Among the things in the restaurant industry COVID-19 changed forever, businesses’ relationship to technology is a big one.
Historically, many restaurants have been slow to adopt much, if any, technology for their day-to-day operations. That worked so long as the bulk meals served were going out to dining rooms. When the pandemic shut those down, businesses were suddenly scrambling to accommodate the sudden demand for takeout and delivery formats as well as the industry-wide shift towards digital ordering.
Of restaurant tech’s evolution over the last year, Ordermark cofounder and CEO Alex Canter says, “10 years of progress maybe happened in a couple of months, not out desire, but really out of necessity.”
I recently got the opportunity to chat with Canter over Zoom. A longtime restaurant industry veteran (his family owns Los Angeles’ famous Canter’s Deli), he’s no stranger to the concept of either running a restaurant or improving its operations and margins through technology. Ordermark, meanwhile, was helping restaurants manage their delivery orders long before Covid-19 hit, and NextBite, the newest entrant to the family, assists businesses with launching virtual restaurant concepts.
All of which is to say, if you want a glimpse into the concepts and technologies that will matter moving forward for restaurants, Cater’s brain is a good one to pick. Below you can watch our full conversation, and also read along with the transcript.
Hi, everybody, I’m Jenn Marston with The Spoon. I’m here today with Alex Cantor from Ordermark and NextBite, and we’re going to talk some restaurant tech today.
About the middle of March in 2020, restaurants had to close because of state regulations and health and safety concerns. Over the last year, we’ve seen the most incredible shift towards new technologies towards new dining formats. Alex and I are going to have a conversation about that evolution and specifically, what’s the technology driving these changes? What can we really expect to be around for the long term? So, Alex, thanks for joining me today. And before we get into all that, why don’t you give us a little bit of what happened and what it’s like now for you and your companies.
Yeah, well, first of all, thank you for having me. I’m happy to share my thoughts here. And I think everything is moving so quickly that, you know, it just feels like we’re in this the fastest changing market we’ve been in as a restaurant industry. And I want to start by just saying this has been a devastating year for restaurants. There’s no denying how challenging this has been for restaurants, from mom and pops to large chains and everything in between. We’ve already seen over 120,000 restaurants go out of business in the last 12 months, which is a crazy large number.
There are a lot of predictions around what was coming over the next 10 years in terms of technology and advancements shifted digital ordering. And COVID really accelerated a lot of that shift forward. I think, you know, 10 years of progress maybe happened in a couple of months, not out desire, but really out of necessity. And it was because restaurants had to really scramble to figure out, How am I going to keep up? How am I going to have to change my business to accommodate this new reality where dining rooms are shut down, and cities are going into lockdown. There are a lot of restaurants that were set up well for [that]. Think the Wingstop world that already had so much of their digital tech stack figured out and already had a very solid plan in motion and team members dedicated to the digital experience.
But for the majority of the industry and particularly most of the mom and pops, it feels like it was an all-out scramble to try to very quickly get creative, figure out new ways to reach customers rethink menus, rethink technology in general. And that has been a very fascinating thing to watch happen in such a short amount of time because there’s so much to learn for a lot of these restaurants that were newer to this experience.
We started Ordermark four years ago to help provide technology solutions to restaurants to be able to adapt to this new digital off-premise diamond world that we live in. And Ordermark has worked with thousands of restaurants to aggregate all of their incoming online orders, giving restaurants the single device in their kitchen to power orders from Doordash and Postmates and all the channels that they’re utilizing.
But since Day One, Ordermark has always been in the business of helping restaurants drive incremental orders into their underutilized kitchen. And we at the end of 2019 we started developing and bringing to market a newer product offering that we launched called NextBite, which is our portfolio of delivery-only turnkey brains, virtual restaurant brands. So we’ve basically created [the platform] from scratch based on you know data of what’s performing well in which markets and what time of day. We’ve really built these menus that are designed for an off-premise experience and we’ve been working with restaurants to to basically train them on how to become a facility partner for for additional menus and drive an extra 10, 20, 30 orders a day. [Many of] these kitchens are underutilized. They have extra capacity [and] fixed costs already running. Like, the rent is fixed, the lights are already on, the staff is already in the kitchen of these hundreds of thousands of restaurants across the U.S. Why not do more out of one kitchen by launching three to five additional virtual restaurant brands.
That was really the premise for NextBite. We built it with a with a in a pre-COVID world with full dining rooms in mind. And the operational complexity of running the restaurant is already very challenging that we knew when we were building these concepts and these menus, we didn’t want to build anything that was going to come in and disrupt the restaurants existing operation. But rather, you know, be incremental and additional in a way that that’s lighter for the restaurant to adopt.
In a post-COVID world, there’s been a massive adoption of restaurants who need these additional orders more than ever. And as a company, we’ve been able to make a very big impact for these restaurants when we come in and layer on top of their existing business a couple extra $100,000 a year in annualized gross sales. So we you know, we’ve been really focused as a company on what can we be doing right now to help make sure that our restaurant customers and partners that we’re working with can make it through and come out even stronger. And you know, we have gotten love letters, restaurants saying these orders really [make the difference of] keeping the doors open or not. And I think that’s really been motivating for our team specifically. And it’s helped bring a lot of business into our company and attract a lot of investor attention, which is why we at the end of last year, we ended up raising a Series C led by SoftBank, which was $120 million financing to do what we’re doing on a much bigger scale. I’m trying to really advance more restaurants forward into this new digital era.
So it’s been a roller coaster of a year, we’re incredibly grateful that as a business, we ended up on the right side of all of this, to be in a position to really help these restaurants. Because I know that there, there are a lot of restaurant technology companies that, you know, unfortunately ended up on the wrong side of this as well. And a lot of what was happening from you know, in-store applications like reservations and catering businesses that that just became irrelevant overnight in such a short amount of time with no notice. It’s really hard when things are moving so fast. But we did see a lot of new technologies emerge such as the QR code making a massive comeback in the restaurant industry. Just just a lot of experimentation with curbside and restaurants turning their menus into grocery shops, which are like restaurants that offer groceries and obviously the old versions of virtual restaurants. It’s been a really crazy last 12 months. So there’s so much to talk about. I have a lot of ideas for where things are headed as well. But but that’s that’s basically an overview of what what we’ve seen happen over the last 12 months.
Jenn Marston: I’ll echo that it’s been really devastating for a lot of restaurants out there. To me, one of the really attractive things about what you all are doing with NextBite is it, it seems like you’re in some way showing restaurants that there can be digital options, there can be strategies for doing delivery, and takeout and virtual restaurants without them having to go off and invest a bunch of upfront capital or sign, you know, really long leases with traditional commissary kitchens. But this seems like a, for lack of a better word, a more frictionless way for your average restaurant to be able to introduce another revenue stream without having to really overhaul what they’re already doing.
Alex Canter: I think you’re thinking about it correctly. When I think about what’s happening right now I see these vacant dining rooms that are that are way too large. You think about fine dining restaurants, full service restaurants. I felt this way even pre-COVID, but I felt like the restaurant market in general was already very oversaturated and very difficult to even be successful. First place because there are so many options. And as more and more people enjoy the convenience of delivery, the need for those large seating capacity diminishes over time. And the need for larger kitchen spaces actually is even more in demand than ever.
In order to produce food for both in-store and takeout, you need to have the means to have more kitchen space to have more staff to be able to produce work in the back of the house from the front of the house. And so I think over time, we’re going to see dining rooms getting smaller with a bigger emphasis on the size of the kitchen, which I think we’re starting to see a little bit with these new ghost kitchen facilities and commissary kitchens that are designed specifically for an off-premise and delivery and takeout experience.
But the desire to dine out at restaurants will never go away. People will always want to enjoy restaurants and hospitality, in the experience of celebrating a birthday going on a date, going out to eat with friends, that’s something that will never go away. But it’s tough for restaurants to even hit three to 5 percent margins on an annual basis. And that’s why a lot of restaurants fail in their first or second year. Even in a pre-COVID world, there was there were too many options. And now, you know, I’m hoping that this, this is somewhat of a market correction that’s happening, we’re coming out of this, the restaurants that do survive and make it out will be stronger. And, you know, it’s hard to know how long that’s going to take. But there’s still a very exciting restaurant market ahead of us that, you know, is gonna just be a little bit more advanced for from a tech perspective, from a digital family perspective. We saw a lot of restaurants, resisting off-premise and delivery for a long time. And now, you know, it’s their lifeline. It’s where more than 50 percent of their orders are happening. And even as they open up their dining rooms and make shift back a little bit, [off-premises] will be a strong part of the off the experience. I don’t see there being many restaurants who don’t have some sort of off-premises experience coming out of this.
Jenn Marston: Yeah, I would I would agree with that. Let’s talk for a minute about those big dining rooms that are currently sitting empty, because we were seeing some, there is some trickling back to the dining rooms, I mean, different states have different relax different regulations. At the same time, obviously, vaccines are slowly but surely getting distributed. So at some point in the near(ish) future, the option to go out and eat at a restaurant is going to be less less scary for folks, basically. But where do you see? And you could you kind of already alluded to this, but you don’t see this need for delivery, and takeout and curbside, and all these other formats going away.
Alex Canter: You know, I think I think the ordering demographic has really shifted over the last year. It used to be a lot of 18- to 34-year olds who were using these apps and placing orders on Doordash. That has really expanded to all generations, from teenagers to you know, my grandparents [use] Doordash because they can’t go out and don’t feel safe going to restaurants anymore. But now that they’ve gotten used to this platform, they have the Dashpass they have their address saved on file, their favorite order restaurants are order history. This is a convenience that’s not going away anytime soon.
That larger demographic is naturally going to mean that a larger percentage of orders volumes can happen [off-premises]. Also with business travel changing. You know, many offices have committed to hiring remotely and not going back to centralized workplaces. And therefore I think, you know, opportunities with catering are going to permanently shift. And I foresee more of the happening through delivery and takeout. Restaurants have to adjust and get used to that. There were so many restaurants that were that were largely dependent on big catering orders. I think the event spaces will return your weddings, large parties, stuff like that will start to open back up again, but probably not the same levels that we’ve seen in the past.
Depending on what type of business you are, you’re probably coming out of this a little bit different. You have to rethink the consumer experience. And you see companies like Sweetgreen implementing drive-thru [and] examples of restaurants understanding that their customer base wants to interact with them differently than maybe before. And that that’s where it’s really hard to adjust and make those changes, I think, you know, many, many SMB operators and mom-and-pop restaurants don’t have digital teams. People have marketing teams, traditionally, sometimes maybe the owners do need some of the marketing themselves. But there’s so much technology that’s available now. And it’s up to the restaurants to figure out, to experiment and figure out what works and what doesn’t work in a very quick way. And we’ve seen some really, really impressive restaurants, you know, very quickly understand that they can’t just sit around and wait for things to get better and change. But they have to go out and make the really hard adjustments. So their business models to their staffing to their to their tech stack to really embrace what’s happening rather than sitting idly by hoping that things are gonna get better.
Jenn Marston: I know you and your family obviously are in the restaurant industry. I don’t think we’ve mentioned that yet. But, and I know Canter’s was already pretty savvy before the pandemic, you all were doing the ghost kitchens and the off-premise and things like that. But just from your own personal experience and your family’s experience, you know, what is Cantor has had to kind of deal with in terms of this adjustment you’re talking about?
Alex Canter: Yeah, so Canter’s is one of the largest and oldest restaurants in Los Angeles. And we had a very devastating start to this whole COVID experience where we had to lay off almost 90 full-time employees, from from waiters, the busboys, dishwashers, some that have been working in the restaurant for 30, 40, 50 years. It was, you know, incredibly challenging to make that that common decision and we as a, as a restaurant, we knew that this was not going to be a sustainable operation in a delivery-only format. Until, you know, until we start to get more creative. Luckily, funding definitely helped, we probably would not be open today without it. But that’s kind of a short-lived solution.
We ended up having to rethink many reasons pricing rethink the the entire physical experience when you walk in, to cater to an off-premise-only demographic and, and you know, we luckily were able to make those pivots and changes very quickly. LA did allow outdoor dining, but we decided not to invest in converting our space to accommodate that because it was quite an investment for so much uncertainty of like, how long is this gonna last? And luckily, we didn’t because shortly after outdoor dining became that thing, they actually pulled it back again. And it’s it’s been an emotional roller coaster for all these restaurants trying to figure out how to make this work.
Especially in the beginning, there was so little notice [around when] these changes were going to go into effect. From an inventory standpoint, we prepared for full dine in service and then we’d get a notification tonight at midnight [about closing].
Luckily, you know, Canter’s is a very big name that has a big following in LA. And so we’ve done very well on a delivery only capacity. But it’s because we’re getting a couple 100 orders a day through these third party marketplaces. Not every restaurant has that kind of volume to be able to generate enough through these platforms to sustain a delivery-only operation. And I think, the sooner that more of these cities will open up person, even if it’s just for outdoor dining, 25 percent capacity, the more likely restaurants will come out of this. But I think there’s also something to be said for, you know, the staff and feeling safe. And I’m glad that I think as of today, people who work in the food industry, at least in LA County, can now get the vaccine, which I’m sure is happening more and more cities. And I’m, I’m hopeful that that will happen. That rollout will happen faster than anticipated. Because, you know, if if these restaurant employees were showing up every day and putting themselves at risk, aren’t feeling safe at work, it’s a very hard situation to navigate for an owner to try to, you know, keep the doors open. Restaurant staff is like family, and you don’t want to put anyone at risk or expose anyone to any dangerous situation. So even even in the beginning, when we wanted to stay open for delivery and takeout, there was some hesitation.
It’s been a journey to get to this point. But for my family’s restaurant, I think we’ll come out stronger again, just like we have for the last nine years, we’ve survived wars and recessions. It’s all because of this mentality of like, we have to adapt or die, we’ll have to make changes, embrace change, embrace new technology. And, you know, I think that’s been the key to our success over the years.
Jenn Marston: I think that’s a great point. What would you say to restaurants out there in terms of what are some of the most important things that they can do for themselves right now, to continue adapting, or if they haven’t done that much to get the ball rolling?
Alex Canter: First and foremost, if you have extra capacity in your kitchen, you should absolutely be experimenting with creating virtual brands, licensing other people’s virtual brands, but really trying to maximize the output of your kitchen. That’s a very low-hanging fruit in my opinion, which we’re seeing a lot of the chains starting to embrace now. We’ve seen announcements from everyone from Chili’s to Bloomin’ Brands to Applebee’s. Denny’s have experimented with luxury, several different menus, several different concepts running out of their kitchens, and those incremental orders are so critical right now. And you know, whether you try to do a virtual restaurant brand yourself or you partner with a company like NextBite or any others in the space, I think that is that is such an obvious way to to drive more orders into your restaurant every single day. So if you’re not doing that, or you’re hesitant for any reason, I highly suggest you try it and just see what happens. You know that there is a big learning curve to understanding how to get it right. And how to, you know, create the right menu and price it and promote it and optimize the placement within the platforms. It’s not as simple as just lighting up a menu on these platforms. But you know, start that process of understanding what works and what doesn’t work, because there’s a lot of opportunity just sitting there. And if you’re not, if you’re only running one, your own restaurant, every kitchen, I think you’re probably you probably have a lot more need for growth, unless you’re in and out of alignment your door every moment of every hour of every day. I think virtual restaurants can benefit everyone who doesn’t have that situation.
Jenn Marston: Any any thing else in terms of I know, we’ve talked in the past about? Also, it’s not a matter of just taking your existing menu and plunking it online, right? It’s, you know, maybe thinking about scaling it back or thinking about which foods might be best suited to this, these kind of newer formats and things like that.
Alex Canter: Yeah, well, you know, one, one strategy that I think every restaurant should be focusing on is shifting as much of your order volume from off-premise from third-party delivery to your own website or your own app. It’s easier said than done, for sure. But at a baseline, you should have an ordering button link on your website, whether it’s powered by ChowNow or Lunchbox or any of these companies that that allow restaurants to take orders directly. It is, you know, every order that’s happening on those platforms, you don’t have to give up as much of a percentage is it’s better. But the reality of the situation is that a disproportionate amount of the volume will still happen on third-party marketplaces. But there are a lot of companies focusing on restaurants creating their own digital strategy to get people to convert through their own service platform. So that’s something that everyone should be looking into as well.
Jenn Marston: I wanted to end just by asking a question, you put it really well, at the beginning of this conversation, we you talked about the just the sheer pace of acceleration and how we’ve, you know, in, what did you say we basically did 10 years in two months, in terms of just adoption and these changes. So as we move away from these widespread lockdowns and dining room closures and things like that, do you see this pace of tech adoption and delivery and takeout adoption slowing down significantly in the near future? Do you think we’ll kind of continue quickly for some time?
Alex Canter: Well, from pace perspective, I don’t think the percentages will remain the same. Look at the third-party marketplaces, all the ordering channels, they grew their businesses in some situations three to 5x last year. I don’t think any of those companies will experience the same kind of growth in 2021, just because so many restaurants were scrambling to implement delivery last year. But I see all of these these companies continuing their growth, just not the same pieces as maybe what happened last year.
You think back maybe 15 years ago, most restaurants didn’t even have a point of sale system. There was like maybe a credit card terminal and a cash register. And, you know, the, the evolution of this space has historically been slow. But now, it’s not a choice anymore. It’s something you have to really embrace and take on and and experiment with. And luckily, there are hundreds of great restaurant-tech companies out there that are helping businesses in different ways. And I think it’s really important right now to be experimenting with, with as much as we can handle from a bandwidth perspective. Because there’s a lot [of technology], as a restaurant owner, I probably was pitched by over 500 different restaurant tech companies trying to bring in new services. And some some of those technologies were game changing for us way back in the early days of Groupon or Yelp, or even a third party marketplaces themselves, these were companies that really carried a lot of volume for us. And, you know, without them, I don’t know if we would have made it this far. So it’s really, really hard to navigate this space, because there’s so much happening. It’s like drinking from a firehose and when you think about your tech stack and your strategy, especially as it’s moving so quickly, but I definitely am encouraging as many restaurants to embrace that experimentation.
Jenn Marston: Excellent. Well, thank you for chatting with me, Alex. And for those of you watching and listening, hope this has been helpful and we’ll be running quite a few of these videos and pieces over the next couple of weeks on the spoon. So thanks again, Alex. And Take care everybody.