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

FSR Magazine Interview with Nicole Duncan

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Seek Out Resources – Get help. Publications like Full Service Restaurant Magazine provide great insight and tools on how to survive in these times. In addition, relief funds may be available from the federal and local government when considering the financial health of your business. Ask for help.
  1. Interact with Peers – Shared adversity has an odd power to heal and connect. While local restaurant owners may often be too busy to talk to their peers, now is the time to get to know your neighbors. Use this situation as an opportunity to grow together and support each other.

Dealing with Change:

In these times, tech and digital are proving a likely adversary in adjusting to the changes. Thankfully on the top of the mountain, we’re seeing executives in leadership roles making sacrifices to benefit their staff and empathize with the world we’re currently living in. 

Across the world, CEOs in the restaurant industry are forgoing their 2020 salaries in response to lost business and layoffs. Texas Roadhouse has been a leader in this trend with many others following suit.

As leaders in health and government look to solve the coronavirus pandemic while Americans distance to stop the spread, what will the restaurant industry as a whole look like when all this is said and done?

“Experts as well as our own team have kind of been tossing around the idea back and forth that the market is over-saturated,” says Nicole Duncan on the Digital Hospitality podcast. 

“In the last decade, it’s been this wonderful renaissance where dining has been elevated to a new level but also become more egalitarian. At the same point, there has not been enough business to go around. Restaurants have always had razor-thin margins, many of them close within the first one to five years.”

Pandemic or not, the restaurant business has always been one of risk. 

“It’s never been an easy industry. People don’t get into this industry for money, they get into it for fashion!” laughs Nicole Duncan. “We’ve been debating on our team as to whether this will be an acceleration of what was already coming: a slight shrinking.”

That’s not to be bleak, however. Nicole is still optimistic of what’s eventually to come as we all should be. She’s also optimistic about the future of events that have been cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19. 

“There is no way event conferences are going away,” says Nicole. “The National Restaurant Association Show just celebrated 100 years last year, I can’t see it going away. People in the hospitality industry like that face-to-face networking and brainstorming. I think we’ll see some budgets slashed but I don’t they’ll go away all together.”

So, while times are currently cloudy there are sunny days ahead. Different days, but sunny, nevertheless.

“I see the industry rebounding stronger than ever for sure, but I do wonder if we’ll see fewer numbers of restaurants. I don’t think innovation will die or people will stop going into the industry,” says Nicole.

Long live our restaurants.

Keep up with Nicole Duncan on LinkedIn and via her work with Full Service Restaurant Magazine. Have a question, comment or tip for Nicole? Reach out to her at [email protected].

How can we help you with your own digital journey? Get in touch with us and tell us your story. [email protected]

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