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.
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.
Recently the long-anticipated “second wave” of COVID-19 cases was spurring an indoor dining ban in Chicago, leading to talk of heightened restrictions in the U.S., and bringing back lockdowns in Europe. At a time when COVID fatigue has set in and we’re all eager to congregate again, restaurant operators are in the difficult and pretty impossible position of being arbiters of public safety. Unfortunately, the colder air will make virus transmission even easier than it has been to date: As reported in the Oregonian, Dr. Emily Landon of the University of Chicago medical school said colder air is drier and the droplets that transmit the virus become smaller – so removing masks to eat and drink poses extra safety risks. Instead of pouring your creativity and resources into building a safer outdoor dining area to sustain you in the months ahead, you will likely be better served by going all-in on perfecting your off-premise offerings right now. Think back to how you operated in the early weeks of the pandemic and focus on doing those things again and better. People may be less comfortable eating out for the next several months but they will still need to eat – and the public has become more educated about the low risk of COVID transmission on packaging. Your off-premise menu can help bring some festivity and normalcy to life in these strange times.
If your restaurant has pivoted to mostly takeout service in recent months, you may long for the days when you were serving attractively plated meals. But since takeout is here to stay, can you find a better way to present your off-premise meals? Offering durable reusable containers may help you – and may also help ease your customers’ guilt about the mountain of takeout containers and utensils they have likely accumulated from their favorite restaurants this year. (The Washington Post recently reported the troubling statistic from National Geographic that the U.S. uses more than 36 billion disposable utensils annually – an amount which, if laid end to end, would circle the world 139 times.) Not only is serving food in reusable containers more eco-friendly and budget-friendly if used in the long term – it’s more appealing to customers than eating out of cardboard or from an unrecyclable plastic container that has to then be tossed in the garbage. It also provides an additional means for restaurants to demonstrate (and market) to customers that they are taking steps to minimize their impact on the environment. This Fast Company report mentions Dispatch Goods as one company that is offering a reusable container service that, for a small additional fee, allows customers to set their takeout containers outside in a reusable bag for pickup, cleaning and later reuse by the restaurant. Companies like this are becoming more common and cost-effective for restaurants. Could the model work for you?
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.
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.
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.
When it comes to restaurant food delivery, the numbers don’t often add up – for the operator, the customer or even the third-party delivery company. A recent New York Times report found in a survey of GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates and Uber Eats – the four largest third-party delivery apps in the U.S. – that customers were paying as much as 91 percent more for food delivered via these apps. In the meantime, operators are trying to carve out razor-thin profits from delivery orders and delivery companies are struggling to make money in a sea of competition. But since off-premise demand continues to climb and restaurants are adjusting their sales models and even their physical structures to accommodate it, how can operators make the costs easier to swallow for both customers and themselves? Offering delivery by hiring in-house couriers can help, though it isn’t necessarily feasible for everyone. A Restaurant Dive report says industry analysts predict restaurants will adjust prices, use virtual kitchens, adopt their own branded platforms or renegotiate their commission rates with third-party delivery companies in an effort to get ahead. Renegotiation may come in the form of changes in sales structure too: Technomic says a key way that providers are evolving right now is by offering delivery subscriptions – all-inclusive delivery for a monthly fee, as well as delivery discounts for loyal customers – incentives that can come directly from restaurants too.
One of the biggest restaurant industry stories – and challenges – of 2019 was about sustainability. Even brands that had taken the initiative to invest in compostable, eco-friendly packaging were surprised to learn that these materials were still ending up in landfills. Blue Bottle Coffee, which operates coffee cafés across the U.S. and parts of Asia, is one such business, and it is handling the problem in a way that’s worth watching if you’d like to improve your record (and story) when it comes to sustainability. Blue Bottle Coffee’s CEO, Bryan Meehan, recently announced that since discovering that too many of its 100 percent compostable, bioplastic cups and straws were ending up in landfills, the company created a policy that by the end of 2020, all of its U.S. cafés will be zero waste. (According to Zero Waste International Alliance’s definition, this means that at least 90 percent of the operation’s waste will be diverted from landfills.) The company is also testing out a program in the San Francisco Bay area to eliminate single-use cups – until now the company has gone through 12 million single-use cups annually in its U.S. cafés alone. Meehan also pushes a commitment to not only recycle but to reduce and reuse – and tells stories about his family’s efforts in these areas. He readily admits that it’s not an easy, inexpensive or convenient undertaking to make similar changes at Blue Bottle. He says on the company’s blog, “a commitment to reuse will wreak havoc on every aspect of our pilot cafe’s operations. We expect to lose some business.” But by taking an extreme stand and being open with consumers about its plans, the company also stands to increase its relevance – and win business in the process.
If you think restaurant delivery is big now, there is more to come: The NPD Group said in 2019 that restaurant digital orders have grown at an average annual rate of 23 percent since 2013 and will triple in volume by the end of 2020. At the same time, consumers have yet to commit to one third-party delivery provider, so they are willing to accept promotions from the many companies angling for their business. If you offer delivery or are considering it, now is a good time to see how providing it through your own digital platform might work for you. Nation’s Restaurant News expects more brands to take this route in 2020 in an effort to build more permanent relationships with customers – all while maintaining control of data and avoiding third-party delivery fees. Physical restaurant structures are continuing to change as well, with more restaurants not just creating separate prep lines and pick-up windows, but investing in virtual kitchens and other satellite facilities in close proximity to delivery customers in an effort to compete for business. In fact, Michael Schaefer, Euromonitor global lead for food and beverage, recently told Restaurant Dive that virtual kitchens and drop-off points will be crucial to compete in the future of delivery.