Happy hour home delivery: How Panama House adapted their small business to keep the lights on during lockdown

When COVID-19 swept the rug out from under Australian small businesses, some were lucky enough to be able to switch to an online or delivery model without major obstacles. Other businesses, however, had to get creative, and be willing to make major changes to keep going.

Reconstructing your business model

Bondi eatery Panama House is popular for its bottomless brunches and happy hour margaritas. But what they’re most famous for is their tacos.

Top-notch Latin American food doesn’t always travel well. In fact, the higher the quality of a corn tortilla, the less time you have to eat it before it goes dry and chewy, says Panama House co-owner Geraint Coles.

That became a big problem when the New South Wales lockdown laws came into effect in March. But Panama House quickly adapted their business model, switching to taco box meal kits. 

With just some heating, grilling and light assembly, customers can enjoy the Panama House experience at home — and the restaurant has retained its reputation for great food.

With new government approvals in place, they started shipping brunch meal kits and alcohol packs for a virtual brunch series, with DJs live-streamed into people’s living rooms.

Meanwhile, icy cold margaritas were flowing once again at happy hour — available from the pick-up window.

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Make friends with social media

With more people staying at home, social media is vital to keeping businesses connected with their customers, and Panama House learned how vital a tool it can be.

“In a time of uncertainty, when no one really knows what’s going on, making sure you’ve got that visibility is critical,” Geraint says. 

“It’s about constantly communicating to our customers that we’re open and we’re doing things.”

But life after lockdown was different on social media too. There was more content going up than ever, and they weren’t getting the same sort of traction from paid content or key opinion leaders (aka influencers). 

Their strategy for cutting through the noise with free, organic content was simple but very effective, and follows best-practice advice for social media marketing:

  • Focus on what will resonate most with your target audience;
  • Know what channels they use;
  • Respond to comments and make sure your customers’ tags and likes don’t go unnoticed; 
  • Engage with your local community of small business owners.

“Our primary objective was how we could still be marketing to our customer base,” says Geraint. 

“Our brand is pretty lifestyle oriented, pretty fun, we don’t take things too seriously and we’ve got a pretty playful tone of voice. We wanted to keep all those things in place.”

Getting the community on-side

The biggest lesson Geraint and Panama House co-owner Mitch Slattery have taken out of this crisis?

The power of local networking and support. 

“We’ve found that being visible and open and communicative on social media with other small businesses in the area gives us some organic lift,” Geraint says.

“Because as we’re posting, they’re immediately commenting. They’re more engaged with our business because we’re more engaged with them.” 

It’s been “warm, great and quite surprising” the way the community has rallied around us, he adds. And as an American Express Platinum Business Card Member, the support he’s received from American Express has also been “very welcome.” 

“American Express very much takes a ‘we’re going to help you’ approach, which has been really great,” says Geraint. 

“They’ve been in constant communication with excellent customer service and support throughout the whole thing. 

“I’ve certainly got the impression that it’s a partnership. We’re in this together, trying to figure it out together.”

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