The pandemic has put restaurant packaging under a magnifying glass. That will only increase this winter, with fewer (if any) dine-in guests in your restaurant. Your packaging is what ensures the experience of eating your food is as good at a distance as it is in your dining room. Is yours up to the task? The materials you’re using – as well as your to-go menu – should be adjusting to the times. If items your restaurant is known for don’t travel well – like burgers and fries – make new packaging a priority. While the pandemic has posed seemingly endless challenges for the restaurant industry, it has also sparked innovation – including the development of new packaging options (along with new uses for existing packaging, like paella being delivered in pizza boxes). Eco-friendly options are on the rise right now – and will likely again be more of a consumer demand as we emerge from the pandemic, which has caused many restaurants to return to plastic and Styrofoam packaging for the short term. If you’re making packaging changes right now, consider packaging made from biodegradable materials or easily renewable sources like bamboo, as this report from Stylus explains. As the distribution of the vaccine makes life feel safer, you may also be able to return to reusable containers that guests can return and refill. A recent McKinsey report said post-pandemic, packaging companies will need to think about three requirements going forward: sustainability, hygiene and effective direct-to-consumer design. Restaurants should have a growing number of packaging options available to help them perfect the off-premise experience.
The winter weather will mean customers will be more apt to lean on restaurant delivery – and third-party delivery apps – to get the food they crave. But as a recent New York Times article reported, “restaurants have quickly found that the apps, with their high fees and strong-arm tactics, may be a temporary lifeline, but not a savior.” That’s especially true when an app can charge fees surpassing 30 percent per order and take customer data along with them. In 2021, how can you set yourself up to encourage your customers to come to you directly when they want to order from your restaurant? If you can’t divert waitstaff to delivery duty, use a third-party provider as a courier service only (which typically involves paying a payment processing fee and delivery fee but not losing any customer data), or make it more appealing for guests to collect their orders. In every bag to be collected by a third-party vendor, include a coupon good for a pickup discount – along with an explanation about how third-party fees are impacting restaurants right now. Offer rotating specials that are only available through orders placed via your website. Finally, use your social media and website to directly urge customers to come to you. Reinforce how much they will save on fees by simply collecting an order from you or (if possible) having you deliver it to them directly. Explain the difference side by side and tell them how much money your business makes or loses depending on how an order is placed – sometimes a consumer’s decision to use an app is not a conscious one and the person just needs to be reminded of how you’re feeling the difference. Your customers have surely seen some of their favorite restaurants close in recent months – and they want to see you survive and thrive. Tell them how to place orders that can best support you right now.
Your take-away menu is carrying a lot of weight these days. It needs to offer a sufficient range of items to satisfy guests (though not so many that you overwhelm them with choices or generate waste). It must communicate the experience of eating these items (but without too many words). And it must accomplish this all without the person ever having to walk through your doors to experience your brand. Chances are we’ll be looking at another several months of dining room restrictions and being limited to take-away and delivery – particular during the winter months, when it can be hard to get people to come out even in normal years. So give your menu a reality check now. Aside from organizing items by category, ensuring everything travels well, explaining options with a handful of carefully chosen words that help communicate the texture, freshness and aroma of an item, and including appealing photos, try to add some intrigue. Beyond your popular standbys, think about what regular tweaks you can make that will entice people to come back and see what creative menu items – or even new categories – you are offering. New research from Postmates, for example, found that sales of family meals had climbed 175 percent and alcohol sales 49 percent over last year. Special occasions have resulted in food and beverage spikes too: National Ice Cream Day in July led to a 118 percent increase in ice cream sales, and Election Day resulted in sharp increases of orders of pizza, alcohol, cupcakes and ice cream. Clearly this is a year when people crave comfort. What kind of comfort can you cook up for upcoming occasions this winter?
The math on third-party delivery has long been problematic. Operators have felt the need to offer it at the expense of profits just because of increasing consumer demand. But now that restrictions on dining rooms have made delivery more of a necessity than a nice-to-have extra, many operators are thinking even more critically about how to make it work. Common approaches include raising prices on menu items to help compensate for high third-party fees, finding a way to offer delivery in-house, or enticing guests to order via your online platform and then paying a third-party vendor a reduced fee for delivery (but retaining the valuable customer data). If delivering food yourself isn’t feasible, committing to making the third option work may be your best long-term bet for making ends meet and serving customers well. This Restaurant Business report ( https://bit.ly/3pqATav ) discusses how delivery may be evolving and how to drive people to your platform.
This year, consumers and restaurants alike could really use the morale boost that holiday gatherings and celebrations can offer – but those events will look a lot different this year (if they happen at all). But not so fast. Could you find a festive way to help people enjoy great company, food and drink in a new way? Could you still help them toast to a long-awaited 2021? Think about how you can bring the party to your guests individually or virtually. Are there businesses in your neighborhood who have always held their holiday lunches and happy hours with you but will miss them this year because their employees are working remotely right now? More than ever, they want to make their employees feel appreciated and connected to their work from afar, so promote some holiday bundles that can be delivered to individual employees as a special treat. Do your customers still feel the need for a party – even if it’s not a traditional one? If you don’t have access to a large outdoor space where you are allowed to plan a socially distanced gathering, don’t underestimate the appeal of a virtual party, cooking class, quiz night or wine tasting held via Zoom. It can come together with a menu of festive food, cocktails and party bags for delivery, a few festive or funny Zoom backgrounds and some music.
By now, you likely know the approved COVID-recovery playbook for restaurants: Fine-tune your off-premise menu, offer digital ordering, make your pick-ups low-touch, etc. But restaurants aren’t all alike – thankfully – so a cookie-cutter approach to COVID survival and success isn’t going to work for everyone. If this sounds like you, what could work for you? What might inject your business with enough lifeblood to keep it going until spring, when the environment may look a whole lot better for restaurants? A recent New York Times report profiled the Brooklyn restaurant Gertie, which serves updated Jewish-American deli food and has embraced reinvention mode. When the pandemic hit, the restaurant had no takeout or delivery operation – the one thing believed to be a must for operating in these times. So the owners created one. Far from being a saving grace, it was a “dead end.” So instead, the restaurant has focused on nonprofit work – partnering with a range of meal programs around the city that distribute meals to the hungry. Prior to the election, they planned a weekly event designed to boost business while encouraging support for candidates running for office. So far, it’s keeping them going, and they continue to look for ways to reinvent themselves. The environment for restaurants is severe – but money is still flowing in this economy. What organizations in your community could be critical partners for you right now? What causes might inspire your best customers to support you? This isn’t what you’ll be doing forever but it may help carry you through these next few months to a point next year when life feels a bit safer, people want to get out and support restaurants, and yours will be among the ones there to serve them.
Delivery has become a must for many restaurants, particularly in the past several months, but offering the service is just the beginning. According to a new survey of 2,000 consumers from First Orion, there are a wide range of delivery problems that still need to be worked out. Operators who can find a way to address even some of those problems effectively stand to benefit. The survey found that the vast majority of people have had problems when ordering restaurant delivery: More than 70 percent of people had experienced a problem that required customer service and 50 percent had a problem with late delivery. Incorrect orders, improper food temperature, driver directions and behavior, and the non-delivery of food altogether also posed problems for large percentages of respondents. Fine-tuning your performance in any or all of these areas can help. First, perfect your menu. It should be clear, simple, easy to understand and provide a space for a customer to customize or modify an order. Make your menu easy to find (an Order Here button helps) and read with minimal clicks and scrolling. Use technology to accept orders, confirm customer address and contact information, inform customer of wait time, track an order’s preparation and delivery, and direct a driver to the customer’s location. Take care with not only the quality of your packaging but also with the storage of those packages – your delivery driver shouldn’t be storing cold and hot foods side by side in the same container. Finally, set guidelines about how to best respond to customer complaints online – but if you have a solid handle on the other aspects of delivery, those (hopefully) shouldn’t happen too often.
As restaurants have struggled to accommodate the need for meal delivery during the pandemic, a number of cities have stepped up to limit the steep fees third-party delivery providers can charge. Restaurant Business reported in late July that Philadelphia – which had just joined the effort alongside cities including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C. – would immediately cap total fees on delivery orders at 15 percent. The report said delivery commissions could not exceed 10 percent of the order total, and separate nondelivery fees could not surpass 5 percent – until 90 days after the end of the current public health emergency. As for what happens in other cities, and, for that matter, across the country after the threat of this pandemic passes, restaurants need to dissect their data and understand their customer base so they can negotiate the best terms of third-party contracts. Even with the major providers, there is room for small restaurant brands to bargain – particularly as provider consolidation remains likely. This Fast Casual report (https://bit.ly/33vocmi) provides some tips about the best ways to secure a fair deal with third-party companies – including what you should know about your profits, customer habits and existing ordering channels to get the best leverage when negotiating an agreement. If you think in-house delivery might work for your restaurant with a little guidance, you can also check out the Native Delivery Best Practices Work Group, an effort launched by the Restaurant Technology Network.
As the easing of restaurant dining restrictions in states across the U.S. has given restaurants a bit of a reprieve from the plethora of economic challenges COVID-19 has caused, it may be difficult to even stop for a moment and ponder the challenges ahead. But as temperatures cool around many parts of the U.S., potentially making outdoor dining less appealing, restaurants will need an airtight off-premise sales structure to sustain business. Many are struggling with that. In new survey research released by Upserve, 47 percent of restaurant operators who responded said their biggest challenge of the past several months has been shifting to a new business model such as online ordering and delivery. Meanwhile, between February and April, Upserve found that online ordering grew 3,868 percent. As winter approaches, how can you fortify your online business and ensure you’re not losing delivery fees to third-party providers? Is your website (and if applicable, your app) easy to navigate for people looking to place an order? Do you make dishes easy to customize due to customer preference or health requirements? Is your menu efficient to prepare and stocked with items that are just as tasty upon delivery as they are served in your dining room? If you offer delivery via third-party provider, are you communicating to customers how much it helps you if they pick up their order instead? Can you entice customers to pick up their order in exchange for a discount or other benefit? People will still crave restaurant food as the virus persists into the cooler months, so how can you streamline the process of connecting them with yours?
At a time when food delivery providers can charge commissions on the order of 30 percent, restaurant delivery is facing pressure to evolve – and fast. The good news is that new models are appearing all the time – and they are building on the community spirit that has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. Fare is a new commission-free food delivery service that CaterCow just launched in New York City. Instead of delivering small, individual orders, it offers a select menu of foods that must be ordered in advance and are then delivered in bulk to a person’s door within a specific building or neighborhood. While it requires some planning and coordination across households, the only charge is to the recipient, who pays a delivery fee (which starts at $3 and climbs based on the size of the order, according to Restaurant Dive). The restaurant keeps the rest. As restaurants have had to close in recent months, or even in the best cases, adapt their models to the current environment, consumers have become increasingly aware that restaurants need patrons to meet them halfway. That may translate into a willingness to forgo some convenience for the sake of ensuring a restaurant’s profits. Can you entice your customers to adapt to picking up meals themselves if you offer a discount or a free item in exchange? Could you mine your tech to identify pockets of customers, then offer a deal to cost-effectively deliver meals in bulk to apartment buildings yourself? Could you partner with nearby restaurants to share a delivery team? Now is the time to think creatively about how to get food to customers – and to tell them how they can best support you.