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When it comes to talking about the year 2020, one of the things third-party delivery services like to say is that they were “a lifeline” for restaurants that might have otherwise had to shutter permanently due to dining room closures and restrictions.
Plenty have disputed this over the last several months. But perhaps no one has lately been more to-the-point about the matter than Recode’s Kara Swisher, who hosted Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi on her Sway podcast this week.
“You’re not allowed to get away with saying you’ve been a lifeline to restaurants,” she told Khosrowshahi early on.
Swisher noted the oft-cited figure, that delivery services charge restaurants commission fees of up to 30 percent of a single transaction for use of their services. Khosrowshahi countered by saying Swisher’s math was “incomplete” and that the 30 percent is “untruthful” when it comes to representing what restaurants are actually on the hook to pay delivery services. According to his math, restaurants pay Uber Eats 13 percent per transaction “net of the courier.” If restaurants want to use their own couriers, the commission cost is “about 15 percent.”
But as Swisher suggested, even those lower numbers are harmful to restaurants, which typically operate off margins that are about 3 to 5 percent. That irreconcilable math is one of the reasons cities across the U.S. have introduced mandatory caps on commission fees, some as low as 10 percent.
Pre-pandemic, the argument was that if a restaurant took issue with high commission fees, they could simply opt out of doing delivery. That argument holds no water now, though, since the pandemic essentially forced restaurants into doing delivery and most do not have the money or expertise to build an in-house delivery business. Actually, most can’t even afford their own courier fleet.
It’s also worth pointing out that while Khosrowshahi called the 30 percent commission fee “untruthful,” he never actually offered a hard number around how high an Uber Eats commission fee reaches when a restaurant is using a courier, as most are. If anything, his cagey response of “13 percent net of the courier” seems to confirm the 30 percent commission fee’s existence.
Uber Eats had a big year in 2020. It more than doubled its revenues and even acquired a competitor, Postmates, towards the end of the year. Khosrowshahi himself said the service had a $40 billion-plus run rate and would be larger than the company’s mobility business in 2021.
Conversely, the restaurant industry has lost $240 billion in sales and is still 2.5 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Restaurant Association. A total of 110,000 restaurants in the U.S. have closed, which is about 17 percent of the nation’s restaurants total.
Khosrowshahi defended his company’s approach to restaurant commissions, using words like “reasonable” and “fair” to describe them. To which Swisher simply pointed out that most restaurants she speaks with disagree, and only use the Uber Eats and Caviars of the world because the pandemic has forced them to.
“They hate you,” she concluded, flatly, before using the phrase “menace economy” to describe the environment in which restaurants must now operate to stay in business.
Here’s How the Restaurant Biz Survived 2020
I know most of you would rather forget 2020 ever happened, but it never hurts to look back before going forward, which is just what the National Restaurant Association did this week. The trade group published a list of top trends it says kept many restaurants in business last year while the pandemic wreaked havoc on the industry.
The 10 trends that made the list were based on those found in a survey The Association did of more than 6,000 restaurants and 1,000 adults. The majority of the trends on the list are directly related to helping restaurants “keep their businesses open and employees on the payroll,” as The Association puts it.
The full research post is worth a read. This being The Spoon, I’ll highlight a few items that made the list that illustrate how tech-forward the pandemic has made the restaurant biz in recent months:
- “Streamlined menus.” Part of this is related to the actual food: restaurants needed a way to reduce inventories and fulfill items faster, and “pare down your menu” became a mantra for many early on in the pandemic. However, streamlined menus also have to do with offering food that travels well, for pickup and delivery orders, and not overwhelming digital customers with choice paralysis as they view menus via their own mobile devices.
- “Off-premises foodservice takes precedence.” The Association noted that before the pandemic, 80 percent of full-service restaurant traffic was on-premises. The change restaurants were forced to make to delivery and takeout formats in March, when shutdowns first started, rippled across the entire industry and is now more or less ingrained in operations. Which is to say, even when restaurants are operating at full dining room capacity once again, off-premises will be an important part of any restaurant’s strategy.
- “Selling groceries.” This started early in the pandemic when restaurants began selling inventory unused because of shutdowns, and doing so via off-premises channels like delivery and drive-thru. The Association’s survey found that “more than half of consumers” would consider buying grocery staples (produce, dairy, meat) from restaurants themselves if those items were offered. Little wonder, then, that third-party delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats added grocery delivery to their businesses in 2020.
Other trends in the restaurant industry — ghost kitchens, virtual restaurants, better back-of-house tech — are woven into the more general trends on The Association’s list. For example, a shift to off-premises foodservice will inevitably mean more ghost kitchens. Pull up a virtual restaurant menu from just about anyone these days and you’ll find it’s decidedly streamlined.
“We now know that three things are certain: the pandemic tested the limits of operator creativity and knowhow, accelerated tech adoption and emerging trends, and confirmed that customers sorely miss their restaurant experiences,” says the report.
With a widespread vaccine still months away (at least) and restrictions still in place for the majority of dining rooms, these trends that helped us survive 2020 will also start to shape 2021 and beyond.
Restaurant Tech ‘Round the Web
Panera is the latest major chain to announce plans to go all-in on ghost kitchens. The brand said this week it also has mobile kitchens, redesigned drive-thru lanes, and a virtual catering business in the works.
Fat Brands, meanwhile, is doubling-down on its existing ghost kitchen strategy. The company said at an ICR presentation this week that it plans to open a dozen ghost kitchens in 2021.
Restaurant tech provider Perfect Company raised $6 million for its solution that brings automation to the front of house, back of house, ghost kitchens, convenience stores, and other foodservice areas.