Food&wine
Covid-19 communication & management strategies in Finland’s 50 best restaurants

To summarise some of the novel ideas we analysed the crisis communication and management strategies of Finland’s 50 most renowned restaurants.

Published : 18.06.2020

The coronavirus has affected everyone, from individuals to organisations to nations. To help curb the spread of the virus, strict social distancing measures have been introduced across the world. While everyone has had to do their best to adapt to the new normal, the hospitality industry has been hit particularly hard by government-mandated lockdown measures. With many food service providers having to close shop for several months, restaurateurs across the world have effectively had to re-think their value propositions overnight. This has sparked innovative new ways of producing and providing service. To summarise some of the novel ideas we analysed the crisis communication and management strategies of Finland’s 50 most renowned restaurants.

Each year hundreds of Finnish hospitality professionals from chefs to sommeliers to food critics and researchers come together to nominate and vote for the country’s top 50 restaurants. The organisations that end up on the prestigious list represent the crème de la crème of Finnish hospitality. Besides showcasing impeccable service, taste, and creativity, the restaurants, often helmed by celebrity chefs, have also attracted a significant following on social media. Instagram in particular has proven an important medium for b2c communication. Put together, the top 50 restaurants hold over 140 000 followers on the platform and post several hundred times per month.

Finnish restaurants were told to close on the 4th of April, although in practice the majority of operators had already closed their doors by the week before. The official mandate to reopen – albeit with several safety measures – took place on June 1st. But what happened in the country’s top restaurants in the weeks between? How did they react, communicate, and innovate their service offering, and what might we learn in case of future crises?

Broadly put, Finland’s top 50 restaurants adopted one or several of five approaches: launch completely new offerings, introduce new value-adding elements to the service experience, experiment with new ways of fostering social relationships with customers, explore novel streams of revenue, or take time to focus on revamping the brand’s visual image or broader servicescape.

As operators were told to close their venues, restaurateurs had to find new ways of reaching customers. The top 50 list largely consists of fine dining restaurants that rely on high average spend per customer/table. The need to serve customers from afar forced operators to transform their business models, whereby traditional tasting menus had to be turned into more delivery-friendly offerings. Several restaurants started to offer takeaway or vacuum-packed meal kits. For example Helsinki-based Ora transformed its Michelin-starred kitchen into a ‘sushi factory’, while Demo introduced a luxurious finish-at-home tasting menu complete with video instructions, wine pairings, and a specially curated Spotify-playlist to create the right ambiance.

Besides celebrity chef djs, the top 50 restaurants also explored other ways of bringing added value to the stay-at-home experience. Savoy used the lockdown to educate their Instagram followers about the history of the restaurant, while Tampere-based Ravintola C took the opportunity to highlight the importance of working with local suppliers in a time when global supply chains are being disrupted. One of the most creative approaches came from Henri Alén’s Finnjävel, which decided to offer its customers two-week access to an online course promoting and providing tools for taking care of mental health amidst the pandemic.

Other creative ways of boosting collective morale and fostering social connection in a time of isolation included raffles or competitions. For example Porvoo-based Sicapelle invited its followers to share pictures of their picnic setups, whereas in Turku Ravintola Mami held frequent raffles in collaboration with renowned leafy green producer DeliVerde. In terms of more direct outreach, Sikke’s organised virtual champagne tasting events, while Penélope live streamed virtual hangouts hosted by executive chef Hans Välimäki.

Hospitality is a business with notoriously thin margins, and making ends meet even with new take away offerings and innovative ways of staying in touch with customers is difficult. For this reason, the majority of the top 50 restaurants also experimented with additional streams of revenue. From gift certificates to wholesale of branded products, e.g. spice mix, beer, or hoodies, restaurateurs explored creative approaches to stay afloat. Several restaurants started a collaboration, e.g. a branded ready-to-eat offering, with a local supermarket, while some turned to crowdfunding. Operators with multiple venues tended to focus assets on one. Even though across the board many organisations were forced to lay off staff to cut costs, some came up with creative ways of utilising new-found time and manpower. Joensuu-based Local Bistro turned to volunteering and provided free meals for frontline healthcare staff, while in Helsinki Kuurna and Ultima took the opportunity to renovate premises and redesign customer journeys to facilitate a more low-touch post-lockdown service experience.

The coronavirus forced hospitality practitioners to rethink the way service is produced and provided almost overnight. Despite all the hardship, creative new ways of conducting business have emerged. As nations across the world start to gradually ease restrictions around movement and social distancing, one can only marvel at the ingenuity and incredible resilience of innovative restaurant operators. Even though future remains uncertain, one thing is for sure: agile organisations that are able to proactively transform difficult situations into new opportunities will continue to thrive in the future.

For the full list of the 2020 50 best restaurants please see: https://viisitahtea.com/

Graph: Comparison of top-50 restaurants’ post frequency on Instagram during lockdown and the year before (weeks 14-22 in 2020 and 2019, respectively). Interestingly, the total number of posts per week/month stayed similar during the pandemic and the same time period last year (554 in 2020, 565 in 2019). What changed was the way in which Instagram was used as a mode of communication: from pure advertising and brand image building to information provision, relationship building, and new concept prototyping.