Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Joshua Binning’s Lucha Cantina restaurant, staff and community have all seen life turned upside down.
Operating in Rockford, Illinois, a town of less than 150,000 residents, the restaurant owner has a pulse on the people and a relationship with the government. Because of this, Joshua Binning linked with community leaders and industry peers to discussion solutions to the dire times.
Joshua Binning is not afraid to share his feelings. He’s also not afraid to share his ideas.
“Rockford isn’t a huge town, so we all kind of know each other,” says Joshua Binning on Cali BBQ Media’s Digital Hospitality podcast. “Because of relationships we’ve built in the past, the mayor reached out to us and five other restaurant owners on Zoom for input. That’s the type of stuff you can’t put a price on. We’ve worked a long time to have that voice now and it’s really nice to have it.”
That voice may be heard by local officials, but it’s felt by local residents. Active on social media with a variety of content on a plethora of online platforms, Joshua keeps it real with his customers because he realizes community is built on honesty.
“It’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to be transparent with your guests,” notes Joshua to Digital Hospitality host Shawn Walchef. “I think the customer appreciates that honesty. My guests aren’t just giving me money right now, they’re giving us emotional support.”
“Being transparent and asking them for that grace is appreciated because they want us to grant them grace for showing up in pajama pants!”
During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Joshua saw both sides of that when the loyal lovers of Lucha Cantina all came piling into the restaurant at once.
“When the stimulus checks came out so did twice the amount of our customers,” says Joshua Binning. “Our customers had to wait twice as long to get their food and it was embarrassing.”
A problem? Maybe. An opportunity? Definitely.
“We had forty cars out there waiting, so I went window to window to talk to our customers and have the conversation.”
A day some would call a loss, Joshua looks at as a lesson.
“This is the best time ever to be front and center,” Joshua says in regard to connecting with customers both curbside and online. “Get your face out there so when you mess up you can be right there to take it on the chin right in front of your guests.”
These days, Joshua Binning and his restaurant staff aren’t seeing their regular customers day-in and day-out or face-to-face like they once did.
Still, the restaurant owner is putting in the effort on Lucha Cantina’s social channels to keep the community and the buzz alive.
“I want to be able to tell the story of right now,” Joshua Binning says. “I don’t want to miss the opportunity to grab those moments.”
So, how would Joshua recommend winning on social media both now and in the future?
Joshua Binning’s tips to social media success for your restaurant:
- Create – It’s that easy! Joshua tells us that putting something out there is better than nothing and that it will always improve. Perfect is the enemy of done, get to posting.
- Make It Mobile Friendly – People are on cell phones more than ever. Joshua notes that even 75% of his website’s traffic comes from a mobile device. Make sure your website and channels are all mobile friendly.
- Stop the Scroll – We can all mindlessly like posts, but what type of connection does that build? Joshua is rolling out video on different platforms to stop the scroll and convey experience with his guests.
- Don’t Oversell – Hate clickbait and endless promos? So do your followers. Every post doesn’t have to be attached to selling something, it’s often much better if it’s not. Social is more about building brand and community than revving up the bottom line.
- Diversify Your Content – Just because you own a restaurant doesn’t mean every photo has to be of food. In fact, Joshua has found photos with people perform better than photos of just food. What’s even better? Photos with dogs!
- Get Help – Whether it’s with the guidance of an expert or an app, your social is worth doing a good job on to improve the relationship with your community. Joshua is big on scheduling content ahead to stay ahead.
- Be Genuine – If you have a huge budget or no budget, the one thing that cuts through on social is genuine content. Be yourself, care about your community, and the work will speak for itself.
The last tip couldn’t be truer for Joshua right now. While his food on plate pics have gone to food in take-out box pics, his biggest pivot is telling stories online about his team more and more in these tough times.
“It doesn’t always have to be about food,” says Joshua on Lucha Cantina’s social media marketing content. “Talk about the behind the scenes, talk about an employee. One of the things that restaurants do is offer a bridge for employees to get from one place to the next. Tell that story.”
Looking Out for your Team:
Like most – if not all – restaurant owners, the COVID-19 crisis made Joshua Binning’s day-to-day operation much different and his staff much smaller.
Getting ahead of the inevitable, he had to make some tough changes while still looking out for both his business and his team.
“We had about 30 employees on staff,” reflects Joshua Binning about his restaurant pre-coronavirus pandemic. “Once we knew that it was coming, we laid off 20 people with the goal to get them on unemployment as fast as humanly possible.”
Fortunately for Joshua and his Lucha Cantina family, all involved are looking out for each other.
“I think that as of this week I will have had all but about two of my people get through the system,” Joshua notes. “As a restaurant we’ve told those that haven’t gotten through that they don’t have to worry about their rent or their groceries, just call me and we’ve got them on that.”
New solutions to new times? Not really, more so the same ethos despite an adverse climate.
“I’ve always said that my first customer is my employee, they come first to me and I will always take care of them. Even those that aren’t employed by me right now are still my first people and I will always take care of them.”
The love and support from Joshua are felt inside and outside of the restaurant walls. Even so, all involved, even if that number is less, are still very busy.
“We’ve found a way to make this work,” says Joshua. “With the very limited staff that we have.”
So, why are they so busy and how are they still thriving with restaurants not open to the public in standard sit-down fashion?
Joshua is always able to pivot, and his latest move may be his next niche.
Lucha Cantina Curbside Growth:
In the midst of the Coronavirus, many restaurants have leaned on delivery services to keep the lights on and keep their people fed.
For Joshua Binning and his team at Lucha Cantina, they’ve been riding the wave of technology long before the pandemic hit.
“When we opened seven years ago, we opened up with online ordering to be ahead of the curve,” reflects Joshua on Digital Hospitality. “When delivery with GrubHub and DoorDash came to our town almost two years ago, we saw there was a future, so we jumped on it. The things that are new to a lot of people are old hat to us.”
So, how has operating as a to-go/delivery restaurant gone for Joshua Binning and his team at Lucha Cantina from a business standpoint?
“It’s been ridiculously successful.”
In fact, it’s been so successful that Joshua and his team are busier than ever despite being open less often and without full-service.
“Somehow I’m busier in that 20 hours a week than when I was open 85 hours,” notes Joshua Binning. “According to my Apple Watch I’m doing a half-marathon each day in the parking lot.”
While curbside and delivery orders operate largely in the space of apps, Joshua makes the point to lean into curbside pickup on the one day most customers can actually leave the house.
“The majority of our orders are coming in through ChowNow pickup,” says Joshua about Lucha Cantina online ordering. “It’s been a great platform for us. We’ve found that our curbside pickup has been our biggest sales driver. We have DoorDash and GrubHub, but on Saturday night we turn them off.”
Much like the day the stimulus checks came, Joshua enjoys being able to interact with the customers – with distance and hospitality – in a way that’s better for business and better for relationships.
“We’re trying to give people a little bit of normal,” says Joshua on his restaurant’s curbside pickup business. “Making food togo is more than putting food in a box.”
Like the rest of his peers, Joshua can’t wait to provide hospitality to his customers within the walls of his restaurant like times before. Still, he’s grateful for the new revenue stream and way to reach his customers that is curbside to-go orders.
Potential Industry Solutions to COVID-19:
In the midst of pandemic precautions, Joshua Binning has certainly found a new way of doing business for the time being and by all estimates a future revenue stream.
However, there’s still nothing like serving the people in the space he calls his own. With word of some states opening up for businesses allowing half capacity, things do get a tad confusing.
“My restaurant seats 225 people,” notes Joshua. “So, half capacity is still a pretty big number. Half capacity is not a one-size fits all.”
Understanding that seating 112 people at once is a risk, he’s suggested a solution.
“What if we go back with reservation only?” ponders Joshua about the future of Lucha Cantina and other restaurants. “The government is big on contact tracking right now. That way if someone were to contact the virus and had gone to Lucha Cantina, we can give the government a list of everyone who was in the restaurant at that time.”
Joshua has also considered how to cut down contact and germ spread when full-service is back open.
“Instead of having paper menus at the table, now there’s an option for a single-use paper menu — but we push guests towards using a digital menu on their phone,” Joshua theorizes. “Then there’s a table tent with a QR code to order so there’s less contact.”
Even still, Joshua understands that the visual of a server coming with gloves and a facemask might feel more like surgery than full-service hospitality.
Nevertheless, he remains positive about finding solutions.
“We know how to do this part of the business and we can have some fun better figuring it out.”
Staying Engaged with Community:
Brainstorming behind the scenes has Joshua Binning and his team thinking ahead. At the moment, that same creativity finds them serving their same community in exciting ways.
“We’re trying to do the same things we were doing before,” reflects Joshua on the current situation at his Lucha Cantina. “Just executing them in a little bit of a different way.”
Having both a feel and a flair for the moment, Joshua understands the magnitude of how important it is to stay connected to his community.
“This is more than just serving tacos right now.”
While that proves true for Lucha Cantina figuratively, it also proves true for them literally. In an effort to keep customers feeling as normal as possible in an abnormal situation, the team is rolling out specials that are both nostalgic and creative to bring even more fun.
“We’ve been bringing back menu items from past years as a feature and we’ve rolled out new items too,” Joshua says with a smile. “We’ve brought back our mac n cheese and we’ve rolled out flatbread pizzas. We slide them out for a weekend and if they get good enough response, we might add them to the menu.”
Social media may be how Lucha Cantina’s customers are keeping up with Joshua Binning and his staff, but their e-mail list is how they’re hearing about the featured menu items.
“In the past our weekly email had a lot to do with events and coupons,” Joshua said. “Now the email list has turned into an update on how we’re doing. Offering updates on how our staff members are doing that are out of work, thanking people for coming out and showing that we have the best fans. We’ve been very transparent, and it’s been amazing.”
How amazing? The response Joshua has received from customers is both humbling and heartwarming.
“I’ll get an email back that says, ‘You’re so encouraging to our family, thank you for being such a source of hope in our community during this.’”
Through email and social media tools, Joshua Binning is keeping up with his Lucha Cantina customers to build community and to improve their service.
“Facebook Messenger has turned into a great way for us to fix problems,” Joshua notes. “Giving that guest a quick reply goes a long way in building brand loyalty because they know we care. We’ve made some drastic improvements in the last month just from listening to our customers.”
Despite dismal times, Joshua is eager and optimistic about the present and the future.
“Everything right now is an opportunity,” says Joshua. “It might not be the way we planned it or the way we wanted it to be, but we’re in the business of providing comfort and that little bit of normalcy. Now is that chance to really amp it up. Lucky for us, as restaurants we’re in a position to be the catalyst. It’s a huge privilege and I absolutely love it.”
— Article by Cali BBQ Media Content Producer Ian Stonebrook
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