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Not so long ago, outdoor space at a restaurant was just a nice-to-have feature some restaurants could afford to offer. Surprise surprise (not), the pandemic is changing that. With new guidelines and requirements around safety and social distancing, more restaurant experiences are moving outdoors. And it’s not just for dine-in customers, either.
This week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced the Shared Spaces Program, which in part allows restaurants to use public space like sidewalks, whole or partial streets, and parks to fulfill restaurant pickup orders. Restaurants can apply for a permit for free, and once the city approves dine-in service for outdoor space, those areas can be used to seat customers as well.
San Francisco isn’t alone. San Jose this month approved its “al fresco plan” that will allow restaurants to use some public spaces to fulfill takeout orders and eventually hold more seating. In Rotterdam, The Netherlands, restaurants will be allowed to convert parking spaces in front of their buildings to do the same.
While these measures could help restaurants eventually boost dine-in traffic once they reopen, at present, they may actually help restaurants run smoother to-go operations. Trying to run an ad hoc takeout business is challenging for many restaurants that have previously only operated under a dine-in model. In some cases, selling to-go orders has caused outright mayhem as crowds of people gather to wait for their to-go orders and staff dart around trying to determine which meal belongs to which angry customer.
Make no mistake: there will be operational challenges using public spaces, too. In fact if it’s not managed correctly, the whole thing could become its own social-distancing disaster. Viewed through a more optimistic lens, it could provide more space for customers and delivery drivers waiting to retrieve their orders.
And you know what would really enhance the public spaces restaurant experience? Some technology. Earlier this week, I spoke with two companies, hardware manufacturer Elo and software startup Clicksys, about a new self-service kiosk they’re trialing at a restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden.
In summary, the idea is to have a kiosk installed into the front wall or window of a restaurant, much like a bank ATM, so that folks passing on the street can simply stroll up, order, pay, and wait for their food without having to actually enter the restaurant.
There are a lot of good use cases for this idea, and these newfound public spaces are one of them. If we’re talking about relieving operational mayhem, an automated system would cut down on the amount of people milling around in said public space. Staff would not need to man an order station, since the kiosk processes ordering and payments. And since the system texts users when their meal is ready, those customers would be able to better time their entrance and exit and not have to stand around playing the waiting game.
The Elo-Clicksys machine is currently only available in Europe, but there are plenty of restaurant tech companies in the U.S. that should take note of this concept. Right now, front-of-house technology is having to truly prove its worth in a world without dining rooms. Self-service kiosks (with hand sanitizer next to them, please) built for the outdoor world could prove lucrative in the coming months.
Off-Premises Sales Are Back Up
Another reason the forthcoming Shared Spaces could get a lot of use this summer: sentiment around off-premises orders is back up. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that after taking a big dip at the beginning of May, when many restaurants began to reopen dining rooms, sales of takeout orders are back up.
Restaurant analytics firm Black Box Intelligence, which provided the source material for NRN’s post, said that early in May, customers complained of long wait times for curbside pickup orders but that “guest sentiment trends have started to recover as of week-ended May 24, with off-premise sentiment returning to similar levels as were seen in April.”
Presumably, people got excited about going back to restaurants instead of ordering takeout, then realized what a pain in the a$$ dine-in service is going to be for a long time to come. Guidelines vary from state to state in the U.S., but almost all of them include reduced capacity, reduced party sizes, no buffets, and in some cases a mask requirement. Add to that the trepidation most of us wear with our masks these days anytime we set foot in public, and it’s not exactly a recipe for a packed house.
While Black Box didn’t cite the specific reason for the uptick in off-premises orders this month, my guess is that folks are still more comfortable waiting for a to-go box than eating at a sparsely populated dining room fraught with anxiety.
DoorDash Launches an E-commerce Platform for Indie Restaurants
Ever looking to capitalize on this boost in off-premises orders, DoorDash this week announced a new e-commerce platform for independent restaurants. It’s called the DoorDash Storefront, and it’s supposed to offer restaurants a way to build out their own digital storefronts through which they can process orders and payments. Restaurant sign up with the platform and get their own website/app for takeout and delivery orders — powered, of course, by DoorDash’s system. The digital storefront also plugs into DoorDash’s fulfillment network of drivers, so the food can actually get delivered.
DoorDash is actually addressing a need here. Sophisticated mobile apps that process orders, payments, and loyalty points are expensive and complicated to build. Small restaurants and restaurant chains generally can’t afford them, which is a negative in a restaurant industry that was just forced to go almost entirely off-premises. DoorDash said in a press release that about 40 percent of its restaurant customers do not have their own e-commerce platform.
What isn’t mentioned is what the storefronts will cost the restaurants. In bold-faced text, the company’s blog post stated that restaurants “control and own the customer experience.” It does not say customers own the data — a major issue with using a third-party delivery platform — nor does it go into exactly how the restaurant owns the customer experience. However, it’s worth noting that the blog post also states that restaurants “do not pay a commission to DoorDash on orders they receive through their Storefront.”
DoorDash has actually been less awful to restaurants than its third-party competitors during the pandemic. The company waived commission fees for a time independent restaurants when the dining room shutdowns first took place. Still, commission fees are coming back, and offering restaurants their own digital storefronts means those restaurants will be firmly locked into the DoorDash ecosystem when it’s time to pay up.
All of which is to say, read the company’s seemingly altruistic blog post with a magnifying glass in one hand and a dose of healthy skepticism in the other.
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