consumer engagement hurdles.

It analyzed 50 top chains’ localized marketing performance, including overall presence across search, social, and top ratings and review sites like Google My Business, Facebook, and Yelp.

On a high level, the point was clear—there is a direct correlation to revenue growth and a localized marketing strategy, which can increase brands’ organic search rankings, drive customer loyalty and engagement, and increase foot traffic and sales.

Essentially, SOCi believes restaurants need to open lines of digital communication in order to reach and inspire customers. A guest dialing up Yelp before grabbing lunch is a different aim today. To start, they’re curious if the restaurant is even open. Secondly, if it offers dine in, carryout, delivery, etc. And then, the process of vetting begins. Are there comments on safety measures? Food quality? What did other guests have to say about servers wearing masks? Was curbside ready to go? Is the takeout process seamless? And so on and so on. No matter how you cut it, the factors for dining out encompass far more than tasty food.

When looking for information about restaurants, 97 percent of consumers conduct a local search, SOCi said, underscoring how critical it is that chains have a localized presence across all units.

Additionally, the company said, the majority are searching with non-branded terms, like “burrito,” “seafood,” or “restaurant near me” which yield local results like those found in Google 3-Packs. (What is a Google 3-Pack and how can you optimize for it?).

“This is key for brand awareness as consumers are turning to local pages, like Google My Business and Facebook store pages, for up-to-date information on hours, availability of indoor and outdoor seating, and changes in service,” SOCi said.

Restaurants can start with including accurate, timely information on local pages across these sites. It’s the first step toward trust. Also, these “non-branded” terms fit a third-party movement. People go to DoorDash or Uber Eats for a burger not a brand, generally. They often do the same across other channels. Yet as many restaurants attested throughout COVID, getting one visit often leads to another. People are apt today to develop a rotation of favorite and trusted brands as opposed to a consistent discovery process that suddenly carries a sense of personal risk. So getting that initial visit starts with getting noticed, and then the other keys—delivering a great experience through service, food, etc.—come into play.

“As the pandemic has continued, consumers have rallied to support businesses in their local communities. This includes brick-and-mortar locations that are part of chain brands who equally serve communities with unique identities and needs,” Monica Ho, CMO of SOCi, said in a statement. “CMOs must shift the way they think about the brand and focus on acting locally to survive in today’s market.”

A restaurant’s ability to appear in Google 3-Pack-dominated search results has become a battleground. Being able to communicate local offering and service differences, by market, is table stakes. “Gone are the days when every single location operates the same way,” SOCi said.

That was probably coming (to an extent) before COVID. It’s a solid reality these days. Market-by-market, everything from operating hours to capacity, can change by the hour. So keeping local page information current is vital.

Facebook launched a feature earlier this year called “Businesses Nearby” in an effort to allow consumers to see the latest posts from businesses within a certain geographic radius. “Outside of timely updates, local restaurants must also be aware of and attentive to local community questions, comments, and reviews that are now appearing more frequently across these local pages,” SOCi said. “Key areas that are becoming critical to not only the local customer experience but your business’s ability to appear in certain localized or local-intent based searches.”

The company ranked brands based on an audit of a sample of each chain’s locations and how they appeared across GMB, Facebook, and Yelp. Each brand was scored based on the ability to earn 100 possible points across 23 ranking factors.

In the top 50, the average score was only 46. Yet the top 10 scored in the 70 points and higher range—or nearly double the visibility and performance of the average restaurant.

Top 10 overall

  • 1. LongHorn: 88
  • 2. Texas Roadhouse: 88
  • 3. The Cheesecake Factory: 85
  • 4. Chick-fil-A: 78
  • 5. Red Lobster: 78
  • 6. Cracker Barrel: 75
  • 7. Olive Garden: 70
  • 8. Dave & Buster’s: 70
  • 9. Buffalo Wild Wings: 70
  • 10. Five Guys: 70

On 524-unit LongHorn, the brand’s same-store sales declined just 11.3 percent, year-over-year, in Q1, well ahead of sister brand Olive Garden's 21.9 percent decline. Average weekly sales came in at $60,247. CEO Gene Lee credited some of the separation to LongHorn’s heavy Georgia base and the counter fact Olive Garden has about 100 California restaurants as well as a Times Square, New York City, unit that pushed $15 million per year before COVID—or roughly three times a typical Olive Garden. But LongHorn also boomed its off-premises business more than 240 percent to 28 percent of total sales and is typically better designed inside boxes (more wide open than Olive Garden) to socially distance tables. Its quick recovery and jump outside the four walls, however, is a sign of how well it's communicated new offerings and channels to guests, and found ways to get food to people looking for it.

When comparing the top 50 brands’ scores to that of the average multi-location business, some whitespace emerges.

Per SOCi, the top restaurant chains feature a lower than average Google 3-Pack visibility. What this means is that the top chain locations appear in the Google 3-Pack in just 13 percent of localized or local-intent based searches for “restaurants” in their local areas versus the average multi-location brand, which appears in one out of four searches, or 24 percent. In order to increase visibility, restaurants must claim and optimize local listings and profiles, actively manage local ratings and reviews, and build entity expertise and authority through regular posting of localized content and timely responses to local questions, comments, and reviews. If somebody wasn’t overseeing each page before and keeping it local-minded, now might be a good time to change.

With reviews, on average, the top restaurant chains showcased a lower average star rating across all three of the top sites than the typical multi-location business. Just like pre-virus, this remains a growth area when you consider how local reviews determine visits. Especially when the stakes are this high. Make sure things like safety practices and customer attentiveness rise to the top. And if people complain, respond to concerns. Beyond what that does for the individual guest, other potential diners will read the back and forth.

Three action areas:

  • Work toward greater 3-Pack presence for locations.
  • Cultivate more reviews per location and increase star ratings on all channels.
  • Increase review response on Facebook.

Here’s how the full-service segment broke down:

  • 1. LongHorn: 88
  • 2. Texas Roadhouse: 88
  • 3. The Cheesecake Factory: 85
  • 4. Red Lobster: 78
  • 5. Cracker Barrel: 75
  • 6. Buffalo Wild Wings: 70
  • 7. Dave & Buster’s: 70
  • 8. Golden Corral: 70
  • 9. Olive Garden: 70
  • 10. Outback Steakhouse: 70

As we’ll see shortly, the full-service segment showcased more sophistication in localized marketing than quick-serves. The why behind this might just be a numbers game. Thirty-two quick-service restaurants boasted more than 1,000 domestic locations headed into 2020. The pool was just six for sit-down concepts. And McDonald’s had more than all of those full-serves combined.

One thing to note: Although Golden Corral and Outback each scored 70 points, they did not appear on the top 10 overall ranking due to their lower 3-Pack visibility and response rates compared to counterparts.

SOCi chart.

Looking across different sites and ranking factors, full-service brands performed extremely well in comparison to others. However, there is still rom to increase 3-Pack visibility overall, SOCi said.

Quick service

  • 1. Chick-fil-A: 78
  • 2. Five Guys: 70
  • 3. Sonic Drive-In: 60
  • 4. Culver’s: 55
  • 5. Jersey Mike’s: 55
  • 6. Whataburger: 55
  • 7. Panda Express: 53
  • 8. Panera Bread: 53
  • 9. Raising Cane’s: 53
  • 10. Arby’s: 50

The gap provides potential. SOCi said a few opportunity areas stand out:

Claiming and optimizing profiles not only on GMB, but on Facebook and Yelp will be key in increasing local search visibility.

An overall improvement to local ratings and reviews are a must. Based on the averages, quick-service chains have a huge opportunity to not only increase their average star ratings across the top sites, but volume of reviews as well.

SOCi chart.

Paying attention to, and responding to local reviews and local Q&A are also huge opportunities to not only increase local search visibility but local consumer experience overall.

The end point, and full rankings

“When done effectively, localized marketing can propel brands to the top of organic search results, build and maintain a highly engaged base of loyal customers, and drive increased traffic and sales to local businesses,” SOCi said.

Here’s where to begin:

Just like brand standards in general, consistency rules across a multi-unit system. Brands should optimize ranking factors across the “Big 3” (GMB, Facebook, and Yelp) to create a “whole is greater than the summer of its parts” advantage, SOCi said. If accomplished, rankings will benefit and build on each other. And it will take on a life of its own. How do you achieve this? Any action for one platform should be followed by corresponding action on the others. That needs to go into the day-to-day playbook

There’s runway in the COVID world to satisfy customers’ hopes to go local during the pandemic, too. This isn’t always the easiest task for chains. But local store marketing (especially responding personally to customers from the perspective of the manager, franchisee, etc.) is a good way to remind guests that restaurants, even under a corporate banner, are part of their community. Efforts to give back, and to network with organizations and conduct outreach, build the base as well. It centers on being attentive, authentic, and timely in your local communications, SOCi said.

Google 3-pack visibility (a common theme throughout this article) can’t be understated. Restaurants can optimize for ranking building along the E.A.T. path (expertise, authority, and trustworthiness). Inject thee into your local presence with the follow suggestions from SOCi:


  • Claim and optimize all of your local pages, and fill out your profiles with keyword rich details about your business.
  • Look for high trafficked terms that you can build authentic, localized content around and post this to your pages.
  • Encourage customers to leave local reviews, ideally with rich keywords.


  • Invest in original research/content that others will re-post, link to, and/or share.
  • Encourage customers to leave local reviews, ideally with rich keywords.
  • Ensure name, address, phone number (NAP) is consistent across all local listings.


  • Actively manage your local conversations and reviews.
  • Respond to reviews with both comprehensiveness and speed. Be aware, be timely, and respond appropriately.

Localization also drums up the need for centralization. A study from Forrester noted, as a result of localization, individual business locations and franchisors are challenged with being on top of all the sties where they need to be. But based on recent advancements in technology, this can be done at scale.

Lastly, here’s how the full 50 shook out:

  • 1. LongHorn Steakhouse: 87.5
  • 2. Texas Roadhouse: 87.5
  • 3. The Cheesecake Factory: 85
  • 4. Chick-fil-A: 77.5
  • 5. Red Lobster: 77.5
  • 6. Cracker Barrel: 75
  • 7. Buffalo Wild Wings: 70
  • 8. Dave & Buster’s: 70
  • 9. Five Guys: 70
  • 10. Golden Corral: 70
  • 11. Olive Garden: 70
  • 12. Outback Steakhouse: 70
  • 13. Denny’s: 67.5
  • 14. Red Robin: 65
  • 15. Applebee’s: 60
  • 16. Chili’s: 60
  • 17. Sonic Drive-In: 60
  • 18. BJ’s Restaurants: 57.5
  • 19. Culver’s: 55
  • 20. Jersey Mike’s Subs: 55
  • 21. Whataburger: 55
  • 22. Zaxby’s: 55
  • 23. Panda Express: 52.5
  • 24. Panera Bread: 52.5
  • 25. Raising Cane’s: 52.5
  • 26. Arby’s: 50
  • 27. IHOP: 50
  • 28. Wendy’s: 47.5
  • 29. Carl’s Jr.: 45
  • 30. Hardee’s: 45
  • 31. Jack in the Box: 45
  • 32. McDonald’s: 45
  • 33. Pizza Hut: 45
  • 34. Popeyes: 45
  • 35. Taco Bell: 45
  • 36. Wingstop: 45
  • 37. Bojangles: 42.5
  • 38. Chipotle Mexican Grill: 42.5
  • 39. Starbucks: 42.5
  • 40. Wawa: 42.5
  • 41. Dairy Queen: 40
  • 42. KFC: 40
  • 43. Domino’s Pizza: 37.5
  • 44. Dunkin’: 35
  • 45. Jimmy John’s: 35
  • 46. Papa John’s Pizza: 35
  • 47. Burger King: 30
  • 48. Subway: 30
  • 49. Little Caesars: 20
  • 50. 7-Eleven: 10