Tech can't fix everything

3.11.2020

Welcome to Expedite, a (mostly) weekly newsletter by Kristen Hawley covering what’s important in restaurant technology.

What tech can’t solve

Not sure what the vibe is where you are, but things in San Francisco are feeling… not great. No one knows exactly what’s going to happen (though there are precedents) and no one knows how long this is going to last (though there are precedents there, too.)

It’s hard to think about writing about anything else right now, but it’s also nearly impossible to feel upbeat about this situation.

So… let’s talk about restaurants! In SF, most people who can work from home are working from home. Mass WFH means less catering orders from restaurants — a revenue stream that keeps plenty of them afloat. According to Eater SF, local businesses from bakeries to fast casual are feeling the crunch. (That second link goes to Tuesday’s coverage of the AL’s Deli closure just eight months after it opened. According to the piece — and the numbers — coronavirus fears aren’t totally to blame, though the restaurant lost 100 percent of its catering orders placed this week, likely due to mandated WFH and a ban on large events in San Francisco. Not helpful.)

In Seattle, which feels at least a week or more ahead of SF in terms of coronavirus severity and response, tourist-centric restaurants have seen especially massive drops in business (as high as 70 percent) though businesses all over the area are feeling the pinch. In New York, too.

But, there’s delivery, you say! Great, just order in, right? Postmates even debuted a “leave it on the porch” feature where you, the recipient, don’t have to interact with a human, but it’s not like your order grows wings and flies to your door. Someone has to deliver it, and presumably that someone is a gig worker. In China, delivery service Meituan saw four times the amount of orders recently as compared to the same period last year, almost certainly attributable to virus-associated quarantines. Thanks to the marketing power of third-party delivery and the intense, venture-capital fueled competition, US consumers are conditioned to understand that food can come to them now, from anywhere. What better time to post up at home?

Delivery companies have started to share their plans to support drivers with infections or those stuck in quarantine. Unfortunately, given the lag in our country’s testing abilities, this feels like a logistical nightmare leaving drivers to prove to companies that they need financial help — just as the very same companies dumped actual millions of dollars into defeating a California measure that designates drivers as employees. Oof.

Obviously, the priority now is protecting our society’s most vulnerable people at any cost, and unfortunately that cost comes to the detriment of the restaurant business. There’s no pivot-to-online in the business of hospitality. Positive messages and supportive policies are crucial to this time, but there are some things that technology just can’t fix.

Yesterday, I read a post on my local online parents’ group from a woman whose family runs a downtown SF restaurant. She was trying to gauge impact on the lunch rush, asking people if they’d be working from home and encouraging them to support local businesses. The response has been huge, as hundreds of local parents vow to support the business through bulk ordering, pickup, and delivery. If there’s a small, quiet, tech-fueled silver lining here, here it is. If a great majority of us end up stuck behind computer screens at home for days, weeks… months — let’s try to internalize some of those human connections that big tech companies have spent the last decade trying to scale online for our benefit.

That’s it, that’s the newsletter. Cheers to a better week ahead.

Kristen

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About:
Expedite is produced by Kristen Hawley, a San Francisco-based journalist with over six years of experience covering the restaurant technology industry. Previous iterations of this content were available via Chefs+Tech and Skift Table. Thanks for reading.

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