Sep 17, 2020
Melissa Libby, owner of Melissa Libby & Associates (MLA), started her career in hospitality. Today, her friends call her the Restaurant Whisperer
In this interview, Melissa talks about the challenges restaurants have faced in the face of Covid-19, the changes yet to come, and the lessons she has learned in her 27 years of restaurant marketing. In recent months, MLA has helped its clients pivot to curbside delivery, takeout, and/or to serving different retail markets. Some of the adaptations? Restaurants have:
Melissa advises, to further support your local restaurant, “Tip well.”.
Because restaurants typically do not have a lot of money, they value public and community relations over traditional advertising. As restaurants open back up, which clients are most likely to return for dining “in”? Turns out demographics provide no clue. Dining in is the more profitable option . . . but it’s tough to figure out who to target with the “come back in” messages. Each individual will have his or her own level of comfort and timing for when it “feels safe.”
Melissa notes that “online ordering technology is glitchy.” She has seen some improvement already and thinks it will quickly evolve to something “way better, very quickly.” Third party delivery services take a significant cut of the food delivered. So, she says, order from the restaurant, and pick it up yourself.
Melissa lauds the Georgia Restaurant Association for lobbying to get the necessary changes made to help Georgia’s restaurants survive.
When Melissa talks about the early days of her business, she says that she did not plan for success. She did not ask “What do I do if I get more clients than I can handle,” she asked, “What am I going to do if I fail?” She feels she would have done better to plan for success and to prepare for success. Melissa used a siloed PR business staffing model until she figured out that did not work for her. She then divided her staff up by what they liked to do best and where they excelled. This made her staff happier, and her organization more resilient. Now, when an employee leaves the agency, the body of knowledge connected to a client remains intact because everyone in the agency has been working with that client.
Melissa can be reached on her agency’s website at: ThinkMLA.com.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Melissa Libby. Melissa is the owner of Melissa Libby & Associates based in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome to the podcast, Melissa.
MELISSA: Thank you, Rob.
ROB: It’s fantastic to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about MLA and MLA’s superpowers?
MELISSA: All right. MLA is 27 years old, based in Atlanta. Our superpower is restaurant marketing. My friends call me the Restaurant Whisperer. [laughs] That’s what we do. We help restaurants get business and keep business.
ROB: It’s quite a time to be thinking about restaurant business, because here we are in – what month is it? August, I think? I have to check my calendar – of 2020. We are still in various stages of COVID-19 lockdown. So, in this time, in August 2020, what are you seeing/doing/hearing when it comes to restaurant marketing?
MELISSA: Well, it’s a strange new world, that’s for sure. It’s changed over the past few months of what we’ve been doing, and it continues to change as things happen. But it all comes down to getting the message out to the people who want to support a restaurant, want to dine at a restaurant, or want to have takeout. We’ve helped our clients pivot to curbside or takeout or a whole different retail market. Whatever they need to do to stay in business and stay afloat, we help them with that and help them get the word out to people. And then as Georgia reopened and people were able to dine in at a restaurant, we started getting the word out about that.
What’s interesting from a marketing perspective, and something that I hadn’t really thought about – you can’t pick a demographic and say, “Okay, this demographic feels comfortable walking in and dining in a restaurant and this one doesn’t, so we have to focus on this.” You can’t say, “Older people don’t want to dine in a restaurant, so let’s market to the younger people” because that’s just not the case. What I’ve found is that there are people in every demographic that feel comfortable dining in and in every demographic that don’t. It’s an extremely personal decision, so it’s been really, really hard to figure out who those people are and how we get to them. Because with the dine-in, that is going to be the more profitable avenue for the restaurant.
There’s been a lot of that going on. A lot of messaging, a lot of safety messaging to make people feel comfortable, a lot of internal messaging to the staff, a lot of website writing, a lot of social media message crafting. It’s just been really, really challenging.
ROB: It’s interesting that you mention the dine-in diner as being more profitable for the restaurant, because I am a big fan of restaurants. I am a big fan of good restaurants. I am a big fan of many of the restaurants that show up on your website.
Even from early on in COVID – I think I felt like I was trying to do them a solid by doing pickup, but even continuing to do so, because I am one of those folks who’s probably not going to dine in at a restaurant. But what can I do as a pickup order diner to help with the profitability of a restaurant versus maybe what someone dining in and sitting down is doing for them to make them a better customer?
MELISSA: Definitely picking up instead of ordering through a third party delivery service is certainly a help to the restaurant because the third party delivery services take a pretty significant cut of the price. So, if you can go and pick it up, that’s what you want to do. If you don’t want to dine in, do that.
Now in Georgia, they’re about to let restaurants sell alcohol, so if you can order your beer or your wine – a lot of restaurants have cocktail kits – anything like that helps them. I have several clients that are selling their wine, basically, their wine cellar. And these are amazing wines that you can get at a really great price. So, do that, tip well. That’s what you can do to help. I feel like with dine-in, they get that alcohol order that they’re not going to usually get with the takeout, and they also obviously have the service staff who receive tips, the people that wait on you. So that’s what you can do to help.
And don’t get me wrong; all of my clients are very, very grateful for the people that are coming, even if they’re not coming to dine in. They’re grateful for them. So please keep it up.
Another thing – and I should’ve mentioned this – everyone is doing outdoor seating now. So that might be your gateway one day when you’re ready to dining back in, to go sit on a patio somewhere. People are turning their parking lots into patios. They’re doing anything they can to get some patio seating, and people are loving it, even as hot as it is here.
ROB: I know some places have given a temporary reprieve on allowing restaurants to sell alcohol and also in terms of compromising what is allowed for outdoor seating. Are the alcohol sales becoming something more permanent that is being permitted for pickup?
MELISSA: No, it’s COVID specific. It would be great if they would make it permanent, and I guess it’s a possibility, but that has not been discussed.
ROB: It seems like it would take perhaps – and I don’t know this industry as well from the side that you see it from – it seems like it would take a more potent restaurant lobby than maybe has formed up to now. Or is there a stronger restaurant lobby that is forming in recent years to help represent – because independent restaurants just don’t have the same leverage that let’s say a large chain has.
MELISSA: Yeah. The Georgia Restaurant Association is absolutely amazing, and they are our lobbying group. I don’t know if you recall that we got the Sunday Brunch Bill passed. It used to be you couldn’t drink alcohol until 12:30 on Sunday, and now I think it’s 10:30 or 11:00 or something. That took like 3 years or more. It’s ridiculous. It takes forever to get these things through. But the Georgia Restaurant Association and Karen Bremer, who’s the head, they are big-time our advocates from the restaurant community standpoint. They have been instrumental in getting all of these things to happen.
ROB: That’s good to hear.
MELISSA: They are definitely representing everyone. They really, really are.
ROB: When all this started, I’m sure you had some clients who were already doing online ordering, some who resisted it very much at the onset, probably some who flipped over, maybe some holdouts. What were the stages of technology enablement that you’ve seen across your client portfolio?
MELISSA: It was very interesting to watch that. Anybody that was already doing online ordering immediately took it up a notch and they were great. And then you have fine dining restaurants like Aria and Umi, and they’re like, “How am I going to do takeout? How can you take out sushi?” It goes against everything that they have ever dreamed of for their restaurant. Then a couple of weeks go by and they’re like, “Yeah, we’ve got to figure this out.”
And they did. In the case of Umi, they got beautiful packaging and they really figured out a way to create the Umi experience, even insofar as how you drive up and how you’re greeted and how you receive your food. Everything about it is very Umi-like, and it’s probably some of the more expensive takeout you’ll ever get in your life. Umi has a broad menu that you can choose from. Aria took a different stance and they do two choices a day, and they post their menu every single day of what’s tonight’s menu. Some people get Aria three or four times a week because it’s different every night. They’ve got a beautiful curbside pickup.
I guess we probably have a couple that don’t do online ordering or takeout, but it’s few. It was hard, because we had to get the technology set up, and that’s always painful.
ROB: I imagine in Umi’s case, they may have also been tracking – I think there was a sushi restaurant up in New York that went to some sort of like $800 takeout. Did you see this?
MELISSA: [laughs] No, I didn’t.
ROB: Yeah, there was a New York sushi restaurant that went to $800 takeout. I saw some very elevated packaging from Sugarfish, which is a smallish/medium-ish sushi chain, that really did elevate that experience. My own experience has really been that during this time, it has become a time for those who are in the hospitality industry to think about hospitality far more than just being in the food and feeding people industry.
MELISSA: Absolutely. That’s exactly right, and Umi is the perfect example of that. They took their current offering and put it to go. They really did. And the love and care that they give you when you’re dining in, you receive via takeout. They have now opened it for dine-in, but the takeout was such a hit that they kept that going. I wonder to myself if they will continue that when they don’t have to anymore.
ROB: I’m very much excited, especially the restaurants that have figured out how to be hospitable in their takeout and have that passion for serving people. I’m indeed curious how that will continue onwards.
You mentioned that MLA has been in the hospitality industry – you mentioned you’ve been in business for 27 years. Have you been deep into hospitality from the onset? Let me start there.
MELISSA: We have. I started the company in 1992. My background was I had a job at Hyatt. I was working in the hotel business. My contacts were already in the hospitality business, so those were the type of client leads I was getting back then. Then as ’96 and the Olympics started getting closer, Atlanta’s hospitality scene started to beef up a little bit. then when the Olympics hit, I think the whole world saw Atlanta for the great place that it is, and before I knew it, I was focusing on restaurants. I don’t think I could’ve done that when I first started. I don’t think there would’ve been enough restaurants to keep me employed. But that changed, and I was a part of it. It was awesome.
ROB: It’s amazing to stick with it for that long. I think some people start off in the serving hospitality, but they find a hard way to make it a rewarding business for themselves as entrepreneurs and they start to get wandering eyes for how to better serve other clients. Particularly, I think there’s a perception – and a reality, depending on the client – of the margins in the world of being an agency driven around the hospitality industry.
You seem to be happy to have made it work for coming up on three decades. How do you attribute that ongoing passion for the industry – and also, you’ve been able to hire people as well. You’re not a one-person show, just scraping by, taking pictures yourself and posting pictures of food. How has that worked well for you?
MELISSA: There’s no question that I love the industry, and I think that has to be – I’m sure I could go work in another industry and make more money, but I do love the industry, and I love working with the restaurant owners and the chefs. It’s a very creative group of people. It’s a very entrepreneurial group of people. I really enjoy working with other people. I love to be in a meeting and go, “Hey, I have a great idea. Let’s do this!” “Okay, that sounds good.” Boom, off you go and start doing it. It doesn’t have to run up a flagpole of approvals and all of that stuff so that by the time the idea is finally approved, it’s completely different and 3 months later. I really enjoy the atmosphere of what we do.
I feel like from focusing the way that I do and focusing my team in the way that I do, we’re just incredibly efficient. The fact that we represent a lot of restaurants makes us a huge value to the media, so they can just make one phone call and say, “I’m looking for recipes using apples” – and this is a true story; got it this morning – and I can make like eight calls and then, 3 hours later, call the reporter back and go, “Okay, I’ve got” – and this is true – “a Brussel sprout and apple salad, I’ve got an apple pie, I’ve got this, I’ve got this.” The reporter has only had to make one call and spend 5 minutes.
So, I think that’s made us very efficient. You’re right; restaurants don’t have a lot of money, but I have to say that they value public relations and community relations and communications over more traditional advertising. Because it stretches a little bit more. Their money will stretch a little bit farther with us than it would two ads that month.
It really has been – I’ve made a living. [laughs] I pay my bills, almost always on time.
ROB: And sometimes you get some good meals along the way, and that’s pretty good too.
MELISSA: I definitely do. I definitely do that, yes, for sure.
ROB: Wonderful. When we think about some of these clients – entrepreneurs, and I think restauranteurs sometimes in particular, may have a reputation of being a little bit hard to corral. When someone comes in with that need for that story, for that recipe, some of them might not even read your email until the next day.
I think a lot of people, even more broadly beyond the hospitality industry, would wonder: is there a secret? Is it that you just know so well into the businesses that you can maybe bypass the entrepreneur and go straight to a chef internally? Is it that you tend to work with restauranteurs who have their details together more? Is it that you’re sometimes able to just know things well enough that you can be a proxy for them? Or a combination of everything?
How do you tighten those lines of communication? Because everybody wants, I think, that level of execution and responsiveness to be able to pull something from an idea to a published-in-the-media message quickly. But clients may not always make that easy for you.
MELISSA: Oh, for sure they don’t. [laughs] The answer to your question is certainly all of the above. Every single client is different, has a different way that they like to be communicated with. We just have to learn, “Okay, this guy, if we text him at 2:00 it’s going to be our very best time to get his attention. This one, we’ve got to call because he knows if I’m calling, it’s got to be really important. Otherwise I’m just going to send him an email. This person likes all five things put in an email at the end of the day. This person likes everything in subject by subject email.”
We really just have to figure them out. But they all are paying us to get the word out, so if they take too long or don’t answer or whatever, I just let them know, “Hey, you missed an opportunity. This is why, so next time, here’s what we’ve got to do.” They get it.
And we also know on our end who’s fast to answer – and I tell clients this when I first meet with them about “Are we going to work with you or not?” I always say, “There is no question, the people that answer us quickly and thoroughly are the ones that get the best press. So that’s what you’ve got to do.” They always go, “Okay, okay, I’m going to do it!” And then some do and some don’t. But it’s the truth. You get out what you put in.
But if we get a last-minute request and we don’t have a lot of time, we have our go-tos because we know who’s going to respond. That’s the goal, to be a go-to.
ROB: You’ve been in this business a while longer than some of the recent shifts in the food media world. It seems like between web outlets, between review sites and increased interest in the TV landscape around food, the culture of food and interest in good food has shifted mightily. What is trending now? What is evergreen now, and what is withering away in terms of getting attention within the hospitality industry?
MELISSA: That’s a really good question, and I’m not sure, given everything going on, that I can answer that with any great knowledge. I’ve seen the food industry go through all kinds of changes, and I think that food as an entertainment avenue is here forever. I just can’t see that going away.
But I think that with COVID and the concerns of the large gatherings, and even the very tight quarters, that’s going to – I don’t want to say go away, but I think there’s going to be less of that. I think people that are opening restaurants right now for sure are not cramming tables in. They’re also not making a humongous restaurant. So, I think we’re going to see some more medium-size restaurants with a lot of space. I think we’re probably going to see some lower priced menus. Just a more mainstream, low-key, as everybody gets back into it and figures out – I just can’t imagine people opening a big, flashy, fancy restaurant right this minute.
And that’s not to say that they won’t, and that’s not to say that they wouldn’t be successful. But I think if you were making your decision today, that would probably not be what you would do. Now, there are people that are well into the planning for a restaurant that’s supposed to open next week or in a month or whatever, and they have to go with what they’ve got and use the guidelines from the state until they don’t have to anymore.
ROB: The intersection that you sit at, I’m sure that your existing clients and people getting into the industry even look to you to an extent for strategy as well. One thing you hear swirling in the restaurant industry is diversification of business model. Some people are already going into events. That’s obviously changing a little bit. Some have been going into additional retail product lines. What are you suggesting to clients as they think about where to go with technology enablement and where to go with overall restaurant business strategy, possibly diversifying?
MELISSA: One thing that’s big is the ghost kitchen/pop-up idea. I have a couple clients, Drift in East Cobb is doing a lobster roll pop-up calls Pop’s Lobster Shack. They did it kind of out of necessity during COVID. They made this takeout window – and I don’t know if you know this, but lobster was really, really inexpensive. I don’t know if it still is, but all the lobster fishermen didn’t have anybody to sell to because all the restaurants up there were closed, so everybody got lobster really cheap. I don’t know if people are noticing, but you can probably get lobster at Applebee’s right now. I don’t know.
But anyway, they started this lobster roll special called Pop’s, and it’s been unbelievably successful. We had a meeting the other day and they were like, “I think we’re going to just keep this going. When lobster’s out of season, we’ll do something else.” I already had some clients that were talking about that sort of ghost kitchen idea, where you do something different than what you already do in your restaurant, you have a different menu offering, but you don’t have the building and the huge branding and all the expenses that go along with it. You just sell it on Door Dash or whatever the situation is. So that’s definitely happening right now.
As far as technology, I think the online ordering is glitchy right now. I see it already getting better, and I think it’s going to get way better very, very quickly, and people are going to be able to, as you suggested, order merch and maybe seasonings and all that stuff in a much less clunky way than they even can do right now. I’m excited for that to happen because it’s been painful, some of these online sites that we’ve been working with.
ROB: I can’t imagine, and it sounds like you’ve had to. Melissa, as you reflect on the business as you have built it thus far, what are some things that you would consider maybe doing differently if you were starting over from scratch?
MELISSA: That’s a very good question. One of the things that I always tell people when they say, “What should I know before I start a business?” is I did not plan for success when I started. I planned, “What am I going to do if I fail? When am I going to decide it doesn’t work, and then what am I going to do?” I spent a lot of time thinking about that, but I didn’t spend any time – not even a minute – thinking about, “What am I going to do if I’ve got more clients than I can handle? What am I going to do if there are not enough hours in the day for me to do all the work by myself?” I never thought of any of that.
I spent probably 2 or 3 years running like a crazy woman, trying to hire a person here and there, do this, do that. Always that’s my first thing that I tell people: plan for success. Have some people lined up. Have some things lined up to support you if it goes well. That’s always been my best learning, because it’s like “Why didn’t I do that?”
And then many years ago – but it was still well into the business – I realized that the traditional PR business model or way of setting up your staff didn’t work for me. You probably know this, but it was always account supervisor, account executive, assistant account executive, little silos, and they did everything. They met with the client, they wrote the business plan, they wrote the press release, they sent the press release, they did everything. I realized I would come back to the office and go, “Hey, we got a new client,” and everybody would duck their head like, “Oh my God, don’t give it to me, don’t give it to me.” I was like, oh, this is not good.
So I divided everybody up by what they like to do best and what they’re best at, so now we have writers and we have media relations people and we have social media people and we have client services people. If your thing is meeting with the clients and writing timelines and writing plans and checking off lists, then that’s what you do. And if you’re a great writer and you can sit in a quiet room all day long and write, write, write, write, write, that’s what you do. It was just a huge help, and it changed everything.
And then there was an added bonus of if someone leaves, the brain trust does not walk out the door because everyone has been working on the client. So that was a big learning, and it’s something that I’m glad came to me at some point in the years.
ROB: Sure. One thing I think adjacent to that is in this case – and it’s fairly common in the PR industry – your name is on the door, and that can be a challenge in bringing in other people. How have you addressed the challenge where Melissa is quite often the person who goes out and earns the trust of the client, and your reputation is a big part of the value that you bring, but at some point your client’s going to have to work with somebody who’s not Melissa? How have you handled that scaling yourself problem?
MELISSA: It’s a good question, and it worried me so much for a long time. I felt like I had to be at every new business meeting, I had to really, really be involved and really assure the prospective client that I was their main contact and all of that.
I think the true answer is good people. I have people that have been with me 11 years, 8 years. I’ve been really fortunate to have long-term employees who are awesome, and the client just wants somebody that’s going to help them get the work done. I love client meetings, so I go to as many of them as I can. The beauty, though, is I don’t have to write the agenda. I don’t have to take the notes. I don’t have to do the follow-up. I’m just spending that hour of my time brainstorming with that client or advising that client or listening to that client.
So, I’m giving them my best. I’m giving them what they expect from me and what they value from me, but then I have a very competent person and a whole team behind that person that’s going to take care of the details. Over time, I’ve just gotten more and more comfortable with it – and that’s truly what it was: me getting comfortable with it. I think it was more in my head than it was anything else. I think the clients are fine with it because, once again, they’re being taken care of. If they weren’t, I’m sure they would say, “Melissa, you schluffed me off on this person and they’re no good.” But fortunately that does not happen.
Also, one of my key employees took on the new business development role a few years ago, so she is bonused on the new business that she brings in. She takes a really instrumental role in that, to the point where now sometimes we have to be sure that the prospective client realizes that she may not be the person that they’re going to see every day too. It’s funny. It’s kind of transferred over a little bit.
ROB: It definitely makes sense. It sounds like one of those things you find along the way; you took it from your name and your person being the reputation to when people bring in Melissa Libby & Associates, your reputation is also the people you bring to the table and who does the work.
MELISSA: Yes, exactly.
ROB: The brand is still you; you haven’t shied away from that, but you’ve expanded what it means.
MELISSA: Right. And as you’ll notice, we a long time ago started using MLA as our logo. Our web address was MelissaLibbyPR.com; now it’s ThinkMLA.com because we wanted to expand beyond the PR and be more than that, and then we also wanted to shorten it and use that MLA more. It just takes my name out of it a little bit. Just a little bit.
ROB: Perfect. Melissa, when people want to find you and MLA, where should they go to find you?
ROB: Excellent. Even in the website, it’s changed a little bit. Or was that always the address?
MELISSA: No, it’s changed.
ROB: Very good. Melissa, thank you for enlightening us on your journey with Melissa Libby & Associates as well as the journey of the hospitality industry during this time. I’ve learned a lot, and I think the listeners will have as well.
MELISSA: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
ROB: Be well. Thank you.
MELISSA: All righty.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.