For every good sign with COVID-19, it feels like we’re a step away from another setback. So goes the purgatory nature of this pandemic. On the horizon for many restaurants now is how Mother Nature will further disrupt recovery efforts. Namely, what happens to outdoor dining in much of the country? Some markets are working to weather-proof the industry lifeline, like Hoboken, New Jersey, Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla’s recent guidelines that include outdoor heating recommendations, entertainment requirements (live acoustic music until 10 p.m.) and what to do about snow removal.

New York City Wednesday unveiled rules to heat outdoor dining spaces, including the admission of electric radiant heaters in sidewalk and roadway seating.

Yet the reality remains it’s going to present another significant hurdle in a year of them.

Guy Bloch, CEO of Bringg, a delivery orchestration software company, chatted with QSR on how restaurants can leverage technology during this time, and why it could be key to getting by.

As COVID-19 case numbers drop in certain states, indoor dining is slowly starting to re-open, right on time for the colder weather that is about to hit many parts of the country. While these are positive signs for the restaurant industry, you feel that restaurants need to prepare to put an increased focus on ramping up delivery and curbside these upcoming months—can you elaborate on that?

Yes—decreases in case numbers, reducing strict regulations on indoor dining, and more general awareness and education about COVID-19 are all good signs for the restaurant industry. However, we cannot underestimate the impact of cold weather on the restaurant industry or ignore the uncertainty that still exists around the virus—we are, after all, still very much in a pandemic situation. That has not changed. Additionally, people’s behaviors have changed, and many still want the convenience of pick-up and delivery—this is a new behavior that is going to remain a reality.

Cold weather is challenging for the restaurant industry in a few ways. First, while it is important for restaurants to try to get creative about how to sustain outdoor dining as it gets colder, not every restaurant will necessarily be approved to store heat lamps on premises, unfortunately, with regulations around propane tank storage. For restaurants not able to get permits for heat lamps, outdoor dining may not be possible for them to offer throughout the duration of the fall and winter months in colder regions—patrons simply won’t want to eat outside anymore. The second factor is that, even for restaurants that are now able to serve indoors, because of more stringent social distancing and spacing requirements indoors, capacity will be small. Additionally, there will be a segment of patrons who are simply not comfortable dining indoors at present.

Taking these two realities together, an increased emphasis and more strategy behind delivery and curbside pick-up is a smart consideration for restaurants right now, especially if they want to remain resilient during the colder months and continue to serve off-premises customers who may become a larger part of their base in cold weather. The need for more convenience is a preference that will not change—people are now used to the very convenient option of driving up and getting their food, and restaurants need to be focused on how to make that more efficient in the coming months.

So, how do restaurants ramp up delivery and curbside? Will it just require an increased presence on marketplace food delivery apps?

Interestingly, while marketplace apps may sound like a great idea in finding ways to expand delivery options, it is not always the best choice for a restaurant. The delivery fees that restaurants must pay marketplace apps are very high in many cases, sometimes 30 percent of the total basket. That is a significant amount of money once it starts to add up, and restaurants need to be retaining as much of their profits as they can in the coming months. Brand control is also lost when handing over a meal delivery to the marketplace.

However, delivery orchestration technologies can help restaurants navigate the challenges of delivery fleet management and logistics, helping them save on costs and improving efficiency. Delivery orchestration software can empower restaurants to take a fully in-house delivery approach, helping them manage delivery workflows and easily onboard new drivers and existing employees to flesh out an internal and comprehensive delivery fleet. Alternatively, if the resources are not there internally to create a delivery fleet, technology can connect restaurants to large networks of on-demand drivers and gig-economy brands, like Postmates, to handle the delivery of orders to customers.

Finally, technology can automatically batch orders to optimal fleets and provide intelligent routing to drivers, which not only improves delivery efficiency and fleet management but also enables restaurants to focus on higher-level activities, like providing excellent customer service, keeping the kitchen on schedule with orders and more.

Delivery orchestration is so multifaceted and intricate that even having someone dedicated to fleet management, full-time, is not enough to avoid the inevitable roadblocks and complications that come with it. Technology, however, can achieve seamless delivery orchestration. It also can support curbside. Just like delivery, it is important to remain true to your brand and provide an excellent customer experience for curbside pick-up, too. Using arrival tracking technology, restaurants have visibility into when to expect a customer and can time food for perfect prep right to the customer’s car door. Additionally, the orchestration helps restaurants manage both pick-up and delivery flows in one hectic kitchen.

You mention intelligent routing, is there anything else that delivery orchestration software can offer that leverages artificial intelligence?

Yes, it is quite fascinating how many ways AI can be valuable for restaurants managing curbside pick-up and delivery. There are two interesting use cases for it, beyond intelligent routing.

First, it can predict delivery timing. The AI can build predictive models for every segment of the delivery process and then compare it with historical performance data to get an accurate read on how long deliveries will take. This ultimately makes for more streamlined workflows for delivery driversit takes the pressure off them by giving them more realistic expectationsand it improves the customer experience by giving customers more accurate ETAs, for both curbside and delivery.

Second, it can forecast customer demand, using predictive modeling techniques – it may see that Thursday is a busier day and that a restaurant will need more drivers on call to accommodate an influx of orders. Predictive models also uncover which hours or shifts will need more connected providers, and it can choose providers based on historical data around higher customer ratings, less expensive pricing, and more. The possibilities are endless in terms of what AI can forecast using historical data, and forecasting ultimately improves resource allocation.

With delivery prediction, does that make the behind-the-scenes work in kitchen easier in terms of coordinating meal prep with delivery expectations and timing? 

It goes without saying that kitchens that are built for on-premises dining are not optimized for off-premises orders. But this is another way in which technology can play a supporting role in helping kitchens adjust to surges in online orders. It can do this by automatically synchronizing food prep with delivery orders to ensure that there is a seamless interaction between kitchens and the delivery drivers picking up orders or the customer waiting in the restaurant parking to pick up their dinner. So the answer is, the kitchen staff find elements of delivery orchestration technology to be invaluable to prepping meals on time.

Anything else that I didn’t ask that you’d like share?

I guess, to end the interview, I’d just like to reiterate that it is important that restaurants don’t lose sight of the value of creating more efficient workflows in delivery and curbside pick-up management. The more marketplaces you work with and the more delivery providers you use, creates complexities that cannot be solved manually. Manual is no longer an option and automation must be smart—it must utilize data to make sure that decisions are being made to meet specific KPIs.

No one knows what the future holds in terms of the severity of the pandemic—we’re not out of the woods yet—so, to remain resilient through whatever challenges it may create for the restaurant industry this winter, technology definitely needs to be a strong consideration for restaurants. It could be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful colder season.

Restaurant Operations, Story, Technology