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Harrison Township hoping to give local businesses a boost with Digital Main Street

The township is offering to promote local businesses on its digital platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ordered restaurants to close with the exception of takeout or delivery, Jim Malaby needed to devise a strategy.

The owner of Blueplate, an American restaurant located on Main Street in Mullica Hill, Malaby knew he was going to need to make some changes as his business shifted from primarily dine-in customers to takeout.

“We decided to roll with the punches and make the changes internally with what we had to do,” he said. “We offered takeout. For us, it wasn’t a huge part of our business.”

Malaby used his business’s Facebook page with more than 6,000 followers to reach customers and advertise his restaurant’s new offerings. Blueplate also appeared in Happening in the Hill, Harrison Township’s weekly newsletter, where an advertisement featured the restaurant’s family meals available for takeout.

“We didn’t have anything set in stone,” Malaby said. “We expected it to be slower than it has been for us. We’ve been blessed with a steady stream of customers coming into the restaurant.”

Social media and Happening in the Hill played a crucial role in promoting Blueplate’s takeout boost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Harrison Township officials are now hoping to promote more of its small businesses through a new initiative.

Earlier this month, Harrison Township announced the launch of Digital Main Street, a new program giving small businesses a platform to promote their goods and services during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Digital Main Street officially kicked off with a Restaurant Week this week to promote eateries around town and will continue with new themes in the coming weeks.

“When it started to set in that this was going to be a protracted economic shutdown … we immediately started trying to think of different ways to continue to have the local businesses patronized,” Mayor Lou Manzo said about how the idea for Digital Main Street came about.

“With our capability to connect to our residents because of the robust social media connections we have, I knew we could have some impact,” Manzo added.

Manzo said Digital Main Street will use the township’s newsletter, social media accounts and website to promote local businesses and their offerings during the pandemic. This strategy is exactly what has helped Blueplate during the pandemic. Malaby’s restaurant uses digital advertising via its website, the township’s email newsletter and social media combined with its emphasis on family meals and its play on curbside pickup to attract customers. With the restaurant located on Main Street right at the Woodstown Road intersection, curbside pickup wasn’t feasible, so Blueplate set up a blue cone in its driveway and called its service “blue cone pickup.” The blue cone has been featured on Blueplate’s Facebook page and Happening in the Hill ads.

Malaby believes businesses have a great opportunity to reach a wider audience during the pandemic through digital advertising, saying they can go on the offensive and make adjustments to provide customers with products and services that are in demand.

“For the companies and businesses that are open, I think they are working a bigger pool of the clientele,” Malaby said.

While Blueplate was well-positioned digitally to hit the ground running entering the pandemic, Manzo believes Digital Main Street will be especially important for businesses that are still open during the pandemic, but lacking the digital infrastructure to sell services or promote online.

“We know that our town and the people in our town want to be able to patronize these local businesses,” Manzo said.

Harrison Township is hoping to reach a wide variety of businesses with Digital Main Street with different themes each week. After Restaurant Week concludes, Styles on Main will be its theme for the week of April 26 and future themes are being discussed for May.

Manzo emphasized Digital Main Street is not meant to be a permanent program; the plan is for it to continue until the stay at home order ends and residents can visit businesses normally again.

“We expect that going into May, every week that this goes on … we expect to have a different campaign each week,” Manzo said. “That’s a fluid conversation.”

Harrison Township has also used its online platform to provide support for first responders during the pandemic. During the week of April 6, the township launched Heroes in the Hill, where elementary school-aged children in the township were asked to create their own eight-by-11 piece of artwork thanking health care workers. Participants could then scan or take a picture of their picture and send it to the township via a form at https://harrisontwp.us/heroes. Submissions were posted online, shared digitally with the staff at the township’s Inspira Medical Center, and hard copies will eventually be sent to Inspira to be posted on the walls of the building. During the week of April 13, Heroes in the Hill continued with kids asked to create cards for first responders.

“We can’t put boots on the ground,” Manzo said. “The only thing you can do is support them mentally and emotionally.”

At its core, Digital Main Street and Heroes in the Hill are just two more steps Harrison Township is taking to unite all members of the community during the pandemic. Manzo encouraged residents to stay connected with the township and patronize local businesses through the state’s stay at home order.

“We’re all in the same boat,” Manzo said. “We just have to take care of each other and stick together no matter what we’re doing.”

Residents can visit the township’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/TownshipofHarrison, for updates on Digital Main Street. Weekly updates are also being shared through the township’s email newsletter. To sign up for the newsletter, visit the Mullica Hill Connect page at http://harrisontwp.us/residents-contact.

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