56 minutes | Apr 10, 2020

How to be a Beacon of Hope | Nicole Duncan of FSR Magazine (DH 028)

In trying times, you can become a beacon of hope for others. The current quarantine conditions the country is in has everyone reflecting and revising how they go about both life and business. For Nicole Duncan, editor at Full Service Restaurant (FSR) magazine, she’s made it her mission for the last decade to profile the food industry and become an expert on the ins and outs of the business.  In this time of crisis, she’s been able to use her voice to educate owners and operators in the restaurant space who are feeling the pain of COVID-19 on their business and their staff.  “We want to be not just a beacon of hope but also a resource for restaurants,” says Nicole Duncan from FSR Magazine. Based in North Carolina, Nicole Duncan serves as the Editor of Full Service Restaurant’s magazine day in and day out. With an appetite for the industry and a pedigree in journalism, Nicole is far from a food critic nor does her publication operate in that space. Rather, FSR’s recipe for great content focuses on the money, metrics, and marketplace that is the food industry. “We write about the trends and techniques that are up and coming,” says Nicole Duncan about FSR magazine. “But we’re always looking at it through the lens of restaurants being a business first and foremost.” A purveyor of print, Nicole is old school in her approach to content but savvy enough to pivot in these changing times. As an editor in a time of panic and uncertainty, Nicole is assisting her staff in making the most of this moment for her writers and readership. “We have a robust digital presence that keeps growing and has really proven itself during this experience,” says Nicole Duncan about running a publication during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The new way of operating is still changing. We’ve had to suspend any freelance work for the time being. Right now, we are pulling stuff from online for print. Just the same, all of us on print are contributing online as well. It’s all hands on deck right now.” Adjusting to the Times: Adjusting to the times means that every other day FSR has an editorial check-in meeting. The team often uses Google Meet so they can have a meeting remotely.  When it comes to print, proofing has proven difficult digitally but might just make PDFs the new techniques for edits as it’s an already surfacing solution.  “Print will never go away, but print will see more of its lifeblood go to digital,” according to Nicole Duncan. “If you look at our digital presence today versus five years ago it’s become this wonderful thing that’s its own entity and it couldn’t be cooler. I’m an old school print girl but I do understand that this is the way of the future.” Writing aside, voice content is also of value in these times of change as art imitates life in her conversation with Cali BBQ Media. “Podcasts are a little more personal than the written word,” says Nicole appropriately on the Digital Hospitality Podcast. Feast or Famine: Just like the restaurant industry, the world of content creation can be feast or famine in times of change. Nicole Duncan knows this firsthand as her entry into the writing world coincided with a low point for the American economy. “I graduated college having studied journalism right in 2008 when the recession hit,” reflects Nicole. Following a magazine internship, Nicole did everything from teaching English overseas to working in marketing and communications.  Eventually, she’d begin freelancing at FSR to go on to take an editor role at the magazine. In doing so, she’d play a large part at a small independent competing against big publications – a parallel of which many local restaurants can relate. “A lot of our competitors are publications under bigger umbrella groups,” says Nicole. “We are a small, independently owned publishing company. We’re kind of like Mighty Mouse: we might be small, but we’re a bit more nimble and in control of what we do.” Now at Full Service Restaurant for five years, the content she’s creating is perhaps more valuable than ever. No one likes breaking bad news, but Nicole and her scrappy crew are savvy enough to deliver the tough numbers but also offer insight and advice. “The bad that we’re seeing obviously is just the massive furloughs, the massive layoffs,” says Nicole who mentions said layoffs are hitting both the big brand chains and the smaller local businesses. “Everyone is kind of hemorrhaging money right now.” When looking at weeks in March 2020, year-to-year sales numbers are reported as down 71% for full-service restaurants while only 34% for quick-service restaurants.  “With quick-service, so much of its business has historically been off-premise,” notes Nicole Duncan. “It’s hitting the whole industry, but full-service is getting the brunt of it.”  Full-service restaurants are obviously known for their food, but clearly their customers come for much more than that. The interaction with the staff, the showmanship of the chefs, the ambience of the space. So, how can the hospitality industry offer their bread and butter during times of social distancing? Preaching to the choir, the best and in many ways only option, is doubling down on digital. Doubling Down on Digital: While Nicole covers the industry, she’s obviously a patron, too. When choosing where to eat in these times of COVID-19, the local businesses that extend an invitation to their customers are winning. This was noted by Nicole herself when considering a recent to-go order from a North Carolina restaurant.  “If they hadn’t sent that email, they might not have been the first restaurant that I thought of.” Reminding customers that to-go orders and specials are available during this moment of social distancing is important. However, following up with customers after an order is picked up in an effort to maintain a relationship and source of hospitality is also of value.  While social distancing has made the minute interaction on to-go orders short and relatively impersonal, the ability to comment on social media with brand accounts to thank customers for their support is a safe and sweet way to provide hospitality with heart from a distance. “Everyone is going to have to understand that there has to be digital engagement,” says Nicole. “The businesses that aren’t on digital might be missing out on customers that want to support them but don’t know they’re there.” While the major chains have the biggest audiences and most bandwidth to blast messages out on social, perhaps the impacts of COVID-19 will influence them to adjust their voices in more localized fashion? Nicole thinks so. “I know there’s always this worry with a big brand that if you give too many people a voice that’s supposed to be a brand voice that they could say the wrong thing,” notes Nicole. “But I do think that what we’ve been seeing with consumer trends is that a lot of consumers want to support brands that they feel have values aligned to theirs. There’s certainly an appeal in local and to get that local vibe big brands will have to empower local managers and owners. I wonder if we might see more of this in a post-Coronavirus world.” Post-COVID-19 times are hopefully soon upon us, but right now adjustments in the industry are already being made. So, in these times of change and distance, who are rising to the occasion and pivoting in reaction to the Coronavirus? “I would say that the tech side is stepping up to the plate,” notes Nicole Duncan. From GrubHub, to Postmates to UberEats, tech companies are waving their fees in a way to help and win over clients and provide for potential clients in need. Third-party ordering systems are assisting restaurants of all scales and sizes to feed those at home in isolation while bringing in business for the restaurants themselves. While this is great for just about all involved, full-service restaurants of all sizes are figuring out packaging and presentation on to-go orders to refrain from having a nose-dive in the quality department. So, how can you best pivot your restaurant during COVID-19? Here is a breakdown of tips from Nicole from her Digital Hospitality Podcast. Tips for Full-Service Restaurants During COVID-19: Put in the Work on Digital – Let your customers know how, why, when and where you’re open for business. Having a banner on your website that addresses COVID-19 is polite and professional to your audience. Connecting with your customers over social media and email keeps the reminder of your presence during this time of distance while also allows connection amidst isolation. Adapt to Takeout Times – Many FSRs have become QSRs for the foreseeable future. That’s not all bad. When setting up your restaurant as a to-go business, it’s understandable there will be a learning curve but focus and intent is important just the same. Establish strong relationships with the tech services so that your menu is presented in on-brand fashion. Deliver the best quality possible in regard to product, presentation and packaging while conducing your hospitality on the digital side. Ghost Kitchens are More than a Trend – In recent years, Ghost Kitchens have emerged as a by-product of food delivery services. Essentially, ghost kitchens are virtual restaurants that do not have a physical presence but operate out of other restaurant’s kitchens as a way to share resources and create additional revenue. Consider taking on a ghost kitchen when making a relationship with a food delivery service. Take Heart That You’re Not in it Alone – For the first time perhaps in history, we are all in the same boat. Yes, some are feeling the impact of COVID-19 more than others, but the service industry is feeling it all the same. We will all get through this and you are not alone. Seek Out Resources – Get help. Publications like Full Service Restaurant Magazine
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