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Analysis,  Ops

Life on the Front Lines: A Restaurant in May 2020

COVID 19. Restaurants are closed. The only options are takeaway or delivery. Or bury your head in the sand if you have a good cash float.

What follows is my experience from operating a restaurant whose focus is on quality and diversity (being Lebanese requires a broad tapas-like menu typical of the region) and switching from a predominantly dine-in venue with some takeaway to a wholly dark kitchen.

Flattening the Curve

Just like the intention to protect the NHS and flatten the curve, the switch to a Dark Kitchen results in a similar challenge: Customers want to eat at the same time which creates a surge in demand.

On a traditional service, guests sit in the restaurant and order. Our menu is broad and dishes are cooked fresh to order. A typical Lebanese dining experience is not hurried. When ordering mezze (the Lebanese tapas), dishes are served when they are ready. This helps the kitchen as they do not have to prepare every dish simultaneously – it “flattens the curve.”

With a few takeaways added, there are peaks in the evening and you can find yourselves stretched on a good night with a full team. On a bad night, the timing can go awry and there are unhappy guests.

But we’re not talking about life before COVID here. Now we are fully in dark kitchen mode and every order has to be made in its entirety for delivery or collection in parallel with other orders. Order values are generally higher as customers are ordering for the family (Lebanese food also lends itself to family and group dining). And people like to eat around the same time – dinner time. This creates a large spike in the curve which the kitchen never had to manage previously. It requires more resources in a shorter space of time.

Resourcing

In the current environment, the restaurant does not have a full complement of employees. Some refuse to work for fear of catching the virus. Some travelled back to their families in Europe when the lockdown was announced and now face 2-week quarantine when returning. And you can’t expect the waiters and waitresses switch to being chefs. So we work with what we have – a smaller team.

We hope we can soon have customers back in the restaurant, but how and when remains to be seen. We are optimistic with July and, even then, it won’t be the same as earlier this year.

So we need to find a way to do business under current conditions, and quickly.

Customer Attitude

The current situation polarises people more readily. We are now considered key workers and working flat out to deliver orders, but we are seeing a slowly increasing number of arrogant and rude people whose only concern is that their food is delivered on-time and without delay. They call and start hurling abuse at the team and demanding to know why should it take 90 minutes “to make a couple of kebabs and chips” (having just ordered in the middle of the busiest shift in the week). They refuse to accept any discussion and think the world somehow revolves around them and we are a robot factory. They say they “have the right” to be completely abusive and offensive because “they are the customer” and say it’s appropriate to vent at you and slam the phone on you. I’m sorry, but it’s not.

New orders go on the end of the production queue. There is no priority treatment and the team will make it as soon as they are able. We will not stop other orders to make the new one, however small, as it is unfair on other customers. Sometimes we actually switch off third-party delivery partners because there is too much to be done at once. We need to flatten our curve.

Fortunately, there is also a raft of customers who are pleased we are open and delivering food and appreciate what we do under the current circumstances and how difficult it is at the moment.

Meet in the Middle

On the one hand, customers need to appreciate the current difficulties – resourcing, order spikes, access to raw materials – and allow some tolerance. An order placed without notice may not be delivered in 25 minutes as the team is very busy and 90 minute wait times at peak hours may be possible.

On the other hand, the restaurant needs to find a way to deliver as efficiently as possible. Customers still expect their food to be excellent quality and delivered when expected. If the restaurant commits to 1 hour, it should be as close to this as possible. Not 2 hours.

If you work with multiple channels, like Deliveroo, Just Eat, uberEATS, etc, alongside your own takeaway and delivery service, you need to find a way to balance the timing of orders.

Just Eat gives you more control as you can adjust the preparation time per order so you are transparent with the customer.

Deliveroo allows you to switch to busy mode (or off, of course) and busy mode allows you to set a longer lead time for orders. This is reflected on their website so customers can see that ordering from you will take time before they order. This is preventative as your orders will reduce if people want something quick. However, if they decide you have 35 minutes to fulfil the new order, that’s what you get irrespective of your other workload.

uberEATS don’t give you much flexibility and drivers will turn up when they assume you’re ready. On a busy shift, the food will not be made yet and the driver gets frustrated having to wait and so does the customer. This is, in part, down to learning how to use the workflow on their ordering app and setting parameters in the back-office.

Unfortunately, there is no unified dashboard that you have to see them all clearly, so the person running the pass has to be a logistics genius and manage this flow in real-time as orders come in.

How can you adapt?

Here are some ideas:

  • You adjust your menu so you provide an offering you know you can deliver at volume, also considering price-points.
  • As one Michelin Star restaurant has done in New York, refocus the menu on specific dishes and take pre-orders. They produce the dishes at exceptional quality in bulk and manage the delivery slots. They have also changed their price point. You can listen to the story on Tim Ferriss’ blog here.
  • You switch off some delivery channels when you’re busy to avoid overload.
  • You offer different subsets of your menu on each delivery channel so you can streamline the peak of your orders through one partner and use others differently.
  • Communicate clearly with your customers. Tell them how you would like them to order. Don’t assume they know you’re doing delivery, for example. Drop fliers in every takeaway to get the message across.
  • Offer retail products (as some places have done) ranging from fresh fruit and vegetables to meat and other related ingredients.
  • Leverage your dark kitchen to produce other in-demand foods in quieter times for sale, even under a different brand name. You could be known as the Sandwich King at lunchtime and Sandy’s Fast Fine Food in the evening.

There are three watchwords for the now: get smart, (re)focus, restructure. You’ll need all three.

Thanks for reading this article about the restaurant business. I hope you liked it! If there is anything you'd like me to discuss or write about just let me know in the comments or via the contact form.

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