Off-Premise considerations for today’s restaurant operator

Here are so many variables that go into running a successful takeout, catering and delivery operation. This means restaurant operators are sometimes so busy looking down that they can’t seem to find the time to look up.

Looking up involves looking into the future and making decisions based on where off-premise is going, and not necessarily where it is today. After all, everyone is working to ensure sales increase, orders rise and their off-premise operation, large or small, gains traction.

Yet when it comes to packaging, marketing, menu mix and technology, there is plenty to look forward to in terms of future forecasting. We asked four industry veterans and experts in their given field, to weigh in on what restaurant operators should consider in 2018 and beyond in terms of packaging, marketing, menu mix and technology. Here’s what they had to say.

Packaging: Dorothy Heckle, director of marketing, LBP Manufacturing:

Everyone is looking at packaging right now and we continue to get requests about packaging for off-premise. The main thing is to make sure you’re considering the full life-cycle of the product. Additionally, what are your space constraints? Be realistic with your expectations on what you can accomplish because sometimes space constraints can make off-premise difficult to get off the ground, especially if you don’t have the space to store packaging for catering, takeout and delivery. We recommend to our clients that they expand beyond reactive orders and have a dedicated support team to execute off-premise. This means operators need to first determine their off-premise menus and then decide the type of packaging they want. It doesn’t work if you reverse engineer it. Packaging also should be straight forward, simple and operationally strong. For example, hot items have unique requirements that could have special packaging configurations and substrates while cold items require other considerations and temperature control. And don’t forget that containers for condiments should be part of the packaging plan.

When clients come to us, they are looking for solutions that showcase their menu items in the best way possible. They view off-premise packaging as another way to make a brand impression. From a menu perspective, we can produce a variety of imagery or messaging on a corrugated box and the LBP Pop-Up Catering lid folds in on itself and once opened, can be a billboard. You can list menu items, say thank you or put a brand website on there. If operators wanted to, they could put a customized message on the lid and at the end of the day it’s a cost-effective marketing option.

Another popular off-premise item that we have is the 3-gallon Beverage on the Move ®.  Given that it is recyclable and disposable, there is no pick up or cleaning which allows the operator to service more catering orders. Storage is easy since it comes in flat providing limited back-of-house constraints. The 3-gallon BOTM keeps liquids hot for up to two hours and is another fantastic marketing tool when printed with branding and messaging for maximum impact.

Marketing: Alex Nocifera, co-founder, Field Day

Local store/restaurant marketing is a conversation that we have daily with restaurant brands and operators. Field Day’s whole thesis is around local marketing as the core to long-term customer relationships.  And we have found, you won’t find many in the industry who would argue the power of that hyper-local, community outreach.  But – talking and walking are often two very different actions.  I say that because in over 80% of the systems that we have worked with – we found corporate marketing feedback tells us they do not rely on operators at the restaurant level to predictably or consistently execute local restaurant marketing.  And the reason actually makes sense – these operators tend to focus on what’s happening inside the four walls to ensure customer success. But when it comes to off-premise, it’s all in the face-to-face interaction.

We’re always telling our clients to get in front of local businesses to remind them of their great product and offering. The type outreach or destination can vary –  PTA meetings, festivals, schools, non-profits and business-to-business are proven destinations. I actually really believe that canvassing dynamic plays maybe the most important role in terms of catering outreach, and we have based our business around it. Our focus at Field Day is to help brands systemize their approach to this community outreach.  The formula really is pretty simple:  great brands, smart promotions and creative, high energy Field Day ambassadors and hyper local outreach.  We see this succeed with all of our customers.  We also see it fail when one of those variables are not met.

Delivery + Menu Mix: Richard Hodges, VP, off-premise, La Madeleine:

I do think, in a delivery world, we have to create things very carefully. La Madeleine is known for our fresh baked breads, but when we wanted to go into the delivery world five years ago with our intentional catering program, we had to go with a bread based on the ordering channel. Our chef advocated for a change to ciabatta bread for our sandwiches and baking ingredients into our ciabatta to maintain the flavors of our bread. The operational reason behind it was when you refrigerate sandwiches, most breads become soggy and lose their texture. The advantage of ciabatta as a bread is that you can refrigerate it and it won’t lose its consistency. So, we took the right product and matched it to the flavors of what our guests wanted to see. Where we broke the rule was in terms of our chicken salad sandwich on a croissant. A croissant does not travel well and loses texture when refrigerated, but we still decided to offer the sandwich on our catering menu because our guests wanted it. So, for restaurant operators, it’s about creating the balance between what the guests want and what operators can deliver operationally at a high quality. And sometimes, that’s a fine line.

In August 2017, we also started our own delivery program between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., and that lets us control a lot of factors. Our guests are now expecting a full delivery experience that reflects the dine-in environment. They want our full menu when using our delivery service and, if they could, they would want us to deliver our fireplaces, too. Our average delivery time is between 12-15 minutes so now we are in control of the experience. But, every brand has to make their own decision on that, this was just ours. Our guests want that the same dining experience at home so operators should not change the menu to move away from what people want to get at home.

Technology: Mo Asgari, president, MonkeyMedia Software

The adoption of technology has grown rapidly, and with the convenience of mobile devices, how we interface with our favorite brands has shifted.  Many restaurant operators are seeing declining sales within their four walls, and an increase in sales in their off-premise services via their takeout, delivery, and catering service channels.  It isn’t that they are losing guests on one side and gaining new ones on the other. In reality, how their existing guests wish to interface and interact with the restaurant has shifted. Meeting people where they live, work and play has become an important factor for restaurant operators.  In today’s environment, it has become a big competitive advantage to offer convenience and service to guests, and restaurant operators need to pay attention to this off-premise paradigm shift and adapt.

In the world of restaurant off-premise services, the brand’s ability to control the experience becomes very limited.  In fact, in most cases, there are only two critical touch points with the guest.  The first, is at the time of order entry – whether it is online, mobile, via voice ordering engine, the guest calling the store, or using the brand’s call center. The second, is at the time of order distribution for pickup or delivery.  As such, the type of information restaurant brands capture during these touch points becomes extremely important.  The focus shifts to guest relationship engagement and management.  As such, although the transaction is important, restaurant operators need to quickly shift to become customer relationship experts, in order to better serve their guests.  The technology tools and platforms utilized for off-premise services then becomes about the kind of data and information that operators need to gather to empower their team members to excel at servicing their guests.  Although very important, it is no longer about a guest’s last order and can they re-order it.  Restaurant operators need to harness a 360-degree perspective of the guest’s engagement with their brand.  If they master the relationship and get better at understanding their guest’s likes, dislikes, and experiences, sales will increase.

Beyond capturing and managing critical customer information, I would suggest the next most important focus for off-premise systematization should be on streamlining systems for flawless operational execution. That is, regardless of where orders are coming from, there needs to be a consistent workflow for in-store operations for order production and distribution. Therefore, the integrated systems in place for order capture, order throttling, lead-time management for timely order production, order submission (typically order injection into store POS) to the local store for production, and then the order distribution processes and technologies in place for pickup or delivery, are all integral parts of a unified system of services that minimize complexity on restaurant operations. Ultimately, making it easy for restaurant operators to deliver a well-designed and easily executed off-premise experience for the guest.

Certainly within the scope of the above points, we should not take for granted the critical features and functions needed for guests to easily place their own orders online via desktop, mobile, voice, phone-in, or third-party marketplaces.  Streamlining the information flow for menu items, pricing, store specific conditions, to these platforms, as well as the electronic capture of orders coming via these platforms, will create structure and standardization to reduce errors and failed guest expectations.  These are not just ideas to speak about.  There are off-premise technology platforms, acting complimentary to your existing restaurant systems, in production today.  Unifying these ideas end-to-end, will help great restaurant brands excel at feeding their guests where they live, work, and play.

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