For more than 50 years, the brand has served up kindness through the spirit of barbecue.

Within the hospitality industry, many are relieved and thankful to turn the page to 2021. Getting through the hardest year for restaurants in modern history is a milestone not to be overlooked; however, the greatest step the industry can take to rebuild its economy is by turning the lessons of 2020 into a blueprint for recovery and protection against future crises. To successfully regain consumer confidence and adapt to a redefined normal, the industry should continue to focus on how it serves its communities beyond the reach of physical restaurant locations and continues to innovate off-premises experiences.

For more than 50 years, Sonny’s BBQ has served up kindness through the spirit of barbecue and by providing a welcoming space for its communities. The most important lesson the team learned in 2020 was to meet the needs of its communities during difficult times. Over the last 10 months, the industry has been responsible for bringing hospitality to the homes of customers. For Sonny’s, engaging with neighbors outside of its restaurants became a core focus upon the outbreak of COVID-19. And make no mistake—off-premises services will need to be a strategic pillar for restaurants moving forward. Here are a few key lessons learned from optimizing Sonny’s off-premises offerings that can help others in the industry plan their blueprints for the future.

Survival and growth was tied to expanding ordering services, and will continue to be

Engaging audiences through off-premise efforts was Sonny’s initial pivot in early 2020, and off-premises dining accounted for 60 percent of total sales in 2020 compared to 40 percent in 2019. As the hospitality industry eyes sustained growth, it is important for brands to integrate off-premise services. McKinsey recently reported in December 2020 that 46 percent of consumers who currently use delivery will continue to order delivery from restaurants for the foreseeable future.

Now is the time for restaurant groups to optimize their online ordering services and platforms, for both take out and curbside pickup. Drive through is also a great option to integrate the off-premise experience within on-premise locations, and third-party and DaaS (Delivery as a Service) delivery services like DoorDash are key in today’s digital landscape.

Also, until large in-person gatherings are deemed safe again, it is crucial for restaurants to optimize catering for home and smaller group gatherings. However, this must be rolled out safely based on local recommendations and to rebuild consumer confidence in the industry. For example, Sonny’s has taken extra steps when catering to recipients of its Random Acts of BBQ program, with staff members wearing gloves and masks and following social distancing guidelines onsite.

In 2020, strong technology and IT was a must

Off-premises services are important to the immediate survival and growth of the industry; however, these services require a strong technology stack to power them. There are many platforms to consider for off-premises services, but it is just as important to streamline these services by implementing and fine-tuning OLO dispatch (online ordering dispatch).

In addition, off-premises dining can improve by getting to know customers better through feedback. Sonny’s BBQ uses a variety of customer management tools, such as Wisely, to not only optimize the on-premise experience, but off-premises as well. By leveraging IT and technology with different platforms, restaurants can make up for the time lost in-person with customers to create a personalized experience with messaging, news and surveys for guests across a variety of communications channels.

Off-premises marketing led communications efforts

Restaurants’ marketing efforts  have also drastically shifted due to COVID-19 to include a focus on off-premises dining to engage customers with the brand outside of physical dining locations. While the digital landscape is crowded, connecting with external audiences online is vital to remaining top of mind. There are many strategies companies can take to connect with consumers off-premises, both online and offline. Some of Sonny’s most successful initiatives have included virtual family trivia nights, custom Spotify playlists, shareable recipes, mouthwatering Zoom backgrounds and kindness challenges.

In addition to digital marketing opportunities to engage customers, deals and bundled meal promotions are a great opportunity to secure off-premises sales. For example, since people are yearning for past experiences, the Sonny’s team brought back an old menu offering for National Pulled Pork Day on November 12— the Sonny’s Cuban—to tap into the loyal fan base’s nostalgia. It’s also important to listen to communities and react with what they need. Off-premises promotions that work well to address community needs include those with choice and variety, quality and convenience and financial value.

Overall, the focus in 2020 was to find ways that Sonny’s BBQ can help our customers navigate our new normal—from safety concerns, meal solutions, and being trapped at home— and that has been rooted in our commitment to off-premises dining. We know these are incredibly tough times in our industry, but we hope that our off-premises pivots in 2020 can help the entire industry rebound and come out of this more resilient than ever. Our communities deserve and need kindness and hospitality in these trying times.

Jamie Yarmuth is the CEO of Sonny’s BBQ.

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