Restaurants have been gamely trying various strategies to stay in business and keep employees working.
Along with takeout service and curbside pickup, several local eateries have tried to start delivery service using their own personnel. But few have been successful, and most now are using third-party delivery services like DoorDash and Grubhub.
Pizza delivery services were well established before the COVID-19 pandemic, but other restaurant owners who have tried self-delivery have run into logistical and liability issues, and ultimately decided to stop once they were able to reopen their doors to diners.
Third-party delivery services aren’t problem-free, however. They’re expensive, sometimes difficult to work with and can result in low rankings for restaurants on social media sites over problems that the restaurants can’t control.
But customers love to have food delivered to their doors, so many owners are taking a second look as they envision how they’ll survive the pandemic.
CHOICES FOR CUSTOMERS
Poor Richard’s Restaurant and Rico’s Café went through an evolution with both delivery companies and an attempt at starting its own delivery service.
“We’ve had ChowNow for about six years, and that’s been really successful for us,” Director of Marketing and Public Relations Laszlo Palos said. The restaurant added service through Grubhub and DoorDash in late March to deal with added demand during the COVID-19 shutdown period.
“We added them because we just wanted more of a shotgun approach and to get more customers,” Palos said.
Poor Richard’s also instituted curbside pickups and later designated an off-street pickup area behind its buildings. Those modes proved to be more popular than the in-house delivery service the organization tried to implement.
“It was really a mess,” Palos said. “You had to have a separate expediter and a traffic controller to handle all the routes and all the details of what was being delivered. We never quite perfected that, so we pulled the plug on it.”
During the few weeks it was in operation, though, the promise of self-delivery delivery became apparent.
“We were also delivering gift products” from Poor Richard’s Books & Gifts and Little Richard’s Toy Store, Palos said. “We were really upselling. Someone would call in and would, say, get a puzzle or a game or a book and have it delivered. Then we would say, ‘Hey, why not get a pizza, too, for your family?’
“We did that for quite a while before we opened up to people coming in.”
The third-party delivery services also required extra staffing to monitor the three tablets and two extra phone lines the services required.
“Those poor staff members were just running their tails off because they were answering basically five different order platforms,” Palos said.
The employees also had to coordinate the timing of pickups with drivers from the three services to get food to customers that was as fresh as possible.
During the early days of the shutdown, the delivery companies’ websites crashed frequently, and Poor Richard’s had particular issues with one of the services.
But after about a month, “it ran pretty smoothly and everyone got their act together,” he said. “It was just a constant machine, but it worked really well and kept more cash flow happening.”
Palos estimated that the restaurant did about $6,500 in business on each of the three services during the shutdown.
After Gov. Jared Polis relaxed restrictions on restaurants and allowed limited dine-in services to resume, Poor Richard’s opened its doors again in early June.
Although the book and toy stores remain open, owners Richard Skorman and Patricia Seator decided in early July to close the restaurant and café until fall.
With social distancing, even utilizing outdoor patios in front of and behind the restaurant and café, “we went from about 200 seats to about 30,” Palos said.
“That’s not going to pay for the prep, food and everything for us to have our full menu available and still offer the quality and the choices. So to keep it running just didn’t make sense.”
For now, they are focusing on the book and toy stores, which are keeping the overall business going. Online sales have expanded, with thousands of products offered on the online stores.
With all the unknowns about the pandemic’s ups and downs, “we’re just going to sit back and see where we’re going,” Palos said. “We’re going to work on the details for possibly reopening in the fall.”
That could include Poor Richard’s own delivery service.
“We are going to look at that in more detail,” Palos said. “And then we’re not going to go back to Grubhub or DoorDash.”
Odyssey Gastropub and The Bench offered delivery by bicycle and foot in the downtown area during the shutdown.
“It never really took off,” co-owner Jenny Sherman said. “There just weren’t enough orders in the downtown area. It’s not something we’re really advertising anymore.”
The company wasn’t able to start a vehicle delivery service because liability insurance wouldn’t allow it, she said. The restaurants now are using Grubhub and DoorDash.
“We do like that it keeps people working and it keeps product moving,” she said.
But the restaurants have encountered issues with the delivery services.
“We’re relying on another company to represent the quality of our food and ensure that it gets there the way it’s supposed to get there,” she said.
Recently, “we had an order for two items that were really quick and easy,” she said. “They took an hour to come and get it, and when they got here, the food was not good anymore, so we had to remake it.”
Sherman asked the driver to wait for five minutes while the new order was prepared, but the driver refused to wait and didn’t return for 40 minutes.
“So these people waited for two hours for their two simple items,” she said. “That reflects very poorly on us as a company.”
Because the delivery companies add a 25-30 percent charge on the total cost on delivery items, “we don’t make money, and we probably lose money, especially in the instances where we have to remake food,” she said.
Sherman added that the cost of to-go boxes, bags and cutlery has risen sharply since the shutdown in March, adding to the high prices the restaurant is paying for items like gloves for the kitchen staff.
Now that dining in is permitted, requests for delivery have dropped, and delivery orders account for only about 10 percent of the restaurants’ sales, Sherman said.
But overall in the Colorado Springs area, delivery drivers are in high demand.
Earlier this week, 190 local delivery driver jobs were listed on Indeed.com.
In most cases, qualifications are minimal. According to a DoorDash ad posted on Indeed’s website, drivers — called dashers — must be at least 18 years old and have at least one year of driving experience; have a valid driver’s license, insurance and a smartphone; and have access to a car, motorcycle, moped or bicycle.
Background checks are required as part of the application process, but DoorDash states that drivers can get started within a week.
Drivers usually get paid on a per-delivery basis. They earn, on average, about $12-$15 an hour, plus tips.
Despite the problems she’s had, Sherman thinks that delivery could be a bigger part of her company’s business plan in the future.
“I think that everybody’s mindset has shifted a little bit,” she said.
FRONT DOOR HAPPY HOURS
Sean Fitzgerald, co-owner of the Wobbly Olive, Happy Belly Tacos and Allusion, came up with a novel way to provide delivery service.
For customers who ordered front-door happy hours, the Wobbly Olive would deliver food and bring cocktail fixings that were mixed at the residence.
“We draped a tablecloth over an ironing board. It was easy to carry and gave a pseudo-bar experience,” he said.
It was fun, he said, but the service proved to be a logistical nightmare.
The restaurant had to define its delivery area and decided to limit deliveries from its Powers Boulevard location to Academy Boulevard.
“Inevitably, there was somebody that lived one block past,” Fitzgerald said, “and they were upset because we wouldn’t go that far.”
In addition, the restaurant faced insurance limitations on drivers.
“We didn’t think that the juice was truly worth the squeeze,” he said, “so we relied mainly on the third-party delivery services, but we also really promoted curbside service and tried to make that as easy and painless as possible for customers.”
Fitzgerald said he now uses DoorDash and Grubhub.
Delivery fees are “astronomical: Right off the bat it’s 27-29 percent, but then there’s other little fees that are sprinkled in, and commissions and errors too. So if you deliver something and, let’s say they’re missing chips and salsa, they have the option to get the entire order replaced or a full refund.
“And so at the end of the day, we were between 45-50 percent of what we actually received on those orders,” he said. “But we looked at it positively — we wouldn’t have that business without it, so we tried to adjust our labor and our bills and be financially smart about our decisions.”
Delivery services have been very aggressive about signing up restaurants, and some services “just show up whether you use them or not,” Fitzgerald said.
He has had services place curbside or to-go orders without identifying themselves as delivery services. The restaurant doesn’t find that out until it’s taking payment for the order.
“There’s a customer out there who’s ordered this and paid for it,” he said. Refusing the order “makes us look like jerks or incompetent or unable to fulfill their order.”
Some services pull menus from a restaurant’s website and may not update them when the restaurant makes a change.
The Wobbly Olive still gets orders from one delivery service for chicken and waffles, a very popular item that recently was taken off the menu.
“Then we have to rely on the driver to call the customer and explain that we no longer have that and ask what they would like as a replacement,” he said.
Meanwhile, any additional items have already been prepared and are cooling off or going bad while the order is resolved.
“We would love to be able to say we don’t honor this kind of stuff, but we kind of have to embrace it,” he said.
Another pervasive problem is theft.
Fitzgerald said that, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association, “28 percent of all third-party deliveries have something that the driver has taken out of the bag.
“We serve donuts, and there was actually a lady that called and said, ‘The driver ate my donuts.’ I was like, ‘How do you know?’ And she said, ‘He had cinnamon sugar all over his face.’ But she’s still owed those donuts, so the end cost is a little bit more.”
That wasn’t worth making an issue over, but Fitzgerald has had to fight a delivery service to recoup a $300 order that a customer didn’t receive. He was successful; the restaurant had the ticket and a video recording of the transaction with the driver.
“But that’s more time, more labor, and honestly, more of a pain in the ass,” he said.
Fitzgerald said another statistic he’s run across is that within the next three years, about 45 percent of all meals consumed at home will be delivered.
“We kind of have to embrace it,” he said.
“It’s confusing and hard, but we still have to just embrace it, because that’s the direction that things are going in many ways.
“I think our responsibility is to figure out a creative way to do it better.”