Restaurant Catering in the Coronavirus Age

COVID-19 has changed foodservice across the board.

Along with dine-in operations, COVID-19’s sweep across the country has disrupted other foodservice segments. Among them: Catering.

Mike O’Hanlon, head of catering partner business at ezCater, took some time to chat with FSR about what the company has seen so far, and what we can all expect in the coming days.

Let’s start by talking about catering right now. It’s not a subject that’s been covered too much during the COVID-19 pandemic. What have been some of the biggest shifts so far?

Social distancing, limits on groups over 10, and businesses working from home have significantly decreased the need for business catering. 

The majority of ezCater’s customers are business people. Many industries are now working from home, but there are industries still working and ordering food. For those that are, many are looking for individually packaged meals, and/or contact-less delivery.

What are some changes in the way customers have been ordering, and the types of workplaces that are continuing to place at-work food orders? How do you think this will still evolve?

While many companies are working from home, we can’t forget about the many industries that can only perform their (essential) functions at work. The industries you’d expect, like healthcare, financial services, construction, and state and local governments are where we’re seeing most orders come from. We’re also seeing some companies get creative, from sales teams sending food to prospects and customers, to companies sending lunch to their teams at home. 

Within the past week, orders on ezCater containing individually packaged menu items have more than doubled. We expect this to continue, and encourage restaurants to think about how they can adapt their packaging to accommodate the evolving customer needs.

What are some ways restaurants can adapt during this time, specifically with catering and larger orders? What kind of food packaging solutions and menu modifications can they make, especially if they have to change quickly and weren’t doing these things before?

Lower lead time to 3 hours or less. A lower lead time helps restaurants serve more customers. Search volume has increased for day-of event orders, with 28% of searches within 4 hours of the event. 

Lower order minimum to $50 or less. A smaller minimum opens restaurants up to more customers placing smaller orders (who may return with larger orders later).

Widen delivery area to 10–20 miles. There’s no one-size-fits-all delivery area. It depends on capacity, neighborhood, and more. Restaurants should choose the delivery area that makes sense for their business.

Reduce delivery fees. Restaurants should consider lowering delivery fees in tandem with lowering order minimums. Many restaurants, grocery providers, and third parties are reducing or eliminating delivery fees to give customers easy access to food. If possible, make them $0 during this time. 

Offer more individually packaged options. There’s increasing demand for individually packaged meals, with some companies requiring that all catering orders be individually packaged. 

What role has ezCater played, and how do you plan to keep helping restaurants?

We’re still working every day to help restaurants reach as many customers as they can. To meet the increasing demand for individually packaged menu items, we released a filter on that makes finding catering partners with individually packaged menu items easy. We’re also working with our partners to update menus to feature these items more prominently, or add new items to their menus. 

We’ve also waived all commissions. As of March 16, ezCater will take zero commission on all orders fulfilled through April 15, 2020. We’re nothing without our partners. 

More broadly, in talking to operators, what are some of the biggest concerns you’ve heard during this crisis? What advice can you give?

Restaurants are asking how they can be sure they are set up for delivery and takeout success. They want to know more about digital tools, and how they can get more orders. Plus, they want advice on how they can keep the lights on, and keep employees on staff. 

My advice: 

  • Make sure your website can take online orders, and be everywhere: GoogleMaps, ezCater, DoorDash, UberEats, GrubHub, etc.   
  • Keep your menu simple and prioritize high margin items. 
  • Get the word out to your local community that you are open.

How do you think this will change the industry? In other words, what will look like on the other side?

Digital focus. Restaurants need to embrace digital if they haven’t already. Now more than ever, restaurants need to figure out how to extend their exceptional guest experience beyond their four walls. 

More restaurant formats. Years ago, restaurant success hinged on location and the in-house experience. But decreased foot traffic and evolving customer needs means restaurants no longer come in one shape or size. Kiosks, ghost kitchens, and online-only concepts are just some examples of what we’ll see in greater numbers. 

Increased labor constraints. Even before coronavirus, a top challenge for nearly every restaurant was staffing. Restaurants will lean more on technology and third parties to automate or outsource parts of their operation so their staff can focus on the food. Catering is a great way to grow their business. It takes less work to fulfill a $300 catering order than it does to fulfill 30 individual $10 orders. Additionally, catering orders are prepared outside of the typical breakfast and lunch rushes, keeping employees active throughout the day.