Welcome to Burger King. Did You Have a Reservation?

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Things I never thought I’d live to see: a global pandemic shutting down the economy, the McDonald’s snuggie, and fast food restaurants requiring reservations to dine in. But with the restaurant biz on the brink of catastrophic meltdown and businesses slowly reopening under strict social distancing practices, we can expect lots of new versions of the on-premises experience over the next few months — and probably a total redefining of what it means to be a restaurant. 

News landed this week that Burger King is testing an app for dine-in reservations at three stores in Milan, Italy that are expected to fully reopen on June 1. Reuters reports that the app lets customers order food and book a table before ever setting foot in the restaurant, which will operate at less than half its pre-pandemic capacity. During peak hours — 12–2 p.m. and 7–9 p.m. — roughly one-third of those tables will be reserved for customers using the app.

The company says it expects the new booking system to keep its revenue stable in the face of reduced in-house seating. Previously, BK in Italy got about 70 percent of its revenues from dine-in customers. Social distancing won’t allow for that now, and BK said it hopes to make up some of those lost sales with drive-thru.

Reservations are one way to keep crowds at bay in QSRs. Another is to build social distancing features into the actual store layout and operations, as McDonald’s has done in The Netherlands. The mega-chain is trialing a few initiatives at one store in the city of Arnhem, including table service, where burgers are delivered on trolleys, designated waiting spots for the line, and hand sanitizing stations at the store’s entrance. There may also be a host behind a plexiglass-shielded station, directing people where to stand in line.

There’s no word yet on whether this McDonald’s prototype will make its way to the U.S., though I wouldn’t be surprised if some social distancing elements wind up in the chain’s ongoing Experience of the Future store remodels. Burger King, meanwhile, has said if the trial of its app is successful in Italy, it could be used in other countries. 

And while QSRs are busy adopting features we’re most used to seeing at casual dine-in joints, the latter continues to adjust its format to be more to-go friendly. This was already happening B.P. (before pandemic). Now, sit-down restaurants are accelerating the addition of things like drive-thru lanes and self-service kiosks to keep business moving and socially distant at the same time.

All this suggests some seriously blurring lines between the normally siloed types of restaurant experiences. Going to a McDonald’s might suddenly feel like a more formal affair, while family dinner night at The Melting Pot might feel strangely casual without the usual person-to-person formalities. Tech tools that automate the order and pay process, and redistribute the tasks of servers, food runners, and cashiers, will only further change the now-fluid definition of the restaurant. 

We’re only at the start of things when it comes to these new dining out formats. Expect many more iterations of the restaurant to surface in the coming weeks. 

Grubhub Responds to Commission Fee Caps.

Meanwhile, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ongoing smackdown between third-party delivery services and governments mandating caps on the commission fees these tech companies charge restaurants. That was a hot topic this week as more cities joined the list of those either considering caps or already implementing them. 

Grubhub responded this week via its Q1 2020 earnings call. CEO Matt Maloney said these fee caps force the company to increase fees for consumers, lessen marketing spend, and are ultimately resulting in fewer orders for independent restaurants. “Our preliminary data shows that on average, our independent restaurants are seeing over 10% fewer orders since the fee cap and many of these orders have shifted to a large brand or QSR restaurants that were not impacted by the emergency ordinance,” he said.

Note that he said “orders” not “revenues.” There’s no question that being on a platform like Grubhub makes a restaurant more visible to more potential customers. That in turn would hopefully fuel more orders for, say, your local pizzeria instead of Papa John’s.

But with Grubhub et al. taking an up to 30 percent commission of each restaurant transaction, more orders does not translate into significantly more revenues for restaurants. See this gem of a receipt, courtesy of one independent business, as proof of how little restaurants make on third-party platforms. 

On the call, Maloney said one-size-fits-all model “will not work.” And yet one independent restaurant owner who testified at a public hearing last week about NYC fee caps suggested there was virtually no negotiability when it comes to commission fees, suggesting Grubhub runs its own one-size-fits-all model when it comes to food delivery.

The debate around commission fees has been building momentum for some time. The pandemic has effectively stripped any remaining gloss off the facade of third-party food delivery and put its unsavory insides on full display. That the sector will need to make a pivot of its own if it wants to stay relevant seems more and more a question of “when,” not “if.” 

Amazon Returns to Restaurant Delivery. Sort of

But let’s end the week on a less-infuriating note, like Amazon running a makeshift third-party delivery service for restaurants in its corporate buildings. Drivers that used to transport the Seattle tech giant’s corporate employees are now running food from restaurant to customer, according to Eater Seattle.

Deliveries are contactless, meaning the restaurant packages up the order and sets it in the delivery driver’s trunk. Said driver then leaves the food on the customer’s doorstep. 

Once upon a time, Amazon ran a restaurant delivery service, which it shuttered in June of 2019. At the time, Amazon cited competition from the likes of Grubhub, Uber Eats, and other third-party delivery services. The new endeavor doesn’t appear to be a play by the company to get back into that space. Rather, it seems to be a temporary lifeline for local restaurants, not to mention a way to keep drivers who once ran corporate employees around working now that those employees are under stay-at-home orders.

On that note, have a good weekend, and don’t forget to tip your drivers.


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