May 15th, 2020 - Covid-19

A time for radical ingenuity

“A few short weeks ago … most of us went about our days making a series of low-impact decisions and not thinking twice about them. Bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich from the cart outside the office for breakfast? Don’t mind if I do. A quick road trip to see your grandma upstate? She’ll be so happy to see us! Getting together with friends for a basketball game in the park or a few drinks in a bar? Why the hell not? And then came the coronavirus now even the most mundane activities have turned into moral dilemmas. Whether it’s trying to decide if you should order delivery, take public transit, or make a trip to the grocery store, we now have to think through the potential implications of many of our totally normal, everyday actions.”

– Elizabeth Yuko, Rolling Stone

Restaurants battle decision fatigue on top of other COVID realities

Instead of ushering in a welcome relief from COVID-19, the first week of May saw Canada officially slide into a recession and unemployment soar to historic levels.

Almost everyone is hurting, especially in my home city of Calgary where the oil price crisis and the coronavirus threw a one-two punch. COVID-19 has us all on our knees, praying for a miracle.

With already high overheads and added safety requirements, restaurants are some of the hardest hit local businesses. Add to that a client pool that is equally strapped for cash and wrapped in a cocoon of decision fatigue. Pleas to support local restaurants were falling on deaf ears when the pandemic first struck in March.

It’s predicted that less than half of our restaurants will survive the pandemic, yet some restaurants’ curated menus sell out days in advance. Others like local legends UNA and Native Tongues are recording historic sales revenue days.

A study of those having success highlights some clear survival dos for struggling restaurants.

Survival starts with explicit, direct and clear communications

This tweet, by local food writer Gwendolyn Richards, put into words my growing frustration after wearily cooking three meals a day, working full time and struggling with online grocery orders.

Why aren’t restaurants providing COVID updates on their websites?

After talking to local restaurateurs, it became clear. Restaurant owners were fighting their own COVID demons: laying off staff, implementing new health and safety guidelines, and applying for government help. They were putting on their own oxygen masks before helping others.

Michael Noble of YYC institutions Notable and The Nash says he felt the overwhelm, watched sales slow, and on March 16 he made the decision to close the doors of both restaurants and take time to assess the situation.

During the final weeks of March and early April, there was a clear disconnect brewing as restaurants began desperately calling on patrons to support them but not offering clear direction on how best to do that.

They forgot their clients were equally stressed. In a crisis, the rules of communication change dramatically.

Tell them about it

Richards says she could feel that people wanted to support local providers but they weren’t clear on how. The desire for takeout was growing as most had been good at staying in and making meals for the first few weeks of isolation, but decision fatigue around what to make and how to grocery shop was wearing thin.

To take advantage of that growing desire, restaurants need to acknowledge the risks and provide compassionate, clear communication. “People feel at risk venturing out, so when they do, they want to do it with purpose and be assured that the end game is worth the risk,” Richards says.

Those reassurances must start with clear information on your website, ideally with a pop up that can’t be missed

Share key information: hours of operation, what you offer, how to order, what to expect, your safety protocols, and then direct them to a specific page that outlines your COVID offerings and more specifics on things like menu, delivery and curbside pick up. Bridgette Bar nails this model. 

Native Tongues proprietor, Cody Willis, empathizes with others in the industry that haven’t adjusted their website but acknowledges it’s a must. “Some people don’t have a clue how to update their website so they rely on social media. Luckily, I built our website myself. I could update the homepage on my own and we already had technology in place for takeout orders.”

While the technology is daunting for some, success depends on making your websites work in the age of COVID. While social media can support a website, it’s no replacement. “They might be putting information on their social media, but it’s there and gone. I don’t have time to scroll through twitter,” Richards says.

Remember, potential customers are also fighting overwhelm and decision fatigue. If you don’t make it easy for them, they’ll move on and seek dinner from a competitor.

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours

Like Notable, Willis says Native Tongues closed for a short period before reopening for takeout and curbside pick up only. He says sales were good but they got a whole lot better when the taqueria started offering their customers incentives. In fact, he noticed a 25 per cent jump in sales.

“We brought back our weekly features – margarita Mondays, taco Tuesdays, donut specials on Wednesdays – but for pick up only,” Willis says, acknowledging that people are looking to save money while still treating themselves. This change increased sales and encouraged people to pick up their tacos and donuts, limiting the restaurant’s payouts to third party delivery providers.

Getting into the heads of your customers and understanding their special wants helped the Native Tongues team, Willis says.

He recognized that similar to the soaring success of local ice cream providers, tacos were little luxuries that made life more fun and added joy. To make life easier on his kitchen and help customers with that pervasive decision fatigue they also streamlined their menu to the most popular items and the ones that travel well.

Comfort food and family meals for the win

While other restaurants’ offerings might not have the immediate universal popularity of tacos and ice cream, those making headway with consumers right now have re-thought their menus and designed meals that people are aching for – delicious, easy, comfort food.

Richards says that after “all the fun was sucked out of grocery shopping” and cooking for herself, she was ready to experiment with deliveries, but looking at a regular menu and trying pick from 20-plus items made her shut down. “Decision fatigue is a real problem right now.”

Recognizing this and paring menus way, way down – some to one meal a week – is winning hearts and loyal customers.

Set weekly meals from places like Bridgette Bar, Dean House, and Model Milk appear to be winners. Other fun and popular ideas are make at home meal kits from Roy’s Kitchen, Vin Room and larger chains like Earls and Joeys. These pre-measured kits allow busy parents a fun and easy way to cook family style meals and allow those bored with the confines of COVID to experiment with cooking interesting meals for themselves while escaping the dreaded grocery store run.

In fact, it seems that in the age of COVID people aren’t just searching for a good meal, they’re looking for an experience. Noble says his customers are looking for “soul connecting” comfort food and he’s delivering. “My purpose in life is not to make great food. It’s to bring love to the world,” an emotional Noble shared with me. It seems he’s offering what people are looking for as each day the restaurant sells out.

One special item from the Notable kitchen making life easier for harried mom’s who want to plop an easy, delectable, heart-warming meal on the table, is the aptly named Happy Chicken with a choice of fixings from local vegetables to mashed potatoes or home fries. You can even add on the chicken soup kit that turns leftovers into a second night of soul food. And yes, he’s recognized the need for ice cream, and added special Nash-made pints to the take out menu.

What success looks like

The restaurant owners that are going to succeed won’t be the ones that wish nothing had changed, and sit on their hands waiting for life to return to normal. Success will come to those who changed their business models to match the needs of the population during the pandemic.

And despite the Alberta Government starting a phased reopening to in-house dining, many restaurants in the city are saying a big no thank you to changing up their business processes yet again to accommodate a short-term hybrid of ‘limited capacity’ eat in, delivery, and curbside pick up.

For Willis, he’s had to rework his entire restaurant layout to be successful at meeting his clients’ needs for curbside pick up and delivery. Worried about a second wave of COVID-19, he’s betting that his customers will be more comfortable eating their tacos in their own homes for the time being.

Noble agrees. “I don’t believe there is much appetite for the public right now to go out to restaurants, a bit surreal to think of all the staff wearing masks, huge gaps between tables physically, special laminated menus for sanitizing purpose and of course all the touch points in a restaurant needing to be constantly attended to,” he says, adding “All of this puts a lump in my stomach honestly. Knowing it will be many months until normal returns.”

A note on some special incentives offered by restaurants:

While incentives for our personal wallets are a great way to encourage business, this unique time also sees people supporting those going the extra mile to give back to the community, whether it’s Notable’s 50% discount code to impacted health care workers at Foothills Hospital, Feeding YYC’s partner restaurants providing food to local families in need, or the Rouge partnering with food writer Julie Van Rosendaal to provide school lunches.

With gratitude,

Shannon Larkins

Shannon Larkins

Founder, Blackcoffee Studio

Over the course of 15+ years, Shannon has grown Blackcoffee Studio out of a love for building brands and reputations. She serves up Blackcoffee as a morning ritual while caffeinating clients and readers on the regular. You can find her at


Blackcoffee Studio

Blackcoffee is a premium brand development agency, offering luxury brand experience to clients at home in Calgary, Canada and around the globe. Brands create experience, set you apart from the competition and drive growth. Anyone can bulid a business but only the exceptional can create a brand. Are you ready?

Shannon Larkins

Shannon Larkins

Hi I’m Shannon, founder of Blackcoffee Studio. A former reporter, spin doctor and politico, I now focus on using my powers for good.

I create mighty brands for clients and share their stories with the world. I’m also rather addicted to my nutty family, dogs with pushed in faces, Mexico and of course coffee … black.