While the early months of the pandemic saw a sharp rise in restaurants’ off-premise sales, many operators with dining rooms are now seeing their in-store business climb back up. But that hasn’t chipped away at the momentum of off-premise sales. In fact, according to a recent consumer survey, 53 percent of respondents now believe food delivery is essential to their life. As long as in-person and off-premise dining options are both available, operators can expect to see demand for them – though the degree of demand in each area may be more difficult to predict. For this reason, it’s become even more important for restaurants to be able to unify their physical and online customer service experiences, providing a seamless transition between them. According to data from PYMNTS’ 2022 Restaurant Friction Index, which considers input provided in September by more than 500 restaurant managers across the country, unifying channels is a top priority for operators, ranking above such factors as payment options, ordering options and loyalty offerings as central to restaurants’ technology plans going forward. Achieving unity starts with understanding your brand and values. What are the key sentiments you want guests of your restaurant to walk away with after they visit your restaurant? Friendliness? Fresh ingredients? Sustainability? How can you weave those messages into your digital channels to ensure your brand identify comes through clearly regardless of where your customers consume their meals from you?
The combined challenges of the pandemic, inflation, supply chain problems and labor shortages have made it clear: To survive and thrive in the years ahead, restaurants will need new ways of operating. The good news, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry report, is that two key customer demographics are particularly welcoming of the changes. Specifically, adults born between 1980 and 2003 (Millennials and the older edge of Gen Z), as well as a fair share of Boomers, are embracing the efficiencies that technology is bringing to the ordering, purchasing and collection process, while also demonstrating an open-mindedness about the role restaurants can fulfill in their lives. For example, these consumers see restaurants as meal partners. Even if they’re planning to eat at home, they may still look to restaurants to provide a part of that meal or a kit that makes it easier to prepare their full meal. These customers place high value on takeout – and 94 percent of millennials said they would order a wider array of to-go foods if they were packaged to preserve them better (70 percent are even willing to pay more for upgraded packaging). Millennials and Gen Z, in particular, like alcohol with their order too, giving operators some room for creativity with promotions for higher-margin drinks that customers don’t want to prepare at home. They’re open to buying subscriptions for restaurant meals or opening house accounts that offer a discount for prepayment. Importantly, they also like the efficiency of tech-enabled ordering and payment – and that extends to ordering through virtual assistants. All told, the definition of a “great” restaurant experience is changing – and those changes bring greater efficiencies and possibilities for restaurants, amid the challenges.
Even before the pandemic, the shift from on-premise to off-premise dining was happening. But the pandemic truly accelerated it, and even as people return to restaurant dining rooms now, there is still a way to go before things look the way they did a couple of years ago. To be sure, the trend is especially stark for full-service restaurants – new data from FSR Magazine indicates that in September of 2019, 80 percent of traffic at full-service restaurants was on-premise (compared to 20 percent for carryout), whereas the mix in September of 2021 was 56 percent on-premise, 44 percent carryout. Still, across restaurant categories, an operator needs to make a clear-eyed assessment of their business model in light of current market conditions, then take steps to protect the business for the long term. That means expanding, not limiting, opportunities to serve guests – and resisting the urge to revert back to how you were operating pre-pandemic. Consider new opportunities for catering, particularly as businesses are looking for ways to maintain connections between hybrid workers and clients. Keep communication open with neighboring restaurants and complementary businesses that may be able to pool resources, share staff, or collaborate with you on promotions. Think about how to make it easier and faster for your food to reach guests who want to eat it off-premise, whether that means assessing third-party delivery providers to find the best-possible arrangement, starting an in-house delivery service or using a ghost kitchen.
Restaurant delivery continues to climb: In 2023, the online food delivery market is expected to balloon to $154 billion from $111 billion in 2020, according to Statista. Are you doing all you can to make sure that as many delivery orders as possible are coming to you from customers directly instead of through third-party delivery apps? Your patrons aren’t necessarily seeking out the DoorDashes and GrubHubs of the world – they are simply ordering via the channel that’s most convenient to them. You can make direct orders more convenient (or at least more enticing) for them when they’re ready to place an order. First, make sure your customers know they can find the best food selection and deals if they order directly from you. Limit the menu options you offer via third-party providers to your highest-margin items – and make it clear on your website, search engine listings and social media posts that people can find a wider variety of food options, lower prices and access to limited-time offers by coming directly to you. When they do visit your website, they shouldn’t have to navigate far to where they place an order. Modern Restaurant Management suggests using a pop-up banner with a link (and perhaps a QR code) that directs them to your online ordering page. On that page, encourage them to join your loyalty program so you can continue to reach them with direct and increasingly targeted offers. Finally, make sure your customers know that they can best support you and your staff in challenging times – and help ensure they can keep their favorite dishes coming – if they order from you directly. Include language on your menu, website and on notes placed in third-party delivery bags that says just that.