Let them eat cheesecake. Or chicken parmesan. Or better yet, let them make cheesecake or chicken parmesan.
At a time when restaurants are struggling to find ways to stay in touch with consumers who can’t visit in person yet, they’re putting their best-kept secrets – their proprietary recipes – online.
“Even though restaurants have had to close their dining rooms, they still have to stay top of mind with consumers,” said Christi Christian of Synergy Restaurant Consultants in Ventura, Calif. “You still have to do business the best you can. You have to exist for the consumer. Now, I’m not sure I would share my best recipes, but if sharing them keeps you connected to the community, I’m all for it. Restaurants have to be creative.”
The list of restaurants sharing their secrets is a who’s who of popular chains. The Cheesecake Factory has put recipes for some of its menu items online, including its closely guarded lemon-ricotta pancakes and Jambalaya pasta. Olive Garden has posted its alfredo sauce and chicken parmesan. Travel Texas has launched a series of videos that will go live on “Taco Tuesdays” featuring an all-star lineup of the state’s best-known chefs. And if you want to learn how to make McDonald’s food, well, that’s online, too.
According to Christian, the best way to a consumer’s heart is through their stomachs. It’s simply sensible marketing, particularly during the crisis. She encourages her clients (in mid-coast California) to play their strong menu items as a way to stay top of mind. For example, one of her BBQ clients makes a well-loved bread pudding. If their clientele orders for pickup, they get a surprise: the pudding in a gift-wrapped package. One of her San Francisco clients has marketed itself as a family business. Members of that family now deliver the food, giving the business a personal feel that DoorDash or other services can’t touch. Christian believes it’s these personal touches – recipes among them – that will be essential in reopening strategies.
“Look, we’re not all going to just open the doors one of these days and expect people to walk in like they used to,” she said. “Social distancing rules will still be in place. Consumers will likely be afraid to mix. Not everyone will be raring to get out there. We can expect a lot of controversy when restaurants open. So it’s best to show the community that you exist, whether that’s with recipes, social posts or eBlasts.”
Pre-crisis, sharing recipes was somewhat controversial. In fact, there’s a debate still raging about whether a restaurant or a chef owns the intellectual property of a recipe’s content.
“It's a great compliment to be asked for recipes,” noted Matt Sartwell, manager at Kitchen Arts & Letters, a cookbook store in New York City. “Unless a chef has an incredibly surprising secret ingredient, he or she is probably succeeding on the basis of more than just a recipe. A great cook brings all kinds of skill and expertise to preparing a dish, as well as the willingness to source particular ingredients and to indulge in extra work that home cooks won't be interested in duplicating so often that a restaurant will suffer. And as for the old trick of leaving out some crucial little detail, well, that's a fast track to lost goodwill.”