“Comfort food” strikes deeper notes all of a sudden. And in a different sort of crisis, The Melt Shop QSR brand would be perfectly positioned to ride the hunker-down vibe, since it was founded in 2011 on a love of the ultimate homemade comfort food, grilled cheese sandwiches. But the Covid-19 lockdowns closed most of its 19 locations, except three storefronts in Manhattan that continue with delivery and takeout service.
As Aarti Mehta, director of marketing, shared with us at the recent QSR Brand Insider Summit, Melt Shop has developed a robust and loyal social media audience. When we caught up with her last week, she explained how that network is serving Melt Shop’s “Melt It Forward” program to comfort the helpers with deliveries to frontline health workers.
MP: What is The Melt Shop’s marketing plan and media mix? How do you acquire and retain customers?
Mehta: Through several different channels. Instagram is a huge channel for us. We've done a lot of work on there from original content to promotions to influencer relations. About six months ago we dove into paid social, which has been successful. But we also have an app that we developed through LevelUp that we updated last year to provide ordering. That's a big, important channel to us.
We also do a lot of in-store marketing and marketing messages about products. So last year we launched LTOs [limited-time-only offers], and they've been very successful for us from a sales and marketing perspective, just to have something to talk about. People have been resonating with LTOs a lot, and some of those LTOs that we launched last year are now core product items.
MP: Let's get into the crisis. What has been the immediate impact on your business?
Mehta: We have closed several shops temporarily. Currently, we only have about three locations open in Manhattan. A lot of the malls closed so we have to close those shops and we're monitoring numbers and seeing how things are doing. And also, more importantly, we were worried about our teams and how they were feeling.
It's been an open dialogue between our operations team and our team on the ground, just to make sure people are feeling healthy. If they're not even just a tiny bit not feeling well, we're advising them to go home. We've implemented very safe practices in shop and just keeping that dialogue open because we do care about the well-being of our team.
MP: So, your approach to the delivery ecosystem is to cast a wide net to partner with as many as you can, rather than focus on select providers?
Mehta: Yes. Third-party delivery platforms are a good marketing tool, and we want to be on all of them. Our whole thing is, we want to be convenient to our customer. You name it, we're going to be there.
MP: How has that delivery ecosystem changed during this crisis?
Mehta: A lot of the third-party delivery platforms have gotten rid of their commission fees or lowered the commission fees. They're offering free delivery and other promotions on the app. And they launched a whole contact-less program for us on the delivery side.
MP: How has the marketing side of these delivery platforms changed?
Mehta: It has become a really good platform for some of these restaurants that don't have the capability to set up their own delivery system for some of these smaller shops. Yes, the competition is expanded, but it's a good opportunity for some of these smaller restaurants to keep going.
MP: Your brand seems to be leaning into the crisis in a substantial way by getting directly involved serving health workers in Manhattan.
Mehta: Our CEO, Spencer Rubin, said it himself: We have a responsibility to our team and the community to continue providing fair wages and access to hot, comforting foods.
[So] we launched Melt It Forward. It consists of a hospital program that's two-fold. If you're a hospital member, you can email Melt It Forward at MeltShop.com a photo of your hospital ID ,and we will automatically give you credit on our app to get a free sandwich.
We have a hospital donation program set up where, if you are a nurse or a doctor or a family member of a doctor, you can email us and we will arrange for drops to happen to your hospital. We've probably served about 1,300 meals and growing. We have a full wait list of hospitals that have reached out to us that we're ranging these drops for right now.
The other part of Melt It Forward is for kids who've lost access to school lunch. If they're affected by that pretty heavily, we are doing -- on a trust basis -- a free Melt for children.
We're also doing a personal heroes program. If you know somebody, whether it's a mom who's working hard to home-school their kids or a grocery store worker or janitor or another doctor and you want to nominate them to get a free sandwich, we have a whole program we're calling Nominate Melt It Forward personal heroes.
MP: That sounds both laudable and like an awful lot of work that was implemented very quickly. How did it happen?
Mehta: Our CEO had a lot of ideas and he and I met with our operations team and they [said], we want to do this. We got with our social team and they designed a bunch of cool designs for us for the Melt It Forward program. So we sent an email and the Instagram posts we did for the medical health blurbs program actually got shared 500 times.
I'm managing the emails as they come in. We have
this simple Google Sheet where we keep track. We talked to our delivery partners Relay and they agreed to provide free delivery for all of these drops. We've gotten to a point where it's actually
fairly manageable now, and we're booking them about two to three days out. And we standardized the package that we're giving. So, say, you're going to get two combo boxes, which have 20 sandwiches, a
bunch of chicken tenders, a bunch of [tater] tots.
MP: Are you focusing paid media at this as well?
Mehta: We've paused paid media just for a little bit because we also want to be very thoughtful and sensitive to the content that's being shared and what's out there. I am starting to see a few other brands start paid again. I think it's transitioning. But we've just done it on social.
MP: Do you have a vision of how you come out of this? How do we transition back towards normality?
Mehta: I'm putting together general plans -- without a timeline or a date associated -- on [how we] sort of reintroduce Melt Shop to the communities that have been closed, in a very thoughtful and respectful way. Then, once that's done, how do we start pushing sales messaging?
And then I think the restaurant industry as a whole is going to change how we operate. People are going to be sensitive to all of this even when things sort of get back to the new normal.
We have, for example, a buzzer system. We're thinking about eliminating the buzzers once we reopen because people potentially are not going to want to touch it. And so thinking about those things and the way we operate, it's going to change, along with the marketing of it.
MP: But it's interesting you see a period where sensitive messaging will have to transition us into sales-driven marketing as usual.
Mehta: Definitely. I mean, when this started, you saw these types of messaging on what every brand, every restaurant was doing for safety -- and then you saw it transition to, sadly, messaging on restaurants that have closed, or messaging about people that are doing community outreach.
We started just last week to incorporate food photos back into the mix, keeping the messaging very thoughtful and around comfort food. I think that's what it's going to be when we get out of it. Everybody's going to be hit with very similar messaging. So how do you manage that? And then how do you stay sensitive because we don't know what's going to happen with COVID 19? I think there will be a lot of learnings.