Unless you’ve been boycotting the steady stream of dreary news coming at us from all sides, you’ve probably heard how meal delivery services like Grubhub, Uber Eats, Door Dash, or even Postmates are struggling to turn a profit. On the delivery company’s side, their models are proving unsustainable despite the pandemic’s effect on delivery demand. On the restaurant side, delivery services can be helpful when the main sales channels are dine-in or takeout, but the 20% to 35% delivery company fees blow the typical restaurant’s profit model which already only rewards the bests operators with a 15% to 20% bottom line. In other words, restaurants usually LOSE money when outsourced delivery becomes their primary channel. Neither of these perspectives mentions the fact that not all food can or should be delivered, or, as the statistic from NPR reveals, that 25% of delivery drivers admit to sampling YOUR food while it gets cold and gummy on the passenger seat of their pine-tree-scented car.
The answer, of course, involves some form of takeout or drive-thru. When a patron picks up their own food, they are no longer at the mercy of a driver’s delivery schedule and are in control of order accuracy, how it is secured during transit, and how quickly it gets home. There is no queue other than perhaps a payment line, which can be eliminated with online ordering and payment. However, traditional takeout requires excessive person-to-person contact, by today’s pandemic standards, because one has to walk inside after touching a still-warm door handle while bumbling through a crowd of other humans with varying levels of commitment to social distancing, then back-track across the same minefield after conducting the credit card transaction.
Drive-thru requires a restaurant to be specifically configured with a drive-thru window, and that infrastructure is usually limited to fast food concepts. Fast casual concepts that offer takeout usually reside in clunky conversions of closed fast food concepts (think of a Greek or Mexican concept living inside an old Backyard Burger or Wendy’s shell). Fast casual concepts are often not very swift with drive-thru because the food is usually ordered by phone or app and then, upon arriving at the restaurant, the patron needs to enter a line for the pickup window. Food takes a little longer to process so the physical queuing sequence of the cars does not necessarily correspond to the queuing sequence of the order, so the third car in line may be waiting behind two cars who ordered after the third car but arrived at the line before it. The third car’s order ages in a hot box (or not) while the restaurant staff hustles to produce the early arriver’s order so they can move the line. For burgers, hot dogs, and fried chicken this may not be so bad. But for “better” food that requires more skill to prepare and doesn’t hold well for as long (imagine dollops of cold guacamole and sour cream on top of hot enchiladas, or crispy onion straws on a gourmet burger). Regardless, it’s inefficient and stymies order processing speed. It does offer convenience as a third, less efficient, sales channel but not as the primary.
Dine-in business is returning, but slowly and with social distancing. Restaurants can no longer rely on their dining room experience as crowd limits and spacing requirements automatically prevent most (if not all) restaurants from turning a profit on dine-in alone. Takeout is a must and needs to take the form of curbside pickup. Waiting for dine-in to return may prove strategically deadly as consumers will likely always demand the option to pick up their meal for the foreseeable future. Every restaurant that isn’t fast food will need to configure their service model to include an efficient curbside component. This is especially true for restaurants that can no longer depend on high alcohol sales to buoy profits.
On the bright side, this opens up significant touchpoints in the ordering process in which a restaurant can differentiate itself from their competitors, including through packaging, online ordering experience, order fulfillment accuracy, ease of pickup, staff engagement, consumer confidence in safety, etc. This means an efficient curbside configuration is critical to the survival of an existing non-fast food restaurant.
So, what about your steakhouse or your pasta restaurant or your soul food concept or your gourmet sandwich shop? You probably don’t have a drive-thru window, and if you do, it won’t get you across the profitability threshold. What you probably do have is a parking lot that starts closer to the restaurant and is not affected by a drive thru lane/moat. Per square foot, you’ll have more parking spaces than a fast food restaurant. You will probably have a defined front door instead of several access doors on three sides of your business, which you can use to your advantage.
Here is what we recommend when converting your business to offer curbside pickup:
- Create a waiting area with 6 to 10 parking spaces for curbside customers to wait for their order (similar in philosophy to a cell phone waiting area at the airport). You can segregate these spaces to be close to the building but near a rear or side entrance, providing safety to your staff while preserving the dine-in customer’s experience (they won’t have to compete with curbside traffic).
- Staff your business so delivery personnel will carry food to the parked car. Make sure they are appropriately dressed and are branded (today’s it means masks but tomorrow it may just mean uniformed). Hygiene is important at this is your service staff. They should also wear branded high-visibility accessories (fluorescent vests or jackets) for safety.
- You’ll need an online ordering app. It’s ok to offer a limited menu for takeout because not all of your specialties are suitable for travel (pasta among them). Apps are still evolving to allow license plate entry, car description or even GPS location. It’s vital that the delivery person is able to find the car quickly. Until those systems are evolved, there is nothing wrong with a phone call to make the connection. Clunky but effective and accurate (the two most important parts).
- Make sure you can take payment online and ensure your staff receives the tips from it. Folks are generous with tips even when picking up and this can help you attract a quality, brand-enhancing staff – especially when customers receive a high-quality experience time after time.
- Install way-finding signs to clearly guide curbside pickup patrons to the waiting area and make sure cars can easily pull away, unimpeded by others waiting for their orders.
- Ideally the curbside staff will have their own dedicated point of sale system that displays customer orders and information. They should have frequently requested items nearby or on their person (straws, cutlery, napkins, etc.) to limit extra trips.
- Develop clear delivery guidelines to thwart spilled or leaky food items. My dry cleaner opens my back door and hangs my clothes for me. Similarly, the employee should suggest safe locations to put the food for the customer, suggesting trunk or hatchback placement or on the floor in the back-seat area. The driver should also repeat the order back to the customer.
- There should be one staff member dedicated to resolving mistakes including driving to the customer’s house with the forgotten item or the recook if something goes wrong. This is a differentiator (when was the last time McDonald’s drove your second order of fries to you when they forgot to put them in the bag?)
- Revamp your website to prominently include a curbside option with seamless integration to an online app. (getcurbspot.com, petrosoftinc.com, glympse.com, bluedot.io, swipe.by, etc.)
When your menu is configured to profitably capture curbside demand, and your systems are pain-free for your customers, you’ll be positioned to capture new market share from your competitors even if you were an ugly duckling before the pandemic. This is a long -term strategy that sets you up to stay in business or return to business more quickly than if you have to reconfigure your business to suit the next pandemic or community crisis. Your restaurant should provide a sense of security and normalcy to the communities you serve, not be the ones asking for charity and mercy.