When the COVID-19 crisis hit Texas earlier this year, there was no way anyone could have predicted the impact of the virus on every facet of our daily living. They certainly could not have predicted its mark on businesses, either.
In cities across Texas, businesses of all industries, types, and sizes were forced to close or modify their operations overnight. And they did so with significant uncertainty about how long they would be closed or how they would operate with all the various rules and restrictions that were suddenly thrust upon them. All the while worrying about how they could keep their employees paid, the lights on, and the doors open.
Little Elm businesses were no different. Local business owners quickly scrambled to adjust to the ever-changing new “normal”, while also trying to stay open and operating.
While businesses moved to adjust, so did the Little Elm Economic Development Corporation. From immediately establishing a robust communication network to push out a steady stream of information and updates regarding COVID-19, State and Federal support, various relief options, to working with businesses for creative solutions on solving problems of all sizes. The EDC worked diligently and often around the clock to answer questions, calm fears and resolve uncertainties.
Another, more impactful, way the EDC strived to support local businesses, was by establishing a Voucher Program aimed to give local restaurants a boost.
Like many cities across the State, Little Elm’s restaurants had to close their doors to in-house diners and come up with creative solutions to stay afloat. While some chose to temporarily cease operations and ride the waves of weeks to come, the majority did not.
Instead, they developed incentives such as family-style meals to go, partnered with neighbors to provide packages that combined food and to-go alcoholic beverages, and developed curbside pickup systems — even for ice cream!
The program’s primary goal was to garner support for local restaurants by incentivizing residents to dine out — or take out — from their local favorites or try something new!
The program used the Every Door Direct Mail program and mailed out over 14,000 $25 vouchers to residents within Little Elm’s incorporated limits. To use the vouchers, residents could redeem them at any Little Elm restaurant or bar and had to spend a minimum of 25 dollars to qualify for reimbursement. Vouchers could be used both dining-in or for taking food to go.
In turn, the EDC would reimburse the restaurants $25 for every voucher that was redeemed.
The response to the program was higher than initially anticipated, with 31 percent of vouchers being returned. This number is significantly higher than the average return rate on direct mail participation (4.9 percent according to the Data & Marketing Association’s 2018 Response Rate Report).
The voucher program was able to help 30 Little Elm restaurants, for a total reimbursement value of $111,261.00, which is equitable to 30 percent of the budgeted amount the EDC set aside for the program.
In many cases, voucher users spent over 25 dollars, yielding an even more significant benefit for restaurants.
The program was widely popular among users. Many expressed that it allowed them to feel as if they were contributing to the support of a local business, and in the bigger picture, the Little Elm community.
Some voucher users were loyal to their favorite spots or watering holes, but many chose to try out new venues. This aspect of the program was especially critical, as a few businesses opened — and in some cases just weeks — before COVID-19 hit and had not yet established a loyal fan base.
The program was also popular among the restaurants’ management staff and owners. One restaurant, Wing Daddy’s Sauce House, was able to pay half of its monthly rent with the funds they received from the EDC. They saw new customers using the voucher to try something new, as well as regulars who just wanted to do their part by spending more than the $25 gift.
Tawana Burton, the owner of Krab Kingz, was also thankful for the boost that the voucher gave her business. Krab Kingz, a female and veteran-owned business, was relatively new to the Town and saw a significant increase in sales and public support.
Like many other restaurants, Savory Kitchen, another relatively new restaurant with a new customer base, had to close its doors to dine-in in mid-March with many uncertainties. The voucher allowed them to continue a curbside program of to-go orders and family-sized meals, which became widely popular among residents — and demand has continued.
The program’s overwhelming response, coupled with a reduction in restaurant occupancy limits set forth by the State in June due to increases in COVID-19 cases, has the Little Elm EDC planning to do another round of voucher mailings to support local restaurants further.
This program was accomplished by the Town of Little Elm, allocating a portion of the funds received from the CARES Act and with the support of Denton County.