Now that there’s some glimmer of hope for a return to restaurant normalcy, speculation is intensifying as to the “stickiness” of the restaurant industry operational changes the COVID-19 pandemic brought about.
Most — but not all — in the industry seem to be betting that many of those innovations — family meal packs, curbside pickup, third party delivery, and the like — will become permanent parts of the dining out experience.
One of the big beneficiaries of the pandemic have been the third-party delivery services such as DoorDash, Postmates, Uber Eats, and the like. All were able to dramatically increase their volume of business as restaurants — both chains and independents — scrambled to find options after in-restaurant dining was shut down. Operations that previously saw 2 or 3% of their orders come in from these third party services suddenly were finding that such orders accounted for a quarter or more of their restaurant’s total dollar sales.
The problem with sustaining high levels of third party delivery after the pandemic passes are the costs involved. Though hard data is difficult to come by, most third party delivery brands take 20 or 30% of every dollar of restaurant sales that get ordered through such a service.
That hefty cut was tolerable when third party delivery sales were a small, incremental part of a restaurant’s business but become unsustainable at higher levels of volume. Even well-run restaurant have a tough time realizing five or ten percent profit on sales; having a delivery service take 20% off the top is unrealistic.
A few independents and chains have experimented with higher menu prices for delivery, but most operators have been “eating” the losses they book on delivery sales. Whether or not restaurant owners continue to take such a bottom line “hit” as on-premises dining returns is yet to be seen.
Another issue with third party delivery is the ownership of customer data. Since orders are placed through the service’s app, marketing intelligence on who orders what and when is typically retained by the third party service. They are then free to monetarize that information, either by using it for their own marketing or even selling it to data brokers.
Cal’s Wood-Fired Grill & Wine Bar in West Springfield has announced that its $23.99 Prix Fixe menu is now being served on Mondays (holidays excluded). Available at dinner only, the four-course menu includes a choice of starter, a salad, an entree, and a dessert.
Entree selections include a classic chicken Parmesan, eggplant Neopolitan, redfish nouvelle, hazelnut-encrusted salmon, a grilled, 10-ounce top sirloin steak, and more.
The prix fixe menu is not available for takeout.
Contact the restaurant at (413)827-9353 for more details.
Throughout the pandemic Chez Josef in Agawam has been creating an assortment of “Complete Dinner Packs” that it made available for either pickup or local delivery on a weekly special basis.
Now the operation’s Chez2Go division is offering a complete library of dinner packs on a one-week-advance-notice basis.
Options include a Fall Harvest pack that includes Cape Cod chicken, butternut squash ravioli, and roasted potatoes; an Hawaiian pack with teriyaki chicken pineapple skewers and Island fried rice; and a BBQ pack that features baby back ribs, mesquite chicken, baked beans, and white cheddar mac & cheese.
The packs include rolls and dessert.
For more details, call Chez Josef at (413) 786-0257; their web site is chezjosef.com.
Now that the option of dine-out weekend breakfasts is coming back strong, operations like Burgundy Brook Cafe and Restaurant in Three Rivers are enhancing their morning food options with creativity aplenty.
Some typical experiences that before-noon customers can find include cinnamon bun French toast, banana Nutella crepes, and a “rattlesnake” omelet that’s filled with sausage, red peppers, jalapenos, and melted Swiss cheese.
Traditionalist can enjoy choices such as a corned beef skillet topped with poached eggs and hollandaise or sausage biscuit with gravy, while those who like it hot might opt for a dialed-up chicken sriracha benedict.
Open Thursday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Burgundy Brook Cafe also serves dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
More menu details are available at the CafÇ’s web site, burgundybrook.com. Their telephone number is (413) 289-6359.
Like many restaurant chains, UNO Pizzeria & Grill is anxious for employees to get vaccinated, and in order to improve the likelihood that will happen, the Boston-based pizza chain has created an in-house vaccination “concierge service.” Staffed by volunteer employees, the service helps those who work at UNO-owned restaurants and facilities schedule vaccination appointments.
UNO is also further encouraging vaccinations by offering a $50 gift card to every employee who completes a course of immunization against COVID-19.
The Student Prince Cafe and Fort Restaurant in Springfield has expanded its brunch program. The restaurant now offers a brunch menu every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Buffet selections include breakfast favorites such as eggs Benedict, waffles, an omelet station, home fries, and a selection of breakfast meats.
Supplementing those choices are pasta salad, several hot entrees, and a carving station; a dessert table is also part of the buffet package.
In addition to the brunch, the Student Prince makes its regular a la carte menu available during weekend lunch hours.
Contact the restaurant at (413) 734-7475. Reservations can also be made online at studentprince.com.
Seattle-based Starbucks has begun providing technology solutions that help blind and low-vision customers more easily access the coffee chain’s retail locations.
The company has partnered with Aira, an online service that provides real-time assistance from a remotely-located human agent. Aira’s smartphone solution helps visually impaired customers navigate the restaurant and read signage and menus.
Starbucks also has made a commitment to provide Braille and large-print menus in all its U.S. and Canadian stores by this summer.
More information about the Aira service is available at aira.io.
Max Burger in Longmeadow has updated the availability of its Fried Chicken Family Pack.
Now offered every other Wednesday, the pack include eight pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, coleslaw, hot honey, and buttermilk biscuits with honey butter.
The Family Pack is available for either dine in or take out; advance orders by noon on Wednesday are appreciated. Takeout packs can be picked up between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Max Burger in Longmeadow answers at (413) 798-0101. Online orders can be placed at maxburgerma.com.
Tips are going digital at Sonic Drive-In locations, with about a third of the chain’s restaurants currently able to process gratuities for carhops through the Sonic App. A systemwide rollout of the app’s tipping functionality is planned by the end of 2021.
Sonic’s management claims that a digital tipping capability has been among the top customer requests.
Of course, the digital tipping will give the chain more information about (and control over) the amount of tips carhops receive, functionality that could prove useful in managing tip reporting and pooling requirements.
In order to promote the use of their products, some food companies set up contests for culinary professions, soliciting new ideas and recipes.
Mondelez International, which makes RITZ crackers, promoted such a competition late last year, challenging chefs to come with new ways of using RITZ crushed crackers.
Though the contests are often high visibility, the winning chef typically don’t get as much exposure, which makes Eric Stein, the Grand Prize Winner of the 2020 RITZ Crushed Cracker Contest, an exception.
Mondelez recently announced his winning entry, a Fudgy Peanut Butter and Chocolate Truffle Ice Cream Pie. Stein, who is the research chef for the Atlanta-based Church’s Chicken chain, modified a recipe for Mississippi Mud Pie by using the savory Ritz cracker crumbs in both the crust and crumble topping of his ice cream pie creation.
The pie’s recipe will be featured in future Mondelez promotional materials.
Louisville, Kentuck-based Yum Brands has announce that its Pizza Hut restaurants will soon incorporate the “Hut Lane,” a dedicated drive-thru window where customers can pick up orders placed remotely at Pizza Hut’s website, on the Pizza Hut app, or over the phone.
The first wave of this roll-out will add the Hut Lane to more than 1,500 locations nationwide. Contactless curbside pickup will continue to be offered at locations not yet equipped with a Hut Lane.
The Hut Lane is part of Pizza Hut’s strategy of focusing on the digital ordering experience.
Hugh Robert is a faculty member in Holyoke Community College’s hospitality and culinary arts program and has nearly 45 years of restaurant and educational experience. Robert can be reached on-line at OffTheMenuGuy@aol.com.
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