States continue to mandate that restaurants shut down their dining rooms, and across the U.S. major chains are voluntarily switching to off-premises-only models. Those measures are necessary right now as we try to slow the spread of COVID-19. But where does that leave smaller businesses with less robust delivery programs or no off-premises strategies at all?
Plenty of restaurant tech solutions exist that can speed up and/or simplify a delivery strategy. However, I talked with several individuals this week who own and/or manage such solutions, and they made it clear that right now, there’s a whole lot restaurants can do to improve their delivery operations without forking over thousands of dollars on technology.
“Before you even get to the technology, what you really have to figure out is if you’re equipped to do off premises,” says Sterling Douglass, cofounder and CEO of Chowly. “What kind of food? What’s the menu going to look like? How are you going to staff it? Can you afford to staff it?”
Douglass, along with Alex Canter and Charlie Jeffers of Ordermark, and Jim Collins of Kitchen United, took time this week to chat with me and offer some simple steps restaurants can take today to kickstart their off-premises strategy right now.
1. Pare down your menu.
Pivoting to delivery doesn’t mean necessarily mean throwing your existing menu online and dishing up the same meals in to-go boxes. There’s a reason pizza was a delivery item long before any other kind of food went mobile: it travels well and it’s relatively simple to make.
Thinking along those lines, restaurants should assess their existing menus and decide which items best translate to a to-go scenario. “What they need to do is trim down their menu, look at the items that are easy to procure and produce, so they can make a menu and put it up online and make easy items they can get out that are going to travel well,” says Jeffers. Fried chicken, for example, tends to hold up in transit. Scrambled eggs: not so much.
Jim Collins, who in addition to being CEO of Kitchen United also runs his own restaurant, suggests restaurants create things like family-style options and, if possible, include beer and wine options. “These things will help you stay relevant to the consumer as we move forward.”
And if there’s leftover inventory from items you can’t make right now? Canter suggests getting creative about how you can repurpose and sell it: “[Restaurants are] selling frozen items on Postmates. You can sell frozen soup or frozen take-home pizzas and cookie dough.”
2. Consider using multiple delivery platforms.
Unless you have the funds to power your own delivery operation (marketing, drivers, technical logistics), the reality for most restaurants right now is that they need to partner with third-party platforms like DoorDash and Postmates. If possible, they should partner with all of them.
“More and more, restaurants are realizing that to sustain a business solely based on delivery, they need to increase their volume and that typically means being on as many platforms as possible. Instead of picking one or two it’s really critical for restaurants to be thinking about an omni-channel strategy,” Canter says.
An eMarketer forecast said much the same thing a while back, noting that “more options for customers” would be a key growth driver for delivery in the future.
Companies like Ordermark and Chowly, and others legitimately do come in handy here: they will set a restaurant up on multiple different delivery platforms as part of a single package deal. Otherwise, the restaurant owner or operator would have to go through the same lengthy process for each service. “Opt in to all of the marketplaces but work with someone like ChowNow to get direct ordering working as well,” suggests Collins.
3. Adjust your staffing.
This one is honestly hard to write about, especially since earlier this week, the National Restaurant Association estimated the loss of 5–7 million restaurant industry jobs. “At my family’s restaurant, we’ve had to tell the bulk of our staff to not come in,” says Canter. “That means for us, we’re a sit-down restaurant [with] waiters, bus boys that are no longer needed to support a delivery-only situation.”
He adds that running a delivery-only business requires “a very minimal skeleton crew,” which sadly means owners and operators are going to have to make some hard decisions around staffing in the near future. “This is unfortunately the situation at hand. It really comes down to repurposing your best employees to shift them to focus on the takeout and delivery side of the business.”
4. Accept that delivery is “a must” right now.
We can’t have a discussion about restaurant food delivery without at least acknowledging how controversial and frustrating third-party platforms are for restaurants. I’ll spare you yet-another rant, though, because right now, the unfortunate reality is that the majority of restaurants need to partner with these platforms right now.
“At this point, when restaurants are no longer able to provide a dine-in experience, the only way to stay open is by having a delivery program,” says Jeffers. “Most restaurants don’t have the marketing spend or the following to survive on their own.”
“If you’re a restaurant and you’re not doing delivery, you need to immediately implement a program. Just being on DoorDash and Postmates, you now exist to the people who use these apps. It’s not just worth it, it’s a must,” Canter adds.
Right now, the restaurant industry is banding together to help restaurants accept and implement this new reality of off-premises business, whether its by offering tech solutions, support for workers, and help hotlines to answer questions.
“You’re not alone,” Canter says to businesses. “Every restaurant is trying to figure out the best way to get through this.”