How to deliver food when you operate a dine-in restaurant

Even before the 2020 coronavirus pandemic shuttered restaurant dining rooms across the globe, food delivery was on the rise. In early 2019, analysts projected that food sales by delivery would grow at three times the rate of dine-in payments through 2023.

Those analysts couldn’t have foreseen that, a year later, most U.S. states would restrict food service to takeout and delivery only. When the pandemic struck, restaurant owners had to quickly learn how to deliver food — or close their doors entirely.

Sarah Balliet of Louisville, Kentucky’s Pizza Lupo was one of those restaurateurs. Since its founding, Pizza Lupo has been a destination restaurant. Nearly all of its income came from dine-in service.

With the dining room closed by decree, Balliet and her partners found themselves making a sudden and unexpected swerve toward delivery. “We had to hustle to get any kind of online presence active once we knew dine-in was not going to be safe,” Balliet says.

And while online ordering is a big part of a successful food delivery service, Balliet had many more problems to solve before Pizzo Lupo could satisfy its diners’ cravings from afar. If you find yourself in a similar situation — or you just wish to expand your restaurant business with a delivery program — here’s what you need to do.

Set up a restaurant online ordering system

You could conceivably start accepting delivery orders with nothing but a phone and a notepad. Increasingly, however, consumers expect to place orders online. As of 2019, consumers used a restaurant’s website or an app to order delivery in more than half of all instances.

You have a few options when building an online ordering system:

Partner with a third-party aggregator service

The market is rich with companies that accept online orders for your restaurant, precluding the need for your own digital infrastructure.

These aggregators present public-facing apps that allow consumers to browse the menus of multiple restaurants, make a selection, and place their orders. They then pass those orders on to restaurants through integrations with point-of-sale systems, their own custom software, or even by dispatching drivers to order over the phone or at the take-out window.

Most aggregators also provide delivery services, although many allow restaurants to handle fulfillment if they prefer — we’ll discuss delivery options in more depth later in this post. Examples of aggregator delivery apps include Grubhub, Uber Eats, and DoorDash.

This is the angle Balliet’s team chose for Pizza Lupo, which partnered with DoorDash after an unpleasant experience with Postmates. “DoorDash was easy to set up, easy to use, and we didn’t have any complaints from customers,” Balliet says.

Add online food ordering forms to your website

You don’t need a team of developers to turn your website into an online ordering platform. Jotform’s drag-and-drop interface and extensive menu of food order form templates make it easy to take orders through your existing site.

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Just customize your order form according to your delivery menu, integrate the form with a leading payment gateway (if you wish to accept payments online), and add the form to your site. Learn more about how to set up your own online food ordering system — for free — with Jotform.

Build an online ordering site through a dedicated platform 

Shopify and BigCommerce help entrepreneurs build e-stores. Similarly, a cottage industry of food-ordering website platforms has arisen for restaurateurs ready to sell online.

These services often provide free site development, making their profit by collecting fees on each online sale that moves through the system. Menufy, ChowNow, and MenuDrive are a few examples of this new crop of “eat-commerce” platforms.

While they take more time to set up, these platforms allow you to avoid the higher commissions and fees associated with delivery aggregators. They also give your restaurant its own fully branded site, and provide more choice and flexibility in your marketing efforts.

With your restaurant online ordering system complete, you’re ready to accept orders — but not until you’ve given some thought to your menu.

Create a separate delivery menu

Your chefs may pride themselves on an extensive menu that runs to multiple pages, but that’s dine-in logic.

Your delivery menu should be fairly limited. Omit all the food items that will decline in quality during the trip to the customer’s doorstep.

Fried foods get soggy, sauces congeal, and frozen desserts melt. To avoid damaging your restaurant’s reputation, stock your delivery menu only with the food that can sit for half an hour or more and still make the kitchen proud.

It’s also wise to build a menu for minimal staffing, especially if you’re going delivery-only in response to, say, a global pandemic. “Simplify your menu as much as possible,” says Balliet. “We were able to run delivery for two weeks with only one person in the kitchen and one front-of-house, and I think that’s why we were able to run it at all.”

With a streamlined menu and both ordering and delivery contracted through DoorDash, Pizza Lupo was able to make a remarkably fast pivot to the new, socially distant business model. But food delivery apps aren’t your only choice for bringing food to your customers.

Choose between in-house delivery or third-party services

We’ve discussed delivery apps as online ordering platforms, but they also allow restaurateurs to outsource delivery itself. Before signing up for one of these services, however, be aware of the fees and potential setup costs they will charge. According to CNN, delivery aggregators often charge between 15 and 30 percent of each order they handle, leaving restaurants to either pass those prices onto customers or absorb them into an already low-margin operation.

There may be other hidden costs associated with third-party delivery apps, says Catherine Tabor, CEO of offer management platform Sparkfly. “Beware of delivery platforms claiming to satisfy all of your online ordering needs,” Tabor says. “This option can be limiting in functionality and trap you into specific delivery options in the future. Flexibility is important as the delivery industry continues to evolve.”

One such hazard involves losing customer loyalty to the delivery app itself. Remember that these aggregator apps display your menu as just one of many within your delivery area. “The relationship changes because the restaurant is now one step removed from the customer,” Erik Thoresen of research company Technomic told CNN. “[Your customers are] going to a site where they can potentially find something else that’s new and interesting.”

So why not use your own staff or hire drivers to complete your food delivery program?

This is a good option if you have the resources, but there are hidden costs to this as well.

“We considered rehiring our own staff to do the deliveries, but insurance for delivery is prohibitive, especially at a time when income is uncertain,” Balliet says. “We would have been taking a big risk to just send folks out there in their own cars. We decided against it.”

Indeed, personal car insurance plans rarely include coverage for activities like food delivery. And commercial auto insurance, paid for by the restaurant, would have to include “hired and non-owned auto liability” in the policies to cover employees making deliveries in their own cars.

In short, if you don’t own your own fleet of delivery vehicles, in-house delivery can be a surprisingly expensive proposition. Ask questions and compare costs to make the decision that’s right for your business.

Learning how to deliver food alongside dine-in service

Pizza Lupo’s hard pivot to carry-out and delivery was “surprisingly successful,” reads a note on the company’s website. But Balliet and her partners still worried about their staff and the surrounding community in a time of stay-at-home orders and growing hospitalizations due to the pandemic.

“In the end, we made the decision to close to keep our staff healthy and safe,” she says.

However, Pizza Lupo — and some portion of the 40 percent of U.S. restaurants that, like them, closed during the COVID-19 outbreak — will reopen when it’s safe. And when it does, Balliet says, Pizza Lupo may well offer delivery services in addition to its traditional business model of drawing in the crowds.

“Our experience with DoorDash was so good that we’re talking about continuing delivery when we reopen, even though that was something we decided against before all this,” she says.

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