Some say “efforts are no substitute for direct assistance”
City of Boston and state officials are looking to spend millions of dollars on consultants and marketers to encourage Massachusetts residents to patronize local restaurants during the pandemic—but a restaurant advocacy group is worried that workers need more direct aid to survive the massive loss of business over the past year.
Boston’s office of economic development is planning to use CARES money to create an app to promote local businesses, including restaurants, and the state’s Office of Travel and Tourism is aiming to spend nearly $2 million on agencies to provide “public relations, marketing strategy, social media, graphic design, and advertising support services” promoting restaurants across Mass. But the coalition Massachusetts Restaurants United said direct aid is the most important way to help struggling eateries.
“These efforts are no substitute for direct assistance,” the group said in a statement. “We’d like to see the state working NOW with cities and towns to plan for expanded outdoor dining, street closures, and other efforts that will shorten the winter period. What public spaces can be made available for restaurants to use? What spaces can be activated that will help keep businesses intact? These efforts need to start now.”
Businesses across the state have been hard hit by the pandemic, as safety restrictions have drastically limited capacity and many non-essential businesses were ordered closed for months at a time. Gov. Charlie Baker recently lifted some restrictions on businesses, allowing them to stay open past 9:30 pm, but capacity limits are still at 25%.
In a bid recently released by Boston’s Office of Economic development, officials are asking for a developer to create an app that will encourage residents to shop at local businesses while staying safe.
“Capacity is going to be a challenge, we’re willing to be creative and thoughtful moving forward,” Director of Small Business Natalie Urturbey said. “The number one priority is public health, we’re trying to figure out a way of balancing what to do for businesses while also maintaining covid restrictions.”
The app would alert residents to deals at businesses who register for the program and give rewards to participants, according to the bid. Urturbey said the city would then reimburse businesses.
For example, the app could offer a deal for $15 on food that would normally cost $20. If an app user gets that deal, the city would then pay the business the remaining $5, Urturbey said.
“The idea is a business offers a discount to users of the app, that discount incentivizes users to spend in the business. Whatever it ends up being is transferred by a direct grant from the city,” Urturbey said. “We’re really looking at local small businesses, likely retail storefronts, all industry types focusing on those hardest-hit—restaurants, personal care, entertainment, recreation. The hope here is to really engage businesses as well as residents and customers in the recovery of the city.”
Officials did not say how much CARES money would be available for developing the app, citing procurement law, and did not say much was available to reimburse businesses. Urturbey said the city has given $14 million in grants to businesses and the app was another way to drive customers their way.
“This is really a good way of using funds to expand support,” Urturbey said. “We’re not limiting what we’re doing, this is in addition to work we’re doing and grants. This is just an added way of building civic engagement into recovery as relief efforts.”
At the state level, officials at the Office of Travel and Tourism said the Commonwealth has given more than 400 grants to restaurants through the Mass Growth Capital Corporation, but the office itself is focused on marketing. It previously ran the My Local MA campaign last year to encourage residents to shop local. The campaign cost $2,250,000, with the lead agency, Boston-based Think Argus, getting more than $900,000.
The new marketing initiative, which focuses specifically on restaurants and has a budget of $1.9 million, is being advertised now so it can be launched during a safer climate for restaurants, officials said. It will include online ads, including paid social media marketing, as well as on radio and TV.
The Massachusetts Restaurant Association is one of the organizations that will use the ads developed by the marketers. MRA President Bob Luz said the expense was worth it.
“This continuation is specifically geared toward restaurants, we’re excited about that,” Luz said. “At the end of the day we believe strongly in investing in marketing. Recovery is going to be best serviced by keeping people local, they’re looking at doing everything they can to make sure local business services.”
But members of Massachusetts Restaurants United said the state’s spending needed to be locally focused.
“We don’t need billboards at the airport to encourage residents of MetroWest to order from local restaurants. We’d encourage the dollars on this contract to be spent as locally as possible,” the organization said in a statement. “The state can help lead and share best practices, particularly if they actually talk to local restaurants about their needs.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
Dan is a reporter who has covered Massachusetts for the Boston Herald and Gatehouse Media.