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If you like a good fight, the one around restaurant commission fee caps is worth watching. I spent the better part of three-plus hours the other day tuned into the New York City Council’s Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing public hearing. One hotly debated topic was around capping commission fees third-party delivery services like Grubhub and Uber Eats charge restaurants.
I’d love to say everything got resolved and NYC will be placing caps on third-party service commission fees for all time. The reality is that this fight was here long before the pandemic and will be around long after it leaves.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the brouhaha brewing around the issue. Restaurant industry advocates and businesses alike had flagged those third-party delivery commission fees — which can go as high as 30 percent per transaction — as prohibitively expensive for restaurants. With dining rooms closed now, most restaurants are left with the options of either shutting down completely or relying on a third-party service like Grubhub to help them execute on delivery orders.
One restauranteur who testified at this week’s hearing explained that for independent restaurants, the fees are more or less non-negotiable. (Side note: he also expressed fear of retaliation from delivery companies for his speaking at the hearing.) Jessica Lappin, a former NYC council member and the President of the Alliance for Downtown New York, said that even if restaurants are doing takeout and delivery right now, they are doing it at a loss. Council member Mark Gjonaj suggested that due to the commission fees, each transaction a restaurant makes is “yielding a net loss.”
Perhaps the most telling moment came when a Grubhub representative took to the mic to “express Grubhub’s strong opposition” to fee caps. You can watch the entire (and rather circular) debate that broke out here, but it more or less boiled down to the idea that if NYC and other cities successfully impose fee caps, Grubhub et al. will have to change their business model.
Therein lies the marrow of the matter in terms of why third-party delivery companies oppose commission fee caps and other changes (e.g., reclassifying workers as employees). Government oversight of those fees cost these companies more money, and further erode their chances of ever becoming profitable. An unprofitable model won’t satisfy investors, and third-party delivery as we know it would then be on the rocks.
Sky-high delivery fees and a faltering economy won’t help the model in terms of its attraction to the average end consumer. And they certainly won’t improve the net-negative returns restaurants are making at the moment.
In some cities, Big Government has already stepped in. San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago have all introduced fee caps that will last at least as long as dining rooms remain closed. Los Angeles is considering a similar measure. NYC’s proposed 10 percent cap was actually introduced months before the novel coronavirus hit the U.S. in full force.
As emergency measures, these fee caps feel necessary right now if independent restaurants are to have any kind of shot at keeping the lights on. Longer term, everyone (restaurants, advocates, government, tech companies, and consumers) will have a responsibility to address how much damage the delivery model is actually doing. It seems a global pandemic that’s taking lives and shuttering businesses isn’t enough to make some of these services stop siphoning the livelihood from restaurants. Are those really the businesses we want calling the shots in the restaurant industry in the future?
McDonald’s limited menu is good news for the drive-thru lane.
Among other things, like drive-thru lanes generating more sales, McDonald’s spent quite a bit of its earnings call this week talking about its menu. Since shelter-in-place orders forced the chain to close down dining rooms and rely on off-premises orders, McDonald’s has been offering a limited menu. For example, it doesn’t offer breakfast for the time being.
Cuts like that were made to help the mega-chain manage the operational difficulties restaurants face right now. On this week’s call, CEO Chris Kempczinski suggested customers should not expect every McDonald’s in the nation to immediately revert back to its pre-pandemic menu.
Smaller menus for the long term could work in McDonald’s favor, though. When we looked at the QSR Drive-Thru Study last year, one of the standout points was the steady increase in drive-thru wait times over the last couple decades. Growing right alongside those wait times has been the number of items QSRs offer on their menus.
These complex menus take longer to read, present customers with the tyranny of too many choices, and up the risk of an order being inaccurate when it is ready. None of those things make for speedy service, and with more customers likely going to opt for the drive-thru lane over the dining room now, finding ways to fulfill orders faster is crucial for QSRs.
No one is suggesting we revert back to my favorite picture of all time, this McDonald’s menu from the ’80s. But as restaurants pare down menus and plan to work with reduced capacity and limited staff once they reopen, the bloated mess of choices QSR’s previously offered may become a thing of the past.
Sweetgreen just added dinner options.
One company not paring down its menu is Sweetgreen. On LinkedIn this week, cofounder and Chief Brand Officer Nathaniel Ru unveiled the chain’s new dinner menu, called Plates.
For the last four weeks, the tech-forward fast-casual chain — most widely known for its highly Instagrammable salads — has been testing a Sweetgreen dinner menu. Via a post on Medium, the company said the process has been about “operationalizing an entirely novel concept (normally a year-long process) in just 30 socially distant days.”
That 30-day process looks, from the photos, to have turned up a menu full of plant-centric dishes and lots of legumes, grains, and sauces. If you want more details around how the team put this new concept together, the full Medium post is definitely worth a read.
Sweetgreen had been planning the dinner concept for some time in the hopes of launching it next year. But, as the Medium post notes, “given the current state of uncertainty, the need for warm, familial, and home-cooked food has never felt more important.”
They’re right on the money. Family-style meals and comfort food are two major trends right now for restaurants as people shelter in place. I’ve never considered couscous and warm leafy greens comfort food, but I’m from rural(ish) Tennessee so what do I know? Plenty of folks are health conscious these days, and with many consumers likely to be wary for some time about going out to eat, a dinner concept is a smart play for Sweetgreen.
Now if we could just get it delivered without those pesky commission fees.