Digital tools that flatten the curve and help rebuild business

If you’ve ignored or overlooked improvements in technology, it undoubtedly reared its ugly head during the COVID-19 crisis. Tech that allowed operators to quickly reach customers and pivot just as fast to curbside pickup or delivery models positioned them to better weather the storm. As the industry continues to fight for its survival, improving technology is an undeniable necessity even after operations restart.

Own (and Borrow) Your Own Tech

The pandemic amplified the frustrations operators already felt about third-party service commissions. A potential hedge? While you’re shuttered, develop a proprietary website and app – or better yet, lease tech from those who’ve already developed their own.

Proprietary websites and apps allow operators to launch their own advertising campaigns, rewards programs and special promotions that can forge direct relationships with diners.

Jodi Boyce, Executive Vice President of Marketing at Teriyaki Madness, a fast-casual chain with more than 60 locations nationwide, followed that strategy. But taking an additional step and developing a way to handle your own delivery can further retain revenues and staff.

“It’s always (optimal) to do the deliveries yourself,” says Chris Baggott, CEO of ClusterTruck, a delivery-only restaurant with locations in four states. Baggott’s company has its own proprietary software that uses machine-learning to ensure food is cooked and delivered in under 30 minutes. His restaurants only deliver within a six-minute drive, allowing drivers to make four deliveries in an hour, at an average of $6.70 per delivery. The system results in hourly wages above $23, so it’s easy for Baggott to retain drivers. Clustertruck’s model is profitable, and they are beginning to partner with individual restaurants who want to use their software and systems, such as the fine-dining restaurant Stone Creek Dining Company, in Zionsville, Indiana.

Curbside Pickup 2.0

During a shutdown, curbside pickup operations should become de facto host stands, as slow or error-ridden orders can hurt return business as much as an overbooked dining room or sloppy service. The goal is to shift the flow, timing and accuracy of one’s interior operations to an outside space.

When the coronavirus hit, Teriyaki Madness used Olo, a food-ordering platform, to elevate its curbside operations. Knowing that diners preferred to stay in their cars, customers could enter the make, model and color of their cars before they arrived. Then, customers simply popped their trunk while their orders were carefully placed inside, thus ensuring a “contact-free” pick-up. But the chain also integrated Flyby, a location-based technology from Radius Networks, to alert the restaurant when a car was near by so customers wouldn’t have to call while outside.

“It’s seamless, a better experience for the customer, and more efficient for us when we have fewer employees working,” Boyce says. With such technology, Teriyaki Madness mitigated the dramatic sales drops experienced by most fast-casual chains. By April 1, the chain was enjoying steady business. “I thought, ‘We’re going to get through this,’” Boyce recalls.

A cloud-based POS by Revel also allowed the company to create makeshift drive-thrus, with orders taken on iPads. Clustertruck’s drivers deliver curbside, never leaving their cars, which has been a key contributor to the company’s profitability, Baggott says.

Data as Tools

Expect data to play a larger role in tracking outbreak preparedness. Starbucks, for example, recently began reopening locations to enable contactless pickup or takeout, as states develop protocols for lifting stay-at-home orders.

“We have developed a data-rich dashboard to provide comprehensive information, including government data on confirmed cases and trends about COVID-19 and how that may influence decisions at the individual store level,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in a statement on April 16. “As the ability to test for COVID-19 cases increases, we’ll be able to continuously enhance our monitoring capabilities.”

The New Symbiosis

Businesses that intentionally align for growth and exposure will be a boon for the hospitality industry. ChowNow, an online-ordering platform, recently partnered with Instagram to allow diners to order food they see from restaurants on the social media channel. ChowNow’s new tool allows restaurants to take orders from its restaurant profile as well as stickers on Instagram stories. Followers can also reshare stories with the food-ordering stickers.

— Chris Webb, CEO and co-founder of ChowNow

“During this unprecedented pandemic, ChowNow has mobilized all of its resources to help local restaurants survive and ultimately thrive, launching new products and services in record time,” says Chris Webb, ChowNow’s CEO and co-founder. “This Instagram feature is yet another valuable tool we’re offering our restaurant partners – at no cost to the restaurants – to help them drive more revenue and boost order volume.”

Some restaurants allow customers to order from their Facebook page, but it’s a clunky process.

Regardless of the platform, the effectiveness of ordering from a social media channel depends on the restaurant’s following. For example, it’s making a difference for Chef Jeremy Fox, who owns Birdie G’s (16,000 followers) and Tallula’s (12,300 followers), both in Los Angeles.

“We’ve had to quickly pivot to delivery and takeout only, and this has been a huge challenge for independent restaurants across the country,” Fox says. “With ChowNow seamlessly linking to our Instagram accounts – and not charging any commissions on orders – we’re able to promote all the new things we’re offering while ensuring that more dollars go directly back to our restaurants and beloved staff.”