Dining Bonds: Investing in the Future of Restaurants

Patricia O’Connell

Creativity. Optimism. Resilience. Entrepreneurship. These qualities are the cornerstone of capitalism and are among the most powerful engines of innovation. When they are brought to fruition in the free market, ideas are generated, businesses get started, value is created, and society as a whole ultimately benefits. The economic upheaval and uncertainty created by the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) will demand the very best that both the public and private sectors have to offer. In the coming weeks, “This Is Capitalism” will supplement its regular content with stories of private-sector initiatives that embody these core qualities.

Even before the mandated closure (except for delivery and takeout) in New York City and elsewhere, restaurants were starting to feel the effects of social distancing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Helen Patrikis, whose New York City-based PR firm HP-PR focuses on restaurants, was eager to do something to help not just clients but the industry. Her solution: Dining Bonds, an initiative that directly connects diners with restaurants to provide funds that can help them stay afloat. She spoke with “This Is Capitalism” about what it took to get the initiative up and running and why it matters.

Q: Where did the idea for Dining Bonds come from? Were you brainstorming with clients?
A: I was brainstorming with myself. Even before restaurants were ordered to shut starting in mid-March, clients were already worried about a significant drop in revenue. I was thinking about what we could potentially do now rather than later, when the crisis passes, to give them a helping hand. The idea of a “dining bond” popped into my head. We all know what bonds are – we’re familiar with savings bonds and war bonds.

Q: How do Dining Bonds work?
A: The bonds themselves are basically discounted gift certificates. A restaurant offers a bond through its own site, and the advantage to them is they get money now. For the purchaser, they’re getting a good deal and more importantly, they can help a restaurant they care about.

The site, SupportRestaurants.org, lets people see on a map which restaurants are participating. We may be looking to change that as more and more restaurants sign on. We also offer resources on the site to help restaurants create the bonds. They can set their own terms about the level of discount, conditions about how it is redeemed, etc. This is at no cost to the restaurants, and we are not making any money off of this.

Q: Why should restaurants offer dining bonds instead of just discounted gift certificates?
A: A lot of restaurants are running their own programs, and anything that helps keep them going and helps their employees is great. But branding the certificates as “bonds” creates more of a sense of urgency and a call to action. For example, The 1933 Group in LA did a terrific job designing their bond and their landing page. They sold $2,000 worth of bonds in 48 hours.

People know that they’re buying something now that will help their favorite restaurant survive. They understand the concept from savings bonds and war bonds and frankly, for the industry, it’s a war – a battle for survival, for the businesses and the livelihoods of their employees.

Q: SupportRestaurants.org was up and running within a few days of the first announcement about restaurants having to close. How did you make it happen so quickly?
A: Networking and teamwork. Steven Hall, who runs Hall PR, is a strategic partner. I floated the idea to him, and he thought it was interesting. We each asked a few of our clients if they would want to participate and we got an immediate yes.

We then went out to a group of industry colleagues – mostly in New York City – and talked to them. We got great feedback and within a day we had about 24 restaurants. But then we realized that this had the potential to be something bigger.

We put together a website over the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day. Alan Aurmont, CTO and creative director at Hall PR is proficient in web site design, so we worked pretty much nonstop for 72 hours. We started to get word of mouth going. We wrote a press release, and eRelease, the company I use to distribute releases, generously donated their services to get it out. That got attention from both the press and restaurants not just in the U.S., but overseas as well. As of March 20, we had about 220 restaurants signed up.

Q: Why do you think it has taken off so fast?
A: It seems to have really resonated with restaurants because it’s easy and the concept is familiar. And I think for customers, restaurants have a special place in their hearts and in their communities. We’ve heard from people online and on social media saying, “We want to help. We want to be part of something bigger.”

Q: What is different about the restaurant industry that makes customers respond that way?
A: When you think about what you want to do when you want to celebrate something or you feel good or you want to get together with friends, you go to a restaurant. Restaurants and chefs represent a celebration of life and good times.

And if you look at what the industry does in terms of charity and selflessness, they’re the ones that, whenever there is a crisis, or a need for relief, they are donating food and resources. They’re putting themselves out there. People have an intimate relationship with restaurants. We are looking at the potential of so many of our favorite local small restaurants not even being around when this is over. People want to make sure that they have a place to celebrate when things get back to normal.