Advances in technology have changed consumer expectations for takeout and delivery options.
Takeout and delivery are an evolving, complex business. Consumer preferences, advanced technology and changing menus are affecting how consumers choose what they want to eat, where they want to eat it, and how they get it. Here are some of the top trends that operators are watching to make sure they remain competitive in this changing environment:
Person-specific catering. Gone are the days where one office worker walked around with a notebook and asked meeting attendees what they wanted to eat in the conference room. Now some operators allow users to go online and customize their order within a budget set by the host. “Instead of a tray of food arriving and you poke around for what you might want, the 15 meals show up and one of them has your name on it,” says Dennis Lombardi, president of Insight Dynamics, a Columbus, Ohio, restaurant advisory service. “The lure there is the assurance that people get exactly what they want.”
Easier online ordering. Lombardi notes that one challenge for operators is to make online ordering foolproof so the customer does not inadvertently order something they do not want and then blame the restaurant. The system also has to be user-friendly. “If it takes me 15 minutes and 64 keystrokes to order a sandwich, I’m just going to find another place,” he says. Also, the system should enable operators to schedule the deliveries in a way that does not overwhelm the kitchen.
All off-premises all the time. Business-to-business catering is growing rapidly, says Fred LeFranc, chaos strategist at Results Thru Strategy, a Charlotte, North Carolina, foodservice consultancy. To compete, some chains are building delivery kitchens. “Instead of being prepared at restaurant or retail outlets, the food comes from these dedicated facilities,” he says. Consumers don’t care where the food was prepared “as long as it’s good.”
Beyond the food truck. LeFranc says other countries have adapted some interesting iterations on delivery. In India bicyclists deliver McDonald’s fries, while individuals on scooters with hot boxes strapped to their backs deliver other types of foods. For example, in Vietnam there are scooters with portable espresso machines on the back. “Open it up and make your coffee drink to order,” he says. “We are not used to seeing people on motor bikes delivering here, but those are some fascinating delivery vehicles.”
Parking lot intelligence. Also on the horizon, LeFranc observes, is geo-fencing, which utilizes software and GPS technology. The consumer has to download an app and activate the system using Bluetooth in their car. The operator installs sensors in the periphery of the restaurant's parking lot, and when the consumer drives into the lot to pick up the food, the kitchen will be alerted to fire the order. “By the time you come in, it’s ready for you,” he says.
Consolidation. On demand customers — chiefly millennials who love using technology — have helped drive the growth of third-party delivery companies and car services such as Uber. Some are combining services, such as Uber Eats, which is available in select cities. Meanwhile some delivery services will likely merge or disappear, just as so many other technology companies have in the past, LeFranc says. “Fifteen years ago if you went to the [National Restaurant Association] show there were probably 18 to 20 companies talking about developing online ordering. Now only three or four are left.”
Drones and self-driving cars. Earlier this year the Oklahoma City-based frozen yogurt chain Orange Leaf announced it was testing drone delivery in Holland, Michigan, and Chipotle said it was testing drone delivery of burritos at Virginia Tech. Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters consultancy, says self-driving cars and robots are next generation technology to consider for the long term. Meanwhile short-term innovations are centered around apps and the process of offering delivery and takeout.
New segment. A few years ago fast casual emerged as a popular concept, with outgrowths including chef casual and polished casual. The next concept might be a delivery-only format. “There are operators who have basically made themselves restaurants with no seating,” Webster says. “The question is, if delivery becomes the next thing for interacting with a restaurant, how will the need for delivery impact not just the delivery of food, but will it create a new segment of restaurants whose sole purpose is delivery?”
Also, Amazon has entered the grocery delivery business, and although it has not made any announcements, it stands to reason the internet giant would enter the restaurant food delivery business if there were enough money to be made.
Make, or finish, at home. Companies such as Blue Apron and Plated deliver ingredients and recipes to consumers who want to cook at home. Melissa Abbott, vice president, culinary insights for The Hartman Group, Inc. in Bellevue, Washington, says some new variations on this theme include Hungryroot, which offers a plant-based menu. “Operators need to figure out how to innovate with both offerings which reflect the growing shift toward plant-based ingredients on some meal and snack occasions and also incorporate compelling formats which are inspiring and not just iterations of their competitors,” she says.
Wrap it up. Better packaging will play a key role in off-premises dining. “The biggest trend is restaurant quality food,” says Bruce Reinstein, president of Consolidated Concepts in Allston, Massachusetts. “The consumer is not looking for products that are great in the restaurant and lousy when they deliver it to you or when you pick it up.”
Packaging has improved dramatically, he says, but some of it is more expensive. That should not deter operators. “In order to give the consumer what they want operators have to increase their cost,” he says. “Sometimes it’s better to pay more to save more. Sometimes when you increase the quality of the packaging, you may be able to charge a little more.”
The percentage of food delivered is going up dramatically because of consumer demand, Reinstein says. So operators must make certain the food is not soggy or cold when it arrives. “In the eyes of the restaurateur they also have to protect their brand,” he says.
SNACK: Protect your brand – no matter what the delivery method, food should taste as good off-site as it does in the restaurant.
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