There are more than 1 million restaurants in the U.S., employing an estimated 15.6 million people, according to the National Restaurant Association. The number of bars and drinking establishments, meanwhile, sits at over 60,000, with close to 350,000 working in the sector, per Statista data.
By midweek, a sizable proportion of that population had lost their jobs after bars and restaurants across the country were shuttered or had their operations severely curtailed. In a bid to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, multiple state governments implemented unprecedented measures, restricting on-premise establishments to takeout and delivery only in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Dallas.
Those hit first — and worst — by the measures, were the sector’s hourly paid staff. But the food and beverage segment of the hospitality industry is also served by numerous supporting industries. From suppliers and distributors (food and beverage) to linen companies, kitchenware manufacturers, and florists — multiple industries took a hit this week when bars and restaurants shut their doors. It may take days, weeks, or even months to fully understand the ramifications of the mass hospitality shutdown.
But for one hospitality-adjacent sector — one that may be invisible to most diners — the impact was immediate. Many public relations firms saw client losses come through fast and furiously.
For those unfamiliar with the business, the goal of a PR agency employed by a bar or restaurant is to raise a venue’s profile via media placements and marketing efforts to drive business, ultimately getting more diners through the door. Close those doors, and the value of that service drops.
“If they’re not open, there’s nothing [for us] to communicate,” one PR professional, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the topic, told VinePair. “When restaurants are having to make the decision to cut staff, obviously the first outside budgets to go is PR.”
The individual, who asked to remain anonymous, spoke of “significant layoffs” and “significant salary reductions” within their agency, after it lost many of its bar and restaurant clients in the space of a week.
“Most of our clients have six-month or one-year contracts, but they pay us monthly,” the PR professional explained. “But not only is this an issue of clients not being able to pay us next month, we don’t know if we’re going to get paid for last month. Not everyone pays on time.”
While the margins in hospitality are notoriously razor-thin, not all bars and restaurants have been forced to part ways with their representation. But just like those working in the hospitality industry itself, many agencies have now found their roles changing on a day-to-day basis, in order to adapt to the current climate.
“This is uncharted territory,” says Mary Wagstaff, the president of Wagstaff Media + Marketing, a public relations firm with offices in five major North American cities.
Instead of pitching their clients’ new menus, or trying to secure interviews for restaurant staff members with media outlets, Wagstaff’s employees now find themselves in a supporting role, keeping their bars and restaurants up to date with any information they may need to navigate the ever-changing hospitality landscape. “We’re all figuring out what the new normal is. And that changes day by day, hour by hour,” she says.
Even if clients won’t be able to pay until a few months down the line, Wagstaff insists that they’re all in this together. “Every client of ours — restaurants, hotels, travel destinations, wine and spirits companies — we don’t see ourselves as separate from those businesses,” she says. “We are them.”
Jenna Gerbino Kaplan, a freelance PR specialist and founder of This One PR, has also noted an “inspiring” sense of community during these unprecedented circumstances. “Owners, bartenders, publicists, reporters – everyone is working towards the greater good,” she says. Gerbino Kaplan is also offering her services to her bar clients at no cost for the foreseeable future.
At North Carolina-based JNK PR, founder Jennifer Noble Kelly is utilizing social media to help her food and beverage hospitality clients.
Her team is monitoring hospitality-focused Facebook groups to keep clients up to date with key information. “We are trying to stay a few steps ahead, so we can advise clients on what shift is coming next, and ways the hospitality industry in other areas is already pivoting,” she says.
Noble Kelly is also encouraging clients to set up daily live video sessions on social media platforms, to share their expertise and engage with consumers during the shutdown. One client, Kingfisher Bar, in Durham, N.C., now hosts a virtual cocktail hour every afternoon, with owner Sean Umstead teaching cocktails and mixology techniques.
In Minneapolis, Cast Iron Communications co-founder Dara Levine is working to connect her restaurant clients with both local and national media outlets.
“We’ve been helping our restaurant clients communicate their new offerings — curbside pickup, gift cards, [and] new delivery services — with the local media, [and] we’ve continued to place stories with national media on topics such as pantry staples, home-cook-friendly recipes, and more,” she says.
Ultimately, the role of PR is to give restaurants and bars a voice. Right now, the method of communication may have changed — as has the message — but when this pandemic is eventually over, PR agencies will likely be a valuable part of the industry’s comeback.
“When we come through this, every bar and restaurant will be affected differently and they’re going to be focusing on putting that part of their lives back together,” Bullfrog + Baum founder Jennifer Baum says. “We have strategies and tactics in place for when this calms down, which will enable us to act quickly, and we’re already working with our clients on that.”
In this era of social distancing, there’s hardly a more enticing prospect than a healthy hospitality landscape.