For Eureka, tech never figured prominently into the brand equation. Since it was founded in 2009, the California chain has planted its flag around quality service and craft food and beverage. If Eureka was pushing boundaries it was through above-and-beyond hospitality, not the latest app or POS system.
But that mentality shifted at a dizzying speed earlier this year.
“When COVID-19 hit, obviously it was about survival,” says cofounder and CEO Justin Nedelman. “You can’t just run the business the same way. We are historically not a tech-forward company; I would say we were gearing more toward the last frontier of extremely high-level service, which we still want to maintain.”
But with sales plummeting 50–60 percent, its relationship with technology would have to change. Or as Nedelman put it in an interview with FSR, the coronavirus was prompting an “accelerated Darwinian reality” for the hospitality industry, one that demanded swift action.
Pivoting to off-premises options, trimming the menu, and switching to a cashless model were immediate steps the brand took to regain some lost revenue. It also invested $400,000 in expanding and weatherizing patios across its 24-unit system. But even back in spring, the Eureka team recognized that COVID-19 would last far longer than a few weeks or months. To that end, it committed to sweeping changes, including a partnership with OneDine, a contactless ordering, mobile menu, and payment platform.
The 24-unit brand, with restaurants throughout California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, and Washington, says it’s the first chain in the U.S. to debut the dining technology.
For Eureka, the ability to customize its own system was crucial. Since the pandemic began, many restaurants have embraced online ordering, QR code–enabled menus, and other tech integrations. But Nedelman maintains that adopting a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t look at the dining experience as a whole. Instead the various processes—ordering, mobile menus, payment, etc.—operate independently of each other. OneDine, however, tailored the technology to best serve Eureka and continues to build out more features.
In early October, the pilot program launched at three locations. Upon entry, guests can now seat themselves, browse the menu, place orders, and pay through their mobile devices. OneDine’s solution also includes an option to contact team members if they need assistance; staff wear smartwatches that receive those alerts in real time.
If guests prefer to be seated and order the old-fashioned way, Eureka can accommodate that, too. Ultimately it’s about striking a balance between tech and personal touch in the dining experience.
“How do we do [incorporate tech] in full service, but still enhance it with the human side? We’re not going to get to a point where you see no one on the floor and everyone works from their phones, heads down, and food being dropped off. There will be concepts that do that. But for Eureka, it will be a balance of both,” Nedelman says. “The key for us is making sure our team members don’t hide behind the technology, that they use it to enhance [the experience].”
This new contactless dining approach goes a long way in protecting guests and staff during the pandemic, but it also helps the brand stay solvent. Just a few weeks into the pilot, Nedelman said those stores became more profitable. The plan is to outfit the rest of the system with OneDine by November.
Nevertheless, Nedelman is quick to point out that the tech advances are still in the early stages and are tweaked on a near-daily basis. Under normal circumstances, rolling out something of this magnitude would take 18 months; because of COVID-19, it was launched in less than six.
“In theory, it will be a perfectly choreographed dance routine on the floor,” Nedelman says. “But right now we’re rebuilding 24 restaurants from scratch with a whole new platform. … So it’s definitely a learning curve.”
A breakdown of how Eureka will use the tech:
- Self check-in, table alert, and self-seating to expedite the entry process.
- Guests will be able to browse the menu, order, and pay from their personal mobile devices.
- Guests can contact Eureka team members with the push of a button.
- Managers will wear smartwatches that provide alerts in real-time from check-in to check-out, allowing expedited service and guest response, and providing the ability to monitor the restaurant flow for a seamless guest experience.
Nedelman plans to continue that push long after the coronavirus. Although the emphasis on social distancing and limited-surface contact may wane, the OneDine platform will remain an integral part of Eureka’s business. Beyond mobile order, menu, and payment functions, the system can also aggregate customer data. Those insights not only inform back-of-house decisions like menu development and marketing, they also simplify the ordering process for customers.
“We want to create kind of an Amazon shopping experience where it’s like, ‘Hey, you had two Chardonnays last time from this brand; do you want to reorder?’” Nedelman says. Although certain features are still in development, Nedelman adds that the platform has already led to quicker table turn and higher check averages in some cases. Using the online system, guests are more likely to upsell themselves, he says.
In addition to aggregating guests’ go-to dishes, the online interface allows Eureka to serve as personal curator by making recommendations based on past orders. It also provides a stage to spotlight special menu items.
Nedelman is quick to reiterate that Eureka’s foray into the world of cutting-edge foodservice tech is still in a fledgling state. But, as he points out, hospitality itself is an ongoing evolution that demands continual growth and adaptation. And what better time to try something new than when a crisis is forcing reinvention?
“Hospitality is passion and the endless pursuit of excellence,” Nedelman says. “What’s cool about COVID is that you have to be willing to try the things you thought about.”