May 21, 2021 at 09:51PM

As state mask mandates and COVID-era restrictions start to expire, the nation’s vast QSR industry is leading the way with innovative ways to entice customers to get their shots and come back to their stores.

Fast-casual restaurant Shake Shack, for example, is expanding its initiative to give free fries to those who have received the COVID-19 vaccine at locations throughout the U.S. “Shake Shack has always prioritized taking care of our communities, and we’re proud to be part of their recovery, helping get more people vaccinated and back to gathering again,” the company’s CEO Randy Garutti said in a statement.

Krispy Kreme may have been the first major food seller to make headlines for incentivizing inoculation with free food, but as the rollout continues and appointment slots begin to go un-booked, more and more businesses are getting in on the effort. White Castle is offering free dessert-on-a-stick cakes, Samuel Adams is covering a beer at the bar with its #ShotForSam campaign, Budweiser is doing the same with A Beer on Bud, and many local restaurants throughout the country are announcing their own vaccine freebies.

Of course, restaurants have a vested interest in hurrying the vaccinations along as quickly as possible. As the rollout increases consumers’ mobility, food service establishments are seeing the benefits. The staunchest vaccine holdouts, however, are not waiting for the jab to return to their pre-pandemic routines. Data from PYMNTS’ March 2021 study, The New Digital Consumer: How the Pandemic Has Reshaped Consumers’ Shopping Behaviors, found that 17 percent of U.S. consumers do not trust the COVID-19 vaccines approved by the U.S. Food And Drug Administration (FDA), and these consumers are among the least likely to have changed their routines since the pandemic began.

Starbucks, Chipotle Say Vaccinated Consumers Can Go Mask-Less

As many retailers begin announcing changes to their masking policies, allowing vaccinated consumers to go mask-free in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), major restaurant chains have remained largely silent. McDonald’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Starbucks, however, have joined the conversation.

McDonald’s told USA Today that as of Friday (May 21), “masks will be optional for fully vaccinated customers unless required by local regulation, while social distancing and protective barriers in restaurants will remain in place.” Employees, however, will continue to be required to wear face coverings. Similarly, Chipotle told Restaurant Business that vaccinated customers are welcome to forego their masks where allowed by local laws, though employees will continue to wear them. Starbucks’ COVID-19 policies say the same: Masks are required for employees but not for customers, unless local mask mandates are still in place.

SBA to Close RRF Applications

The Small Business Association (SBA) announced on Tuesday (May 18) that applications for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) will close on May 24 at 8 p.m. This deadline, three weeks after applications opened on May 3, marks a change from the initially stated plan, in which the first three weeks of the application period would prioritize applications from women, veterans and business owners from socially and economically disadvantaged groups, after which point all applications would be given equal consideration.

The instating of this deadline follows on the heels of the news that demand for restaurant relief far exceeded the $28.6 billion allocated. At the time of the announcement, the SBA had received over 303,000 RRF applications requesting more than $69 billion, and had approved $6 billion in aid for around 38,000 applicants. Part of the reason for this influx of applications may have been the SBA’s partnership with leading point of sale (POS) software providers to help restaurants navigate the application process.

“The numbers speak to the commitment the SBA made to educating owners and operators through their work with the Association, our state partners and other industry support organizations,” Tom Bené, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement. “The funds that have already been distributed will help accelerate the recovery of thousands of restaurants and bring much-needed capital to communities across the country.”

McDonald’s Media Spend, Employment Practices Under Fire

When not reviewing CDC guidelines, McDonald’s has been engaged in two major and highly public disputes this week. One comes from Allen Media Group, a marketing company owned by media mogul and comedian Byron Allen, which is suing the company for $10 billion in damages alleging that the restaurant chain’s media buying policies discriminate against Black-owned businesses, reported Bloomberg.

“McDonald’s has a massive annual advertising budget. McDonald’s spent approximately $1.6 billion in television advertising in the United States in 2019,” says the complaint filed with the Superior Court of California in Los Angeles. On information and belief, less than $5 million (0.31 percent) of that budget was spent on African American-owned media.”

The complaint goes on to allege that despite the media group’s programming appealing to audiences of many races, McDonald’s will only advertise on Black-owned networks if the ad specifically targets Black audiences, which, the complaint says, is “intentional racial stereotyping and discrimination.”

As this is happening, Essence reported, the QSR chain’s workers are going on strike in 15 cities across the United States, demanding wages of at least $15/hour.

“It’s the responsibility of federal and local government to set minimum wage, and we’re open to dialogue so that any changes meet the needs of thousands of hardworking restaurant employees and the 2,000 McDonald’s independent owner/operators who run small businesses,” McDonald’s USA responded in a statement.

Read More On Restaurants:

Restaurant Roundup: Vaxxing And Unmasking As COVID Restrictions End …

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