By the time Governor Asa Hutchinson closed dining rooms in restaurants across Arkansas, it was already clear that the hospitality industry was headed for uncharted territory. The COVID-19 crisis had only been visible in Arkansas for less than a week, but those few days would be the last “normal” days of business for the foreseeable future.
“Conway restaurants went from record highs to record lows almost instantly,” said Rachel Shaw, executive director of the Conway Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). “Many of our restaurants were immediately confronted with either closing or completely changing their business model.”
According to Shaw, industry professionals estimate national restaurant spending has declined by 25% in drive-thrus all the way to 75% in sit-down, full-service restaurants. Restaurants were among the first-hit and most visible economic casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to an awareness among loyal customers and a desire to help. The challenge became how to quickly communicate local restaurants’ “new” way of doing business during a pandemic.
On March 21, the Conway Convention and Visitors Bureau launched the #ConwayToGo group on Facebook. In three weeks, membership had grown to more than 7,000 individuals throughout the region. While restaurants frequently post daily specials and provide updates, the majority of posts are from customers sharing how they’re feeding themselves and their families while supporting local restaurants. Shaw said that the program’s success has stood out in Arkansas.
“It is by far the largest of several efforts around the state to promote restaurants during this period of restricted business. I think the success is because you have restaurants and their customers sharing content equally. Both sides are benefitting—one financially, the other with good information and convenience.”
While the CVB was working to promote curbside and delivery options, city officials were looking for creative solutions to further aid restaurants. On March 24, Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry issued an executive order allowing restaurants to “sell food, ingredients, cleaning supplies, paper goods, or sundries” to the general public. The policy had been used in a few communities around the country. The hope was that restaurants would find an additional source of revenue while providing an alternative to crowded grocery stores and potentially out-of-stock items.
A number of Conway restaurants quickly took advantage of the relaxed regulations and launched into the “grocery business.” The locally owned TGI Fridays was one of the earliest and most active restaurants-turned-grocer.
“For the past several weeks we’ve been selling “grocery” or inventory items,” said owner Jeremy Gardner. “Our focus has been frozen proteins, such as steaks, shrimp, chicken, and salmon. Many of our customers were frustrated with long waits and limited stock in a typical grocery store. When they call and reserve an order, we have it properly packed and delivered to their vehicle. Our goal is to provide customers a safe and effortless transaction.”
Other restaurants, such as PattiCakes Bakery and Purple Cow, are also offering groceries that include produce, dairy products, flour, sugar, and lunch meat along with their regular menus.
While there is no clear timeline for when restaurants will be back to normal, it’s safe to say many will likely rely on alternative modes of selling for weeks if not months. Gardner said his goal is simply to sustain business in order to be able to return.
“Combining curbside orders with our grocery business will let us survive and fully reopen whenever we’re allowed. The social media efforts of the CVB and the flexibility from Mayor Castleberry really make a difference.”
Shaw said most of Conway’s approximately 150 restaurants are currently open in some fashion and those that have closed this month are doing so temporarily. While it is a challenging time, she said she’s hopeful all of Conway’s restaurants will be fully open soon.
“Our restaurants really are a regional amenity and an important part of our quality of place. And now they’re playing a vital role in providing safe options for food as we all distance responsibly.”
Tips for Supporting Local Restaurants and Feeding Your Family
Join the #ConwayToGo Facebook group or use the #ConwayToGo hashtag on any social media platform. This is a great way to find deals or discover new restaurants.
Consider purchasing groceries from a restaurant (TGI Fridays, Purple Cow, PattiCakes, and others have a variety of grocery options).
Many restaurants are offering “family packs” or even frozen “take and bake” options.
Add side dishes or a dessert from a restaurant to your home-prepared main dish (or vice versa).