Welcome to the first-ever Weekly Spoon newsletter that’s entirely focused on restaurant innovation. That we chose to launch this just as a pandemic is sweeping across the globe is entirely intentional. Of all the food tech sectors out there, none has been hit so hard or will change — forever — as drastically as the restaurant biz.
With that in mind, let’s kick this thing off by not rehashing the gloomy stuff. Instead, let’s highlight some ways in which the current restaurant business meltdown is spurring a ton of initiatives that could make a better overall industry in the long term — if we let it.
The Virtual Tip Jar Will Stick Around
As anyone whose ever waited tables, tended bar, or delivered pizzas knows, tips are an important portion of workers’ incomes. With most bars and dining rooms closed right now, an astounding number of what are basically virtual tip jars have popped up online. We first got wind of this last week, when we came across a site called chatt.us that lets at-home drinkers leave tips for service workers in Chattanooga, Tenn. via Venmo or CashApp.
A little more digging uncovered more of these virtual tip jars in, well, pretty much every state from Maryland to Idaho. One site in particular, serviceindustry.tips, lets you choose specific cities from a list and direct your funds to workers in that area from a very user-friendly web interface. Others are simple spreadsheet interfaces, though no less popular from the number of entries on some of them.
While these virtual tip jars can’t make up for the lost wages and job layoffs many restaurant workers now face, they could at least provide some aid to those currently struggling.
They could also be a valuable tool for the restaurant industry even when dining rooms re-open. As one restaurant owner explained to me recently, in-house staff prepping the off-premises orders don’t see any of the tips left through third-party ordering platforms. A virtual tip jar could be a way for customers who wanted to hand over a little extra to tip those employees for their work. There are also well-documented issues around tipping delivery drivers in general. Since fewer folks seem to carry cash these days, a virtual tip jar could be a way to bypass that aspect of the platform, thereby making sure it’s the worker who gets the tip — not the tech companies.
Ditto for Contactless Delivery and Payments
Three months ago “contactless delivery” wasn’t even a phrase, at least not in the vernacular sense. In an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus worldwide, what started in China (see above image, courtesy of Yum China) has now quickly caught on. All the major delivery platforms as well as grocery sites like Instacart and individual restaurant chains now either use contactless delivery as the default option or make it clearly available through their apps.
I doubt we’ll revert back to the old method once this horror show is over.
At their most basic, contactless delivery methods as well as contactless payments are just more hygienic. Fewer germs can spread when cash and cards aren’t being handed back and forth over a counter, or when customers and their delivery couriers stand a certain distance apart during a drop-off. I doubt I’m the only person who’s ever ordered delivery while having bronchitis. Contactless delivery would go far in protecting workers — many of whom do not get paid sick leave — from illnesses their customers might be carrying while they’re stuck at home. Vice versa, too.
And if this look into China’s (sort of) newly reopened restaurant scene is anything for the rest of the world to go by, mobile payments will see a boost, too. More customers will be using apps like Apple Pay, CashApp, and Google Pay to avoid constantly handing over a credit card.
Simpler Menus Will Beget Better Service
“Pare down your menu” is a directive I’ve been hearing a lot as restaurants quickly pivot to serving customers through takeout and delivery channels. That means offering only the items that are easy to produce, will travel well, and are ones that customers actually want.
That’s not breakfast, at least not right now. In a statement this week, McDonald’s announced it was temporarily pulling breakfast items from its menu and will focus on serving its most popular items. Taco Bell also nixed breakfast items for now. More chains are likely to follow.
Of course, these moves are in response to the potentially billions of dollars the restaurant industry will lose over the next few months. I suspect, however, that slimmed down menus could actually improve certain aspects of the restaurant industry, particularly where tech is concerned. Have you ever tried to navigate a Taco Bell self-service kiosk? Finding Waldo inside Google Maps was an arguably easier task.
Smaller menus could also speed up times in the drive-thru, improve AI-powered upsell recommendations, and use fewer ingredients overall, thereby reducing food waste.
In no way am I suggesting that menus need to look like this one from 1973. And who knows? Breakfast and Monster Tacos might go back on the menu at some point. But maybe this strange, unsettling shift in which we now find ourselves can show us that simpler menus leads to better experiences for everyone involved.
Keep on truckin’,