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Rethinking Restaurant Concepts In Response to Coronavirus

March 19, 2020
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Scott

People aren’t leaving their homes, and probably won’t be for a while. If restaurants are going to stay upright during the coronavirus pandemic, many will have to radically rethink their approach. Accommodating our new reality means accommodating social distancing, and as traditional gathering places, dine-in restaurants don’t immediately fit into the new paradigm.

But with a little creativity and a lot of hard work, they can.

People still need to eat. People still, for the most part, have disposable income because they’re not going out to eat. There is still a market for your food. Food doesn't transmit coronavirus, and customers know that. And you still have the raw materials, the skill, the equipment, and the people-power to meet the demand. The challenge, for the moment, is doing it without a dining room.

Restaurant owners across the country are showing it’s possible. And they’re doing it using at least one of the following four strategies. They’re either pivoting to delivery, integrating retail sales, utilizing curbside pickup, or offering prepared meals. Let’s look into each approach.

And be sure to check out our list of bar and restaurant relief funds to either apply for assistance or make an immediate impact on those in need.

Pivoting to Delivery

One of the best options for a restaurant reorientation is to meet people where they are: their homes. Many states are even allowing restaurants to deliver alcohol now. In what is definitely a sign of things to come, GrubHub and Uber Eats both recently announced much more favorable terms for restaurants using their delivery platforms. The former will suspend collection of up to $100 million in commission payments from restaurants impacted by the coronavirus crisis. The latter now offers daily payouts instead of weekly payouts, no delivery fees, and increased marketing efforts. To stay competitive, it’s likely most third-party delivery providers will do the same.

To successfully integrate high-volume delivery, you’ll need to give your space and operations a once over to make sure you’re setup properly. To that end, we’ve got a list of tips. Then we’ll cover the best courier services out there you can use.

Four Tips for Adding Delivery

  1. Have a dedicated space for everything delivery. Create an organized space solely for staff to prep and pack delivery orders. This will also be where the tablet or POS system being used for deliveries is kept, along with all the packaging being used.
  1. Have a dedicated delivery employee. Select an employee to handle all the delivery issues. Delivery can get hectic and designating a point-person can streamline the process. They’ll operate the tablet or POS, run food from the kitchen window, pack it in to-go bags, and check the orders before giving it to the delivery person. They’ll also be the contact for the delivery couriers should any issues come up.
  1. Use proper packaging. Check the GrubHub reviews for any restaurant and you’ll see a cascade of reviews about the food being cold or poorly packed. Investing in the right packaging elevates the customer experience and keeps bad reviews away. When dishes are placed in high-quality, airtight, and aptly-sized containers, customers notice.
  1. Make it as easy as you can for the couriers. Again, look at any delivery reviews. There are tons about the delivery being late. While some customers may have expectations far too high for delivery times, it’s in everyone’s best interest to prioritize efficiency. If a courier’s experience is easy and organized from their empty-handed arrival to their bag-toting departure, the delivery experience is better for everyone. Clearly label bags ready for liftoff and avoid making the delivery person search and dig around for what they need.

Delivery Services to Use During the COVID-19 Crisis

Experts say food delivery is a good way to encourage and participate in social distancing. And, bonus, in addition to ordering and delivery, these third-party services also offer a huge marketing reach with emails and targeted offers.

DoorDash

DoorDash recently announced the suspension of commissions for all new and existing restaurant partners using the platform. With an app that reaches 80% of consumers in the U.S., DoorDash is one of the highest-profile and reputable services to use. They also offer a 30-day free trial for potential partners to use the platform.

GrubHub/Seamless

GrubHub acquired Seamless in 2013 and, while they’re effectively the same company, they maintain some distinct branding and operational aspects. Both GrubHub and Seamless announced the deferment of commission fees from impacted independent restaurants. Sign up for GrubHub/Seamless here.

Caviar

Caviar positions itself as the higher-end delivery service with exclusive restaurants and is now a part of DoorDash, so it benefits from the massive platform of their parent company. Learn more about Caviar here.

Postmates

Postmates delivers food, but also items from retailers, grocers, and more. They’ve got a a network of over 75,000 businesses across 4,200 cities and tout that they’re the #1-ranked courier service in guest spend. Become a Postmates partner here.

Uber Eats

Uber Eats was obviously uniquely positioned to become the Uber of food delivery. As mentioned, they’re now offering daily payouts to help cash-strapped partners get a little more flexibility on a daily basis. One compelling UberEats selling point is that Uber’s brand awareness gives them much more visibility—especially in younger areas—than other delivery services. Check out how to become an Uber Eats partner here.

Alcohol Delivery During the Coronavirus Pandemic

As people’s behavior is drastically changing, laws are keeping pace. Because liquor margins are such a huge part of restaurant revenues, approved emergency relief bills have modified liquor licensing laws in Washington, D.C., New York City, Texas, and Illinois . There, restaurants can now sell booze for takeout and delivery—but only if it’s sold with food prepared by the restaurant.

As of this writing, this does not apply to bars with no kitchen hoping to sell alcohol without food. Keep an eye out in your city or state for similar laws.

Integrating Retail Sales

You already have a consistent supply of ingredients and food products coming into your restaurant. The supply chain isn’t the issue, it’s the last mile: getting it to the customer. That’s understandably hard to do with no legally-operable dining room. 

That’s where selling food items retail comes in. Some restaurants already do this: selling packaged condiments, spices, frozen baked goods, pre-made salads or pastas, produce, or breads intended to be taken home, stored, and consumed later. One way to navigate social distancing is to lean into this approach.

According to the FDA, “restaurant-type” food is food that’s not intended to be consumed over several meals or stored for later use. If you’re selling food that’s not restaurant-type food, it will be subject to different calorie declaration and labeling requirements. Check out the FDA’s guidance on food labeling for the final word. There are three exceptions to the labeling requirements:

  1. Food that is primarily processed and prepared on-site is exempt from labeling requirements
  2. Food that is not prepared on-site but is sold according to customer specifications (by volume, count, or weight) is exempt from labeling
  3. The Small Business Nutrition Labeling Exception. This is likely the most relevant to restaurants thinking about the retail strategy. If a business employs fewer than 100 full-time employees and sells less than 100,000 units of a food product, a notice can be filed with the FDA and a labeling requirement exception granted.

At least one of the above exceptions will apply to a lot of restaurants attempting to repurpose with some retail functionality.

Pivoting to retail can be an especially effective solution if your area has modified liquor laws like NYC and DC and you can sell takeout liquor as well.

Local and city laws will dictate the type of kitchen and health inspections you need to move forward with retail and pre-packaged sales. Usually, fully-operational restaurant kitchens are considered higher risk than other food preparation environments, so you’re already running an establishment that will pass the necessary inspections. But you’ll still need to reach out and do your due diligence.

Once you’re up and running, remove the tables and chairs from your dining room, and set up a bodega-style environment with products lined up for resale. Start getting the word out to friends, neighbors, and regulars, and be active on social media about it. If you do it right, you’ll be bringing unique, chef-driven products to the market with built-in demand and a pre-existing audience.

Utilizing Curbside Pickup

Curbside pickup is, of course, a version of takeout. Someone orders from your restaurant and they come to pick it up. Unlike takeout, they don’t come into your establishment. A runner will bring their food out to them as they sit in their car. In that sense, curbside pickup does what it can to help flatten the curve. Because takeout is still legal in all the areas where dine-in has been suspended, curbside pickup is a simple, effective solution that fits in nicely with the social responsibility we all have to mitigate the spread of the virus.

So effective, in fact, that many restaurants see a 45–75% sales lift due to increased guest loyalty and satisfaction when curbside pickup is paired with mobile apps. Ever-growing lists of restaurants in the Dallas and Twin Cities areas speak to the popularity and success of the strategy.

So how do you set up curbside pickup at your restaurant? Unless you have a specialized app like Curbside that integrates with an existing mobile app that has ordering functionality, you’ll have to do it the old-school way. Thankfully, the old-school way is ridiculously simple. When someone arrives at your restaurant—after placing the order directly through you or through a third-party ordering and delivery app—they call you to let you know they’re there. Then someone runs out and gives them their order. Or an employee will approach the car and ask for a name, then return with the order.

If your business is selling enough where that method won’t scale, then you can do one of two things. You can either collect license plate numbers and car makes and models when the takeout order is placed so you know when the customer has arrived, or you can have modified curbside delivery that places pickup orders on shelves or in cubbies in your restaurant. People will be entering to pick up the food in its assigned space, but in a separate pickup area and with no or little employee interaction.

Making Prepared Meals

Here the idea is to reorient your business into a commercial kitchen that sells prepared meals. The prepared meals can either be picked up or delivered based on whatever solution or platform you’ve found works best for you. There is nothing materially different with this approach than with running a regular restaurant delivery or takeout business. 

The difference is in execution. You’ll be using the same equipment, the same ingredients, and the same staff. But you’ll be making large batches and mass-producing 1–3 meals per day instead of preparing individual portions to order. And your menu and options will reflect that. Often, there are no substitutions with prepared meals. You get one of a few select options. Like wedding food.

To pull this off successfully, you’ll need to do the following five things:

  1. Decide on your target market. Will your style of food significantly change or will you continue to offer prepared-meal versions of your most popular recipes? If you do plan on changing, you’ll need to consider your new target market and their diet types. Maybe you’ll offer gourmet prepared meals for the vegetarian and vegan crowd. Maybe you’ll offer budget comfort food prepared meals.
  2. Create a business plan. Once you decide on the type of food you’ll offer, you’ll need to do menu costing to get the profit margin to a level that will keep your business operational. Make a list of what ingredients will be cost killers and what ingredients are profit-friendly. Try to design your menu around the latter, if possible.
  3. List all the materials, staff, and equipment you’ll need for your chosen recipes. This is all the personnel, cooking and storage equipment, delivery packaging, and technology necessary for getting up and running.
  4. Get all the necessary licenses and permits. If you’re an existing restaurant, you can usually go ahead with this immediately if your prepared meals are made on-site, you have all your health and sales permits in order, and the prepared meals you’re selling are meant to be consumed immediately—like any other food you’ve ever sold for delivery or takeout. It’s no different than taking takeout or delivery orders like normal. You’re just producing fewer dishes, producing them en-mass, packing them properly, and framing them as prepared meals. But please confirm with your lawyer or local jurisdiction first. If you do choose to sell packaged food (i.e., prepared meals) that’s meant for consumption over multiple meals or storage, you’ll need to comply with the FDA’s labeling requirements and other commercial kitchen licensing requirements and insurance. Please check with your local authorities for any additional permits, certification, or licensure you may need to sell non-”restaurant-type food.”
  5. Market yourself. Right now, as in any other crisis, social media is the forum where most people are getting their information. As an existing business, you have some visibility with your target market, so meet them where they are: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Announce that times are changing and, for now, your business is too. Include your new menu, ordering instructions, and if you can spare it, a discount for first-time customers. You can also put a QR code menu up in your window and engage in any number of QR code marketing strategies. Not only will that get word out about your menu, but digital menus and digital wine lists are the future of menus after coronavirus.

Going Entirely Contactless

It's as good a time as any to leverage the many QR code uses out there. The first and most obvious usage is touchless menus. They're easy to create and use. Use a QR code PDF generator to link to a published PDF menu. But beware of using free QR code generators online. There are a lot of QR code risks that come with using a service with no contractual obligations toward you.

Now's the time to lean into contactless, though. Touchless ordering, touchless payments, all easily and inexpensively acquired through the usage of QR codes.

Time to Get Creative

It’s not comfortable changing your business format. It may feel like a risk. But the ones who are going to stay afloat—even thrive—are going to be the ones who can adapt creatively to the situation. Right now, that means accommodating social distancing not only as a government policy but as the socially responsible thing to do.

You have the supply lines, the ingredients, the equipment, and the skills to create fantastic menu items. What you don’t have is a dining room to sell and serve them. But as hundreds of businesses across the country are proving, you don’t need one. A dining room is one way to get the public the unique, delicious things you create. Retail shopping is another. Delivery another. Curbside pickup yet another. Prepared meals are still another. And any combination of those is a valid path forward.

The fact that businesses are slowing down right now doesn’t mean they’re doomed. It means the world is communicating to us as an industry that our current methods aren’t the right ones for the moment. But there are other methods. A dining room is not the only one. Think critically about your options, commit to one, and you’ll stay afloat. Good luck out there.

If you or anyone you know is in need, please check out and share our list of ways to support hospitality staff during the crisis, including ideas to replace lost wages. Both of which can be found in our coronavirus resource and information hub for bars and restaurants.