We spoke to three start-up leaders about ways that the tech industry is helping keep food businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
By nature, restaurants and cafés are venues for socialising, catching up and spending time with friends, family and co-workers. But the Covid-19 crisis has turned this idea on its head in recent months.
It was clear from the outset of the pandemic that public eateries were going to face significant challenges, as many businesses were forced to shut and physical-distancing guidelines were introduced.
Even now, months into the situation, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how we will be able to resume dining out socially.
The Financial Times recently reported that restaurateurs in London are fearful that this pandemic could spell the end of the city lunch, while American restaurateur and television personality David Chang told the New York Times that the service industry may be headed for “the worst-case scenario”.
‘Lots of these restaurants weren’t prepared to pivot to online ordering’
– IGOR TOMA
To adapt, many restaurants in Ireland have been trying to operate in new ways. “Over the last few weeks, we have seen an increase in the variety of businesses turning to takeaway,” said Conor McCarthy, CEO of Irish restaurant software business Flipdish.
“This includes fine dining restaurants who, under normal circumstances, would not offer takeaway or delivery, as well as hotel restaurants.”
McCarthy told Siliconrepublic.com that pivoting to a takeaway model has been a challenge for some of the food businesses that Flipdish has onboarded in recent weeks as they never thought they would have to operate in this way. He said that many now see it as their “only option” for survival.
Even for seasoned takeaways, the crisis is presenting new challenges. McCarthy explained that offering a takeaway or delivery service during the pandemic is different than it was during “normal” times, with food businesses having to adjust to new rules and guidelines for the safety of their staff and customers.
Hanging on the telephone
While many restaurants have been turning to companies like Flipdish to set up online stores or launch websites, others have been rethinking their relationship with the telephone.
Igor Toma is the managing director of Nuacom, a Maynooth-based cloud phone service that has seen an uptick in demand as employees adjust to working from home. While the most obvious customer for Nuacom’s technology might be office workers or call centre employees, the company has also seen increased demand from restaurants in recent months.
“It’s an industry where business has dropped a lot and restaurants just can’t offer the service they offered before,” Toma told Siliconrepublic.com. “Lots of these restaurants weren’t prepared to pivot to online ordering, they didn’t have an online presence, except for maybe a website with contact information.”
He said that restaurants like this are doing a lot more business over the phone now. To limit the number of employees on site, many restaurants have turned to cloud-based phone systems so that employees who take calls and orders can work from home.
“There are a couple of employees preparing food on site, respecting physical-distancing in the kitchen,” he said. “Then they have people who take orders, who work from home, and they place the orders into the point of sale remotely to send orders to the kitchen.
“The phones have become an important part of the business, because before this they were only used for bookings.”
A boom for the delivery sector
Food businesses that had been using popular takeaway aggregating apps or websites may have found themselves better positioned to deal with the sudden change of circumstances that caused many restaurants to temporarily shutter.
Sacha Michaud, co-founder of Spanish food delivery platform Glovo, said that while virtually everyone was “caught by surprise”, his company only had to make a few changes to its operations to continue running.
“We had to adapt operations to offer contactless delivery, the riders now have no physical contact with the stores or the customers,” he told Siliconrepublic.com “We had to make some technology changes to implement that in the app. Those are the main things we had to change, operations-wise.”
Michaud said that Glovo has seen a large amount of new users that have never used the platform before, even in key markets such as Spain and Italy.
‘Grocery delivery has become a really important area of foodtech that is thriving during these circumstances’
– CONOR MCCARTHY
Glovo is a multi-category delivery app and although restaurant food orders are on the rise, Michaud said the company has seen the largest uptick in deliveries of grocery and pharmacy products, especially from older demographics.
The Spanish company has been working with local governments, third parties and NGOs to help get food and essential items to people who cannot leave their homes during the crisis.
With more people staying home, McCarthy agreed that the delivery of non-restaurant food is going to become increasingly important throughout the pandemic and afterwards.
“Grocery delivery has become a really important area of foodtech that is thriving during these circumstances,” he said. “There’s a target market for this – those who might be cocooning or physically unable to get to a store – but it’s a system that really anybody might want to use.”
More dark kitchens
A concept in food business that has been growing in recent years is the dark kitchen – where a restaurant’s meals are prepared for takeaway platforms without a sit-in dining area for customers. Michaud thinks that during this crisis, many business owners will realise how efficient this model can be, because they have been forced to run their business in a similar way.
“We’ve got our own dark kitchens on Glovo, which we’ve had for a couple of years,” he said.
“We’ve seen the opportunity for some time and we offer the kitchens to our partners. We’ve always believed in the concept but I think as we gradually come out of lockdown, and it will be a gradual exit, restaurants will continue to work as dark kitchens or pick-up spots.”
Time will tell as restaurants and other eateries gradually begin to reopen their doors in the coming weeks and months.
While some businesses may change their seating arrangements to deal with distancing requirements, with less tables or perspex screens dividing customers, others may now focus more on the types of digital solutions they had to test out during the pandemic.