As food delivery’s popularity rises, so do the number of customer complaints. The market, projected to be worth $112 billion by 2023, won’t slow down anytime soon. But for all the technology that promises to make it faster and more efficient, we’ve yet to solve the issue of how to get food to customers’ doors on time and without sacrificing temperature, texture, and other quality elements.
Dig Inn might be close to the answer. The NYC-based fast-casual chain, which also has locations in Boston and Rye Brook, NY, is a veteran of delivery, having started services around a decade ago. Until now, they’ve used the usual formula: make the onsite business available online with a third party and start running the food to customers’ houses. But according to Dig Inn’s Director of Offsite, Scott Landers, that model needs not so much to be upgraded as dismantled.
That’s just what the chain has done with Room Service, a kind of delivery-only virtual kitchen that launched on Thursday to friends and family. The delivery service will run out of Dig Inn’s Lower Manhattan location, but will have entirely separate menu concepts and cooking techniques than its in-house counterpart. And that approach, as far as Landers sees it, is how to make delivery profitable.
Dig Inn approached the problem by turning it upside down. Most restaurant food, says Landers, was designed for onsite, walk-in restaurants. Dig Inn’s instead examined how they could cook the food so it doesn’t just sit well during delivery — which typically tacks a solid 30 minutes onto the process — but actually gets better because of it.
Landers calls it “an entirely different culinary experience.” And it’s more science than business in many ways.
Consider salmon. With an in-house restaurant experience, the kitchen cooks the salmon to medium rare, or roughly 115 degrees, and serves it immediately, for optimal taste and flavor. With delivery, salmon cooked to 115 degrees that’s then bagged up and put in a car will do one of two things: either it will keep cooking and resemble a dried-out dish sponge when it arrives, or the travel time will render it a cold, dead fish in a box.
The solution Dig Inn found was to plate the salmon rare (~105 degrees), then pair it with a “screaming hot” starchy potato puree that holds well in transit. As the food travels, the puree warms the salmon, and by the time the meal arrives at the customer’s door, the food is “perfectly set.”
“If you ate it right out of the kitchen it would be good,” says Landers. “But it gets better with delivery.”
The actual kitchen was the other big piece of the equation. As of now, Dig Inn serves four different channels: onsite customers, pick-up customers, catering, and delivery. Mash all those orders into a single kitchen, and it quickly becomes overwhelming for the entire staff.
So Dig Inn created what Landers calls a “dual kitchen” in its Lower Manhattan store. By turning unused basement space into another kitchen dedicated to delivery and catering, the chain can serve all four sales channels without running out of space or manpower. Both kitchens share infrastructure, like walk-in fridge space and food supplies. But each has its own dedicated layout, chef, and cooking methods. “It’s the same sweet potato, the same walk-in, but then on the culinary side, the offsite chef gets to start making different [cooking] decisions,” says Landers. He adds that Dig Inn can generate the same amount of revenue from a full restaurant but only pay 30 percent of its costs with these dual kitchens.
Both food and kitchen space address what Landers thinks are the three main challenges restaurants doing food delivery face: delivering food on time; getting it accurate; and maintaining quality. “Those are the three things that matter and those are the three things that are hardest to get right.”
Granted, you’d have to have the extra basement space to use this approach, which is another advantage Dig Inn has. But even those restaurants working with less real estate can consider a secondary operation through other types of ghost kitchens.
Why is it so challenging for restaurants to master those things right now? The reasons would fill another two posts here, but they all roll up into the fact that many, if not most, restaurants right now are approaching delivery with technology-focused solutions, rather than food-centric ones. But restaurants aren’t tech startups; they’re hospitality companies. And as Landers says, “At the end of the day, the guest isn’t going to come back to you because your technology is amazing, they’ll come back to you because the food is amazing.”
Room Service is currently in beta at Dig Inn’s Lower Manhattan location, available Tuesdays through Thursdays. Landers said its expansion will be slow and steady, with the goal of expanding to the rest of Manhattan over the course of 2019. Throughout the process, Dig Inn will be maintaining its food-first approach to every aspect of the delivery process. “How can we cook food that improves as it travels?” asks Landers. “When you ask that question, you unleash all this culinary innovation.”
Correction: This post was amended on February 1, 2019. An earlier version wrongfully attributed quotes to “Adam Eskin,” Dig Inn’s founder and CEO.