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Contactless delivery has become such a norm in post-COVID America that we forget it once was an innovative solution to assuage consumer fears during the early weeks of the pandemic. Domino’s was one of the first large chains to offer custom contactless delivery, allowing customers to choose where pizza delivery drivers dropped off their food.
Groceries and meal kits
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We never thought we’d see our favorite burger spot offering rolls of toilet paper alongside takeout orders, but the pandemic blurred the line between groceries and restaurant delivery. In the early days of the pandemic, restaurants began offering these essentials on their menus to help customers who were struggling to get ahold of cleaning supplies and paper goods.
Other restaurants got creative with packaged meal kits like New York City restaurant Northern Tiger, which started selling dumpling kits (with frozen dumplings, condiments and sauces) for delivery last May and Los Angeles’ Café Ugo, which put together a cannoli-making kit in May, satisfying a need for dessert and safe activities all in one.
Family meals and group ordering
One way that fast-casual and quick-service brands learned to pivot when their target audience shifted from individual commuters/workers/students to ordering meals for the whole family, is by offering group ordering capabilities and meal deals for three to five people. Dickey’s BBQ for example, began offering a $35 family pack in April 2020 with pulled pork, brisket and sides for four people, appealing to the newly budget-conscious American.
Adapting food to be delivery-friendly
With everyone ordering food from home, getting mushy fries and soggy salads delivered was just not going to cut it. Companies like Modern Restaurant Concepts (owners of Modern Market Eatery and Lemonade) had to deal with supply chain disruptions and rethinking their ingredients to offer delivery-friendly fare that would travel well. Some, like Panera Bread, even revamped new menu items inspired by a new need for durable deliverables, like the bakery chain’s flatbread pizzas, that were rolled out in October 2020 with a thicker crust so that they will stay crispy even after they’ve traveled to a customer’s house.
Combining the best of meal and grocery delivery, Landry’s launched a website — Landry’s Kitchen — to offer the sale of premium goods and signature items all under one digital roof. Landry’s Kitchen was created in August 2020 and offers steak and seafood packages, as well as a shellfish boil dinner package.
During the height of the pandemic, many restaurants took advantage of loosened state liquor laws, the majority of which now allowed (either temporarily or permanently) alcohol for delivery. Restaurants could boost delivery and takeout sales by offering cans of beer, mini bottles of wine, cocktails in a jar or sealed container, or even cocktail kits and packages, to make for a more festive atmosphere at home.
As dining rooms closed, ghost kitchens made it possible for operators to offer delivery and takeout-only at lower cost in new markets. During the year, many brands — from small restaurant groups to national chains — looked for ghost kitchen partners like Kitchen United and Reef (like Nathan’s and BurgerFi) to expand their delivery reach.
Chipotle launched a delivery-only kitchen that would be handling off-premise orders and test digital-only menu items, and Chuck E. Cheese ‘tricked’ customers into ordering revamped pizza through their new virtual brand for adults, Pasqually’s.
The pandemic produced a virtual stampede of virtual brands — restaurant concepts available for delivery only with no brick-and-mortar presence. The hottest category? Chicken. From Bloomin’ Brands Tender Shack, to Fazoli’s chicken wing concept (which was so successful it turned into a brick-and-mortar brand too) and Brinker’s It’s Just Wings, comfort food chicken reigned supreme as virtual brands exploded in popularity.
Virtual brands became a smart (and relatively cheap) way for restaurant groups and chains to dip their toe into new categories.
To boost sales in times of hardship, many restaurants turned to virtual events like online wine tastings and cooking classes. The effect is twofold: guaranteed income for a struggling restaurant and a way to keep customers engaged when they can’t visit in person. Terroir Tribeca wine bar in New York City, for example, started an interview series called “From the Bunker,” featuring interviews with industry leaders like José Andrés and Bobby Stuckey.
Hybrid on-premise restaurant and ghost kitchen
Crave Collective launched in November a hybrid operations model with 16 host kitchens and its own delivery fleet, with plans to open 15 of these collectives this year throughout the country. Crave Collective has its own fleet of delivery drivers (no third-party here), customers can also pick up meals, and the restaurant partners also rent the kitchen space.
Modernizing the drive-thru
As perfecting the off-premise experience became more vital over the past year, the traditional drive-thru opened up to companies beyond the typical quick-service brands. Applebee’s began testing its first drive-thru location in January and Pokeworks is opening a “cruise-thru” pickup window for delivery and mobile app-based orders.
The drive-thru experience 2.0 has been modernized for the digital era, with Sweetgreen’s first drive-thru prototype offering solar panel-powered operations, multichannel offerings and digital wayfinding. Even quick-service restaurants that perfected the first generation of drive-thrus like Burger King and White Castle are revamping the experience with AI capabilities, predictive selling, and contactless payment.
With the rise of modernized drive-thru lanes and shrinking of dining rooms, many brands have announced store revamps and redesigns to keep up with changing consumer demands. KFC recently unveiled two new store porotypes: one would have no dining room and the other would have a small dining room and outdoor seating area. Checker’s and Rallys, Del Taco, Schlotzsky’s, Taco Bell and more announced similar initiatives to emphasize off-premise, digital convenience.
One of the most high-profile store portfolio revamps was Starbucks, which announced in June that they would be closing 400 U.S. stores (with more added later) to make way for new smaller, mobile and pickup-focused stores.
Carside and curbside pickup
With the arrival of contactless culture, restaurants fast-forwarded curbside pickup and car-side pickup technology to meet changing consumer needs. From integration with delivery apps (so that customers can easily “check in” when you arrive) to Panera Bread launching geofencing technology that automatically senses when a digital customer pulls into the parking lot, curbside pickup combines needs for safety and convenience. Most recently in January, Chipotle announced that they were testing car-side pickup with app ordering integration.
Contactless takeout window
Other contactless innovations have made waves like the Creator Transfer Chamber, which was invented by the makers of Creator, the fully automated burger concept in San Francisco, and allows customers to grab their burger that was placed in a chamber with a pressurized window to the outside that is sealed off and self-sanitizing between orders.
QR codes and more touchless technology
Continuing on the theme of contactless needs, restaurants have relied heavily on touchless technologies — from simple QR codes so customers can download menus and order on their own devices without touching a physical menu — to AI technology like Flippy the robot over the past year of the pandemic.
Automation has a place during the age of coronavirus and beyond, and companies like Marco’s Pizza are using it to improve efficiency with an automated assembly line that stretches the dough, auto-sauces and cheeses the pizza and tops it with the perfect amount of toppings before it moves down to the human employees who slice the pizza and get it ready for a customer.
Throughout the pandemic, restaurants employed advanced sanitization technology to clean restaurants and help boost consumer confidence, from UVC lights to “cold fog” devices that can disinfect restaurants with EPA-approved disinfectant.
Charity partnerships and community initiatives
With dining rooms closed, many restaurants turned to unique operations structures to keep their teams on board and their doors open. Community partnerships and charity models were popular with restaurants like New Jersey’s Ani Ramen House, which opened up two pop-up community “pay what you want” restaurants in April 2020 and Alma Cocina Latina in Washington, D.C. which used their restaurant to help refugee chefs prepare menus for seniors and other community members in need.