The global pandemic has put restaurants’ dependency on technology into hyperdrive, but how far can the digital realm go to support businesses, as the government guidelines within which they operate are redefined?
Welcome to the 2020 paradox. Consumers battened down the hatches to protect themselves and their families, turning their attention to pursuits such as meandering country walks, growing an obscene amount of tomatoes, attempting to crochet and feeding their sourdough starter on time every day.
Meanwhile, operators were scrambling to transform their businesses into models that didn’t rely on dining out. It seemed new types of delivery services were announced daily, including the likes of ShakeShack’s ShackBurger kit; Norma at Home offering summer barbecues and canapé evenings; and Adam Handling’s Hame service, sending iconic dishes around the country ready to be cooked and plated at home.
“It’s helpful to review why technology has become so essential in the casual dining space during the pandemic and beyond,” suggests Roberto Mauro, commercial general manager for EMEA and south Asia in the printer solutions division for Avery Dennison. “In the immediate response during the pandemic, many restaurants moved to delivery and take-away as their main offering, and prioritising food safety and consumer transparency had never been more critical.”
None of this would be have been possible without the sharp acceleration of the digitisation of these businesses – and while the average locked down consumer’s life seemed to, on the surface at least, resemble a grainy 1950s Good Housekeeping handbook, the reality saw a drastic uptake in the reliance on apps, websites and social media to connect to the brands that could not be visited in real life.
Covid-19 is the first international pandemic to hit the digital age, and boy, has it affected nearly every aspect of consumerism.
“Restauranteurs can do everything from hosting their menu online, to taking orders and processing payments without having to hand a single item over except a QR code to access the platform,” highlights Dil Hussain, CEO and co-founder of Dines. “What’s more, a recent survey found that 56% of customers said being able to view menus on smart phones would give them confidence in eating out again, so it is already a popular choice with potential customers.”
Technology and the delivery market are intrinsically connected. And delivery is big business. Earlier this year, industry analysist Peter Backman estimated that Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats capture in excess of £1bn in annual fees from UK restaurants. Backman also revealed that despite this massive chunk of revenue, nearly half of delivery customers are unaware that typically one-third of their takeaway value is ‘siphoned’ to these marketplaces in commission.
According to Backman, three in five consumers (59%) feel it is unfair that marketplaces command such high commission and four in five (83%) believe they should be more transparent online about the hidden fee charged to restaurants.
In fact, a large majority (70%) said the level of commission means they now prefer to order direct if it helps save their favourite independent restaurant from closure.
High commission levels and reports of inconsistent quality were the driving factors behind south-east London restaurant Bobo Social developing its own delivery service as part of a bespoke app.
“I wanted control over what we were delivering,” explains the venue’s founder Michael Benson. “So, I spoke with a white-label app platform provider who set up our software, that we designed ourselves with our branding. For delivery, it gives us immediate control and it makes sense from a price point. If the restaurant is full, we can turn the delivery function off, so it doesn’t affect our sitting guests.”
The app also has a built-in rewards feature, so when customers spend money at the restaurant, they earn 10% in credit. “We’ve been able to collect everyone’s email as well who sign up,” Benson notes. “We were collecting at least 500 email addresses for our database each week to begin with.”
The increase in mobile ordering will no doubt make a significant change to how technology ecosystems are managed in hospitality, Prask Sutton, founder and CEO of Wi5 notes.
“Operators will therefore prioritise open-platform technology, where data can be shared between partners, to gain a holistic understanding of the customer experience,” he says. “In essence, the CRM system will be able to connect to real-time ordering data, alongside data from Wi-Fi, social media, vouchers, loyalty and customer feedback to help enhance the customer experience in previously unrealised ways – giving the operators a much deeper insight into their customers.”
“The best solutions to consider are those that integrate with each other rather than being stand-alone,” suggests Henry Seddon, managing director of Access Hospitality. “Streamlined interaction provides more comprehensive and efficient data analysis reports. The integration of EPoS and a reservation platform is expected to become more important as venues try to achieve the best turnover and profit possible, despite reduced capacity.”
That Fridays feeling
National restaurant group Fridays was also quick off the mark to use its digital platforms to ensure its food and drink reached loyal customers. At the start of May, the brand launched its Drive Up Click & Collect service at carefully selected locations across the UK, made possible with a simplified ordering system and social distancing. This later evolved safely into a walk-up version of the same service.
“More recently, we’ve launched Fridays at Home, which includes our cocktail delivery service, a unique range of classic Fridays’ cocktails handcrafted by expert bartenders and delivered straight to your door. Cocktails are also available via Click & Collect at selected locations,” notes Fridays’ CEO Robert Cook. “Next came the launch of our meat delivery service through our brilliant Butcher’s Boxes. Each box has generous portions of quality products which can be enjoyed under the grill or on the barbecue.”
Cook explains that while Fridays’ sites were closed, they were inundated with requests to bring its products and services to people at home.
“It is so important to keep these additional avenues open as the way customers use hospitality brands has evolved,” he adds. “The hospitality industry has been forced to change and we want to be in a position to move with it. We also ensured a continuous presence and voice of positivity on our social media channels, particularly through the launch of our very own Fridays Feeling Talent Show. We also shared playlists, recipes and interactive posts to give our fans something they could get involved with virtually and the feedback and engagement was overwhelming.”
For some operators, like Spanish restaurant and deli group Ultracomida, the transition to ecommerce was already closely aligned to the existing operation.
“We already had a retail arm to the business,” explains Shumana Palit, the group’s co-owner. “We’ve set up a mini website on our national site which allows customers to place orders for collection from the shop or for home deliveries – this was a key element to maintaining the business during the early months of lockdown and I believe will continue to play an important role in the coming months as the weather gets wetter and colder. As we also import most of our goods, so this service allows us to sell a broad range of our stock even when the restaurants and bars are not operating or operating in a reduced capacity.”
The business has also been temporarily made cash-free, and Palit is considering a payment app in the future to make the process easier for customers.
“Without the website, offering click and collect and the ability to process online orders, we would have come to a standstill,” she adds. “At a time when the business was on its knees it was great to be able to reach out to existing and sometimes new customers, and hopefully build a solid relationship for the future too.”
Fully kitted out
If you’ve already read our lead interview this month with Mac & Wild’s Calum Mackinnon, you’ll know that meal kits were a saviour for many an operator during lockdown. These unlikely heroes created an essential revenue stream, made possible by online ordering, that kept restaurants ticking over while tables sat empty.
Some brands, such as Pizza Pilgrims, have decided to make meal kits a permanent fixture to their offering. The Elliot brothers, who head up the pizza operation, have opened a dedicated production centre in Herne Hill for their Pizza by Post kits, with the new space enabling the team to create more than 2,000 kits a day to be shipped across the UK.
“Making pizza at home is something that, to do it right, can take days of preparation and proving,” says Thom Elliot. “We wanted to ensure that our fans could continue to enjoy our pizzas at home and the Pizza by Post kits were a great way to allow people to get straight to the fun part. During lockdown, they were the perfect setup for a conversation between our brand and the customer at a time when consumers couldn’t physically come into our locations. It made relationships with consumers stronger and interaction on Instagram went through the roof.”
The Pizza by Post kits outsold cooked delivery pizzas during lockdown – with the first wave of kits selling out in 37 seconds. Now that physical sites are open again, Deliveroo sales are overtaking again slightly. From tackling challenges like ice management, to setting up an ecommerce shop, the whole process has been an invaluable learning experience in the digital world for the team.
“We’ve always had a strong online presence before lockdown happened, so we were well placed to make a plan for an online arm to the business,” adds Elliot. “Lockdown gave us time to really push this section of the business forward, so we used it as an opportunity to the increase our digital footprint and think outside the box to propel Pizza Pilgrims forward.”
Tech at the table
Both physical and digital tech have been central to YO!’s concept from its inception – from first introducing its kaiten belt-style of dining to the UK in 1997, to the recent upgrading of its belt to deliver smarter, contactless dining.
“It is important to us that we are always improving and moving forward rather than standing still, which is why we had started developing new technology for our belt even before the Covid-19 outbreak,” says Emma Deabill, managing director for UK restaurants at YO! “Our upgraded belt offers a faster, more personalised service while dramatically reducing food waste in our restaurants as all our food is now made to order. It also has the added benefit of being contactless, making it the perfect fit for this new socially distanced world.”
New technology sees the belt deliver food straight to the table while an intuitive traffic light system shows when dishes are on their way and when they have arrived, ensuring that guests are able to dine in confidence of a safe environment.
“We’re also encouraging our guests to order and pay via our new digital platform by scanning a QR code on their tables,” Deabill adds. “This means our guests can have a truly contactless experience when dining with us, helping them and our team members stay safe. It also makes bill splitting easier for groups as everyone can pay individually via their own phones.”
For many operators like YO!, it seems that the shift to increased and improved digitisation of the restaurant experience is here to stay, and that the global pandemic was merely a catalyst to crash land this revolution into venues and online platforms to the benefit of both customer and operator.