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On Pandemic Normalizing
The time for bridges and band-aids has passed, and a cascading set of circumstances have made this restaurant tech's moment to lose.
It’s been over six months, which means for more of the last year than not, we’ve been living in a global pandemic. Thus, is it fair to finally say we’ve “ushered in a new normal”? The band-aids and duct tape holding whatever together are long gone and more federal help is far from certain. We’ve blown past half a year in this new, strange life. Public health experts say we need to accept our current fate and stop hoping for a magic pill. Is it time to stop pushing for what was and work toward what’s coming?
Last week, I focused, again, on Uber Eats. It’s been historically rare to get the kind of look at these kinds of numbers from food delivery companies, but now they’re happy to share. This is exciting! But the numbers tell a big story: restaurant delivery has grown by leaps and bounds during Covid and the execs at the top say they have no reason to believe it will slow. Record run rates feel less like mythical projections of potential and more like actual business targets. We’re still in the pandemic, but we’re also entering a new era in restaurant operations.
Ghost kitchens, a techy, operational in-the-weeds topic a year ago are suddenly mainstream. We’re still in the pandemic, and physical businesses built on online presence are suddenly more viable than the actual storefronts on the corner of First and Main.
A brand new delivery service — one that doesn’t seem super thought-through — gets a feature on Eater simply because it doesn’t charge restaurants commission. (This is because it doesn’t actually ask restaurants for permission to include them on the app which is equally problematic, if you ask me.) We’re still in a pandemic, and flaws in the system that always existed are now amplified — but there’s still not a tenable solution.
From a growth and profitability standpoint, this is restaurant technology’s moment to lose. Right now, tech is providing the platform and distribution network by which many restaurants are operating. As this momentum builds, there’s little to no support from local and federal governments. (From where I sit in San Francisco, I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that the city literally markets itself on its restaurants but has been slow to offer much targeted relief, monetary or regulatory.) Regulations are changing by the minute, making it impossible for a restaurant to plan out its next quarter, month, week, or even day. At this point, why wouldn’t a restaurant turn to technology companies that offer, at the very least, consistency?
In March, my instinct was to use my job as a freelance writer and this platform as a newsletter author to both chronicle and disseminate all the info I was hearing from restaurant operators. The first few heartbreaking conversations made it into this Food & Wine piece, with more to follow. What reservations companies were doing, how delivery apps were working with couriers in challenging conditions, what legislation was passed and what it actually meant. The baseline comparison was to pre-pandemic life and ways of operating. Relief was a bridge through a hard time; company pivots were temporary. Now, changes feel permanent as our expectations and comfort levels have settled into Covid reality.
I applaud the work that so many in the industry have done to help independent restaurants. I’m a fervent supporter of the Independent Restaurant Coalition and its herculean efforts. But in hindsight, reporting and writing these pieces now feels like I was chronicling The End.
Pandemic is normal. Now what? Is building a restaurant business on top of digital technology a safer bet than building a traditional restaurant business subject to whims and restrictions and changes? Could be.
What else is happening?
Cloudkitchens expands across the country. Here’s HNGRY’s look at where it’s opening, what it’s charging, and who it’s targeting sheds more light on the company’s oft-secretive plans.
An advertising company has launched a billboard campaign in a few cities (including San Francisco) calling on Yelp to rethink its review policies. The campaign specifically targets negative reviews of restaurants due to bad experiences with third-party delivery. It also encourages restaurants to submit their worst review — and offers a shot at a $250 gift card purchase for the trouble.
Forget Slack, the HotSchedules messaging feature is, apparently, the best way for hospitality workers to stay connected to each other amid challenging and changing work conditions — so says The New York Times.
In digital media news, Dotdash acquired Simply Recipes and Serious Eats. Here’s Dotdash’s CEO on digital recipes today: "You have to explore the cultural history of recipes and talk about nutrition. All these things you never had to do 5 years ago, but now you have to do them."
In Seattle, DoorDash and Postmates paid over $350,000 in hazard pay to workers a few months after an official hazard pay mandate went into effect. Companies are required to tack on an additional $2.50 per delivery during the crisis.
Speaking of, DoorDash is #2 on LinkedIn’s list of top startups to work for this year. The $16B company that’s taken over $2 billion in investment is considered a startup per the list’s methodology because it’s privately held, fewer than seven years old, and has more than 50 employees. Pending IPO notwithstanding.
The Infatuation is hiring beverage pros to work as part-time experts for its new Happy Hour Hotline. Pay is $20/hour, application is here.
Listen, a thing I’ve learned is to never, ever, underestimate the power and online appeal of an Applebee’s specialty drink. You’ll have to trust me on this one.