The wave of digital orders from Shake Shack and Chipotle makes it foolish to order in person.

Last week, I walked into the fast, casual restaurant chain Cava, a former office lunch haunt, and was delighted to see a dozen people lining up in front of me. “New York is back! I thought, measuring the crowd and browsing the once-familiar menu of grilled meats and toppings like lentils, feta and harissa.

But the line didn’t move as before, and not because this restaurant was visibly plagued by the staff shortage we’ve heard so much about. Instead, more than half of the people behind the counter were making lunch for a queue of customers that I saw coming in and out of the other side of the cash register: pre-orders. They would skip the line and eat my lunch hour. The customers standing where I was all seemed to have the same realization that we should have ordered in advance.

The road to lunch splits into two lanes, and one of them goes faster than the other. At Shake Shack, for example, digital sales now account for 47% of all orders. During a recent visit, I had the choice of standing in line or scanning a giant QR code at the entrance to order online. The location I visited had eliminated its cashiers, so you would be ordering on a computer anyway; the question was simply whether it was Shake Shack’s computer or the one in your pocket. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice: I typed my order into the app, from inside the store. Doing it 10 minutes earlier would have been even better.

Ordering by phone is even more popular at Chipotle. In the first quarter of this year, “digital orders” increased 133% from the previous three months and accounted for more than half of all sales for the chain. In the spring, even as COVID restrictions eased, the number of digital sales increased another 10.5% to nearly $ 1 billion in digital burritos. That’s almost three times as many digital sales as the company did in the first quarter of 2020, before the pandemic.

Half of the restaurant’s digital orders come from “advance order transactions”. Most of them are placed less than 20 minutes in advance, Nicole West, vice president of digital strategy and products at Chipotle told me. Almost every restaurant now has a second hidden assembly line for digital orders, and Chipotle recently opened its first store, in Highland Falls, New York, which doesn’t take orders in person at all.

In short, large chains are quickly adopting elements of the “ghost kitchen” model developed by entrepreneurs trying to harness (or play) the delivery market, in which a handful of “restaurants” can deliver food from. an industrial kitchen and only interact with customers when they deliver the meal. For landed chains like Chipotle, this remodel adds to a faster process inside the restaurant, removing friction from deliberation customers and cash transactions. Many observers anticipated the installation of screens to replace minimum wage room staff. It turns out we’ve always had screens in our pockets.

For years, big chains like Chipotle, Starbucks and Panera Bread have tried to get customers to order from their phones before they get to the store, a trend that aligns well (for restaurants and customers) with the the rise of delivery services like Uber Eats. , Seamless and DoorDash. But it was slow: At the start of the pandemic, I interviewed a startup founder in Chicago as we waited 45 minutes for his burrito bowl. Starbucks was one of the first companies to encourage customers to order from their phone, in 2015; its mobile order rate had only increased by one percentage point each quarter.

But quickly, the pandemic changed the math, forcing restaurants to improve their game and prompting customers to learn about ordering food from their phones. In June 2020, I went to a Starbucks in Manhattan that didn’t even take orders that weren’t placed online. The company’s online ordering rate increased from 16 to 24 percent between 2019 and 2020. Start-up Toast Tab, which helps restaurants gain online ordering independence from GrubHub, Seamless and other delivery apps that take a big chunk, said its share of sales in restaurants that use the service fell from 15% before COVID to 70 percent in August 2020.

Not all breakfasts appreciate the new normal. At Xi’an Famous Foods in New York City, CEO Jason Wang told me he’s phasing out the remote option, which creates more demand than his cooks can handle, except during the slower hours of the day. day and represents less than 5% of income. But Wang’s stern, printed warnings to eat her hand-torn noodles the minute they come out of the kitchen never prompted to order ahead.

“During the pandemic, it was a necessity,” says Wang. “But we had never made deliveries before. I don’t want people who walk into our stores to think, “We line up and they get their food before I do.” I don’t want my staff to focus on “it’s okay here, it’s okay there”. I have a feeling that some of these other restaurants, their quality must suffer. But shareholders are always looking for ways to increase their income.

Yes indeed. Forced to retool their systems for the surge of delivery orders in the first six months of the pandemic, companies have made ordering online for pickup a very smooth process.

In fact, it’s a smoother and superior process than standing in line in the store. I’m sorry to say that’s the case at New York’s famous Russ & Daughters smoked fish store, where you can wait in a slow line on the sidewalk for your turn to enter the limited-capacity store. Or you can order online in the morning and in a minute grab a bag of smoked fish a few hours later. Back in the days, when the mouth-watering destination was busier than a rush-hour subway car, skipping the line was a privilege reserved by owners for those buying caviar.

The takeout ticket system at Russ & Daughters was flawed, but I enjoyed the slice of freebee lox you were given on wax paper to put in your mouth while you waited for the slicing. I’m a little less attached to the Cava or Chipotle routine, although I sometimes made improvised choices based on the meat that came off the grill most recently.

But either way, I will order ahead of time next time, as I would rather wait anywhere than stand in line. The future in, say, Chipotle probably doesn’t include your wavering between black beans and pinto beans while a worker waits for you to make a choice; you will do this on a screen elsewhere in the restaurant or at your office before your arrival. And the staff, in turn, won’t interact with customers but with an endless parade of printed receipts, with instructions for extra cheese here and there.

On the work side, the transition offers a worrying parallel to the massive transfer of department store workers to Amazon warehouse workers. Once Sandra at Macy’s advised you to get the right fit; now she shuffles the boxes when you turn over your pants that don’t fit you.

For customers, meanwhile, the biggest victim of the new ordering system is the whim of the midday appetite. You can always spontaneously turn into a quick and relaxed restaurant, but there can be a lot of invisible customers in front of you.

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