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?
Restaurant industry analysts have said that in a period of just a few months, the pandemic has thrust the ghost kitchen market several years into the future. As more ghost kitchens come into the market, traditional operators may need to adapt to shifting budgetary needs and consumer expectations. A Restaurant Dive article reported recently that Peter Schatzberg, founder of Dubai-based Sweetheart Kitchen, said while a typical restaurant processes 15 to 20 delivery orders per hour, a ghost kitchen can process 60 orders – and with a single employee. If ghost kitchens increasingly demonstrate such economies of scale – by churning out orders quickly to more customers, with fewer staff, working from real estate occupying a smaller footprint – it will likely change the game for restaurant operators offering delivery from their traditional kitchens. How could your restaurant adapt?
Even before the pandemic, ghost kitchens were on the rise for their ability to ensure faster, less expensive food preparation and more efficient delivery to customers looking for off-premise dining options. Now, many restaurant operators are looking at ghost kitchens as a critical way forward at a time of great uncertainty for the industry. They may be on to something: Recent research from Euromonitor found that the global market for ghost kitchens could reach $1 trillion by 2030 – and in the process, capture big slices of industry segments including drive-thru sales, take-out foodservice, ready-to-eat meals, pre-packaged cooking ingredients, dine-in foodservice and packaged snacks. But when you’ve been running a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant, what actions (and investment) are required to pivot to the ghost-kitchen model? Food distributor US Foods is aiming to give operators a hand with that transition through its newly launched US Foods Ghost Kitchens program. The company promises that for an average start-up investment below $5,000, they can help operators open a ghost kitchen concept in about three weeks and achieve an average profit margin exceeding 35 percent. The program includes market research, marketing support, a digital technology framework, menu optimization and management guidance.
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.
Everyone needs to eat – but the experience of eating at a restaurant or enjoying restaurant food is something that will keep consumers coming back to your business, particularly if they have had to cook for themselves for several weeks on end. Recent Toast research found that 78 percent of Millennials would rather spend money on an experience such a restaurant or activity than on an item at a store. Whether guests are dining at your restaurant right now or opting for delivery, you can fine-tune the experience you offer. First, focus on making your brand come through effectively via delivery. Ensure your menu of delivery items travels well and represents the best of what you can offer off-premise – and take care to update it online, particularly if you have introduced new items recently. When you send out an order, help customers connect with your business – Deliverect suggests small acts like a handwritten note or a smiley face on a receipt can go a long way, or you can enclose a small photo of your team to introduce customers to the people who are working hard for them behind the scenes right now. Provide vouchers or other promotions to increase future deliveries and in-house orders. Think about how you can get people back to your restaurant once people are ready to dine out again: Stay in touch with other business owners in your community to plan potential events together, and keep your conversations with guests going on social media (share some photos too) so you’re front of mind for them when they are ready to dine out.
To be sure, there are plenty of gloomy news headlines about the restaurant industry right now – and more than ever, restaurants need the support of their communities to recover. But at a time when it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the multitude of challenges standing in the way of rebuilding business, take heart in the examples of operators who are somehow doing better than ever right now. They are succeeding, seemingly, through a combination of letting go of ego, ignoring the desire to keep items on the menu out of sentiment, being willing to flex to new business conditions each day, and focusing on what people need right now – even if it doesn’t necessarily mesh with the polished brand the restaurant had in its beginnings. Take Alinea veteran Eric Rivera of the Seattle restaurant Addo. A report from Wired details, Rivera has been offering an ever-changing menu of items ranging from $9 food bowls, to meal-and-wine packs, to eat-at-home versions of his 20-course tasting menu during the pandemic. He has even thrown in some Game of Thrones- and Seattle Mariners-themed dinners to mix things up. The constant changes give him some new fodder for social media promotion on an ongoing basis, and people are linked from Addo’s social media posts to its Tock sales platform, which allows customers to order meals in advance (and Rivera to better manage inventory and waste). Addo’s dining room now looks more like a warehouse and the employees who once served a roomful of guests are now staffing in-house delivery for the restaurant.
In recent months, your business may have offered more bulk meals or meal kits to customers looking to enjoy restaurant-quality food during the lockdown. Are these options worth carrying over as people begin to return to dining at restaurants and gathering with more people? Simon-Kucher & Partners, a global strategy and marketing consulting firm that works with a range of major restaurant brands, addressed this question in a recent study they conducted about consumer behavior after COVID-19. The findings, as reported by QSR Magazine, indicate that the answer is a probable yes. Prior to the pandemic, it found that 33 percent of consumers favored home-cooked meals, while 67 preferred food prepared away from home. Contrast that with preferences during the pandemic (55 percent vs. 45 percent) and preferences projected between six and 12 months post-lockdown (37 percent to 63 percent). In many areas, it will likely take a number of months before consumer routines return to what they were like prior to the pandemic. Providing some core menu items that can be offered as family-style meals, or packaging up ingredients that can be combined and cooked at home, can offer some additional freedom to guests – and perhaps tip the scales in your favor when consumers are considering where to order their next meal.
The pandemic has made the need (and demand) for efficient restaurant food delivery even clearer. If you operated a dining room before but don’t see it being a practical business move going forward due to physical distancing and capacity requirements, you may be considering going the virtual route, with a focus on driving off-premise sales. This doesn’t necessarily require moving to a new location. Depending on your leasing status and the flexibility of your landlord, you may be able to transform your current business and space into a ghost kitchen. If you need help to convert your existing business into a digital business call Team Four Foodservice.