How can independent restaurants strike a retro-digital balance?

Local and independently owned restaurants have had to make some difficult choices over the last year, but some found that solutions from the “good old days” turned out to be surprisingly helpful over the digital.

As independent, neighborhood restaurants have been forced to adjust operations since the COVID 19 crisis hit, many decided to rely more heavily on 3rd party delivery mobile apps for sales – – a reasonable “pivot” in a sudden emergency.

What some soon figured out was the good news-bad news about delivery apps; for some the news was mostly bad. Much of the bad news had to do with the fact that many independents have a much lower threshold to absorb app fees than the larger chains. In fact, establishments of all sizes have begun to question the value of partnering with the 3rd party apps – some of whom demand fees of up to 30 percent per order.

Further, most mobile ordering apps don’t distinguish between locals, independents and large chains – until recently anyway. Perhaps feeling pressure from municipalities, restaurants and even consumers, many mobile food delivery app companies like Door Dash are offering incentives to support local. However, even with incentives, more consumers would rather order directly from their local eateries than use mobile apps.

According to an August 2020 study conducted by QSR Web: “86% of overall respondents preferred to order directly from a restaurant, rather than using a third-party app or other platforms. Of those, 35% said they liked to order directly over the phone, while others preferred to order digitally either through the restaurant’s website (35%) or a restaurant app (18%).”

For people of a certain age, images of the fuzzy, loveable alien “Alf” using the family phone to order pizza delivery may immediately come to mind. And why not? Considering the affinity that consumers apparently still hold for their favorite local eateries, it seems there’s room in the market for the old-school.

More good news is on the horizon for independent eateries. Pent-up demand for dining out with friends and family is expected to translate to a 10 percent increase in sales for full-service restaurants in 2021, according to Restaurant Business Online.

Independent restaurants can seize upon the opportunity to encourage customers (current and future) to go “old-school” (think personal service & hospitality) and go direct – while keeping open the option to work with the apps if it makes marketing sense.  Here are a few ways that independents can encourage customers to engage with their establishments like their parents used to do not too long ago.

The following are just a few incentives for direct ordering by phone or in-store that could be worked into a restaurant marketing budget with some creative math.

  • Free beverage or side
  • Half-off a future order
  • Free delivery
  • Extend happy hour beer prices while-you-wait for dinner carryout orders in-store
  • Place inside each carryout bag a bounce-back offer to encourage dining in

It needn’t be hard or complicated to promote direct ordering. After all, the numbers bare out the consumer preference for going direct over using 3rd party apps.  With skill and deft, independent restaurants can promote direct ordering while keeping digital options open.

Pizza, anyone?