Shuttered brick & mortar stores across the world are focused on the well-being of their employees…and making sure there’s still a business for them to return to after COVID-19. People want to support their communities in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, but businesses that operate out of a physical location face a unique challenge if they are to take advantage of that support.

How do you flip your physical business into an online business — and do it within a few days?

Here are 7 ways some of Chicago’s brick & mortar businesses have found to pivot their operations to online in response to COVID-19:

  1. Shift from tasting menu to take-out menu (Elizabeth Restaurant)
  2. Create a newsletter with content that people want to get (Lost Lake Tiki)
  3. Keep the show going with a virtual experience (The Annoyance Theater)
  4. Create new opportunities for people to do what they love (CARA & Fleet Feet)
  5. Collaborate with others to create unique products (The Hideout)
  6. Let your audience attend your event from home (Whistleblower Gallery & Tula Yoga)
  7. Deliver the essentials to your customers (VCA Animal Hospital & Beermiscuous)

1. Shift from tasting menu to take-out menu

Elizabeth RestaurantElizabeth refers to their cuisine as “New Gatherer.”

Elizabeth is a Michelin-starred restaurant that features cuisine inspired by the natural world. Menus are largely fruit- and vegetable-focused and reflect the seasons. A visit to Elizabeth can last hours, as guests sample experimental tasting courses and exotic wine pairings.

Like so many other eateries across the country, when Chicago announced that all restaurants and bars must close except for take-out or pick-up, Elizabeth scrambled for a solution. Within a couple of days, they sent out the following email:

Elizabeth email 1How many of us even remember ordering a pizza in 1988?

How does a restaurant that serves multi-course fine dining experiences turn into a takeout outfit overnight?

Nick Kokonas, co-founder of Chicago’s Michelin three-starred restaurant Alinea, developed the online reservation service Tock back in 2014, allowing restaurants to sell prepaid tickets for dining experiences.

A couple of weeks ago, Kokonas suspected a shutdown like Italy experienced was on the way to the United States. 20 Tock employees worked around the clock for 6 days to engineer, design, prototype, and launch Tock To Go. “Basically, we did something we’d normally take three to four months doing and did it in a week,” Kokonas explained in an interview with Robb Report.

Kick Kokonas tweetNick Kokonas’ own restaurant, Alinea, sold $5,600 worth of margarita kits in just the first few hours they were live on Tock. Read Nick Kokonas’ email to his team here.

In the first 24 hours that Tock To Go was available, more than 250 restaurants across the country signed up. How has the new Tock format worked for fine-dining restaurants?

Elizabeth has sold out every day so far.

Elizabeth Email 2Elizabeth has already scaled up to match the demand from customers who want to enjoy fine dining — while still practicing responsible social isolation.

“(Tock) will keep people employed—not everyone, likely—but it will help a ton,” Nick Kokonas says. “Canlis put their meals up this afternoon and sold out a week’s worth in an hour.”

tock to go tweet(Source: Twitter)

2. Create a newsletter with content that people want to get

Not every restaurant or bar can pivot to take-out or delivery. That has left countless restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues searching for new ways to pay employees and keep bills under control. Enter the popular fundraiser platform GoFundMe.

A fundraiser can seem daunting — no one wants to have to ask for help. But fundraisers can be a crucial channel to connect with your customers.

Lost Lake tikiWith cocktails like “A Parrot on Your Shoulder Saying Everything When You Talk,” Lost Lake has made a name for itself as one of the premier cocktail bars in the U.S.

Lost Lake is a tropical cocktail bar in Chicago. It is a four-time James Beard Foundation finalist for Outstanding Bar Program in 2019, has earned a spot on the World’s 50 Best Bars list, and was named one of Esquire’s Best Bars in America and Imbibe magazine’s Cocktail Bar of the Year.

When creating their GoFundMe, Lost Lake put it like this: “Our industry’s tipped workers are really feeling the impact of this very new — but very necessary — practice of social distancing. Lost Lake laid off her entire staff yesterday. Like, every. single. Person.”

They followed that with:

“If you would like to have a little Lost Lake in your living room, we have a proposition for you: Slide us a virtual tip here, and we will sign you up for our brand new quarantine-friendly newsletter! A twice-weekly delivery straight to your inbox with cocktails to make at home, recipes from our kitchen, Q+As with Lost Lakers, and maybe even a crossword. Every cent will go directly to Lost Lakers.”

Lost Lake newsletterWe won’t post the entirety of Lost Lake’s newsletter here (you’ll need to donate to get access to treasures like the recipe for their bourbon-based fave, “Something For Nothing.”)

By emailing out content like coveted cocktail and food recipes, along with much-needed entertainment during social distancing, Lost Lake has found a way to write content that their customers want to read.

One donator posted, “You all have been very good to me despite being a lone visitor. I rarely go out drinking with friends so it is an individual affair. All your staff deserves this and more. Hope to get more rum recommendations from you soon.”

3. Keep the show going with a virtual experience

Annoyance Theatre(Source: The Annoyance Theatre)

For over 30 years, The Annoyance Theatre has created some of Chicago’s finest comedy, using improvisation to create new and original plays, musicals, and sketch-comedy in a vibrant, creative atmosphere. An atmosphere that does not promote social isolation in any way, shape, or form.

For their fundraiser, The Annoyance Theatre plans to keep their doors open by locking themselves in:

“The Annoyance has hand-selected some of its top performers to be quarantined within the walls of the theatre for 10 DAYS — no one leaves, no one enters. You’ll be able to watch this team of brave comedians living their daily lives, rehearsing, eating, crying, singing, dancing, falling asleep in random places & slowly losing their minds. The Annoyance Theatre “QuaranTeam” will broadcast the true nature of what it’s like to lock yourself inside during a pandemic. During this quarantine period, the artists will undergo an intense collaborative process where they will write & produce an original show to be live-streamed at the end of the holding period.”

By investing their shelter-in-place time into an artistic social experiment (in an effort to save themselves from the virus and the Annoyance Theatre from closing permanently), the theater is creating something of value: Ongoing entertainment (and a future show) for their supporters.

You can watch the live-stream of their shut-in here.

4. Create new opportunities for people to continue to do what they love

The Chicago Area Runners Association, CARA, is a non-profit organization committed to serving and advocating for the local running community. Founded in 1978, CARA is the third-largest local community of runners in America, with over 10,000 members.

They provide accessible opportunities for all runners to train, race, and be social — activities that you’d think couldn’t happen with social isolation.

CARA decided to halt all events, like their weekly 1 Mile and 5K runs, right?

Well, yes, of course — but they also found a way to not only support the Chicago running community, but to do so in a way that spreads awareness about social distancing. Enter their Social Distance Run.

CARA emailAs CARA points out, “You’re still winning even when you’re six feet behind.”

As their email and landing page state, “Join us in committing to safe social distancing practices in your running as we battle the coronavirus while supporting the Chicago Area Runners Association.” Oh, and you get a pretty sweet t-shirt for signing up for the run as well.

And if you need new running shoes for the Social Distance Run, Fleet Feet has you covered with contactless curbside pickup.

Fleet Feet curbsideFleet Feet believes running remains essential to a healthy lifestyle and can still be done safely following the Center for Disease Control’s recommended social distancing measures.

5. Collaborate with others to create unique products

The Hideout is a “regular guy bar for irregular folks who just don’t fit in, or just don’t want to fit in.” To give you a sense of its history, the bar and live-music venue has been called the Hideout since it first opened — in 1934. Like many other similar brick & mortar businesses, it started a GoFundMe when forced to close due to the Coronavirus risk.

The Hideout FundraiserThe Hideout’s fundraiser has hit 100% of its goal, which ensures staff will be looked out for in the short-term.

No one knows how long shelter-in-place orders will last, but The Hideout knows two things:

  1. Artists need our support now more than ever
  2. The Hideout needs help to weather this storm

The Hideout’s solution? To make their own money.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The Hideout is printing a series of collectible art-objects it calls “Hideout Bucks.”
  2. Hideout Bucks are designed by artists Steve Krakow, Kathleen Judge, Jon Langford, Izzy True, and Steve Walters.
  3. The cost is $25: Artists get $5 now. The Hideout gets $20 now.
  4. Patrons can redeem their Bucks for $20 worth of drinks when The Hideout re-opens.

Hideout BucksThese collectible miniature art prints will force people to make a hard decision: Keep them or trade them in for a gin & tonic (source: The Hideout).

6. Let your audience attend your event from home

Whistleblower Gallery started as a rundown ex-tattoo parlor and is now a British contemporary art institution much loved by collectors and artists alike. The gallery was gearing up for a new exhibition when crowd restrictions suddenly became the norm. No amount of wine, cheese, and fine art is worth risking peoples’ safety, so Whistleblower quickly shut its doors.

After some consideration, Whistleblower Gallery realized the gallery opening could go on — with an Instagram Live broadcast. Now, people across the entire world can attend the opening (though they’ll need to provide their own wine and nibbles).

NESS gallery showAs the gallery states, “Due to these extraordinary circumstances, Stanley Donwood’s new show NESS will take place in a different and socially distant way.”

Tula Yoga is taking the same approach as Whistleblower Gallery, leading live-streaming yoga classes.

Tula yoga emailTula knows customers need their services now more than ever, as people look for meditative activities.

There are countless in-person experiences that you can present online through a live webinar format, like:

  • Gallery and museum tours
  • Music and comedy performances
  • Book and poetry readings
  • Educational events
  • Demonstrations

To help you out, we’ve created a free toolkit to help you smoothly navigate the entire process. Each resource is designed to make every step of running a successful webinar easier, from the pre-event setup to the post-event follow-up. The resources can be adapted for any live event you want to host.

7. Deliver the essentials to your customers

The responsibilities and concerns of daily life don’t pause for a pandemic, as VCA Animal Hospital knows. Pets still need food and medications, but with shelter-in-place, owners can no longer stop off at the vet to pick it up.

VCA emailed customers to let them know processes are in place to deliver much-needed pet supplies to peoples’ homes.

VCA COVID emailIs your pet sick and need to visit the vet? Upon arrival, remain in your vehicle and call the front desk. After receipt of the call, an assistant will check you in as soon as possible from outside the vet clinic.

It’s not just essential services like veterinary clinics that have set up delivery systems. Liquor stores fall under the essential services umbrella as well, and are allowed to stay open. Shops like the craft beer fan-favorite Beermiscuous now offer curbside delivery services (by bike, no less!) to help people stay indoors and slow the spread of COVID-19.

Beermiscuous instagram COVID“Stoop” and “curbside” are quickly becoming common ecommerce terminology.

COVID-19 has long-lasting implications for every business that operates out of a physical location and, for many, the future is unknown. The examples in this post are just a few of the ways brick & mortar stores have found to keep their doors open virtually.

Whatever decision is right for your business, your customers want to hear from you. Everyone is wondering what will happen to their favorite businesses, and you can help by letting them know what’s next for you. Now isn’t the time to stop talking to your customers.