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How restaurants are adapting to the food delivery boom

A food delivery courier puts an insulated food bag in his UberEats, operated by Uber Technologies Inc.
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A food delivery courier puts an insulated food bag in his UberEats, operated by Uber Technologies Inc.

The proliferation of delivery services like Amazon Prime, FreshDirect, and Blue Apron has made leaving the cozy confines of one's apartment increasingly unnecessary. Why drive all the way to the store and actually interact with fellow humans when the same tasks can be accomplished with just a few clicks? And though dining out remains a major expenditure for food-obsessed millennials, many a night out are being forfeited in favor of another "Seamless and chill" session.

Delivery still makes up a relatively tiny portion of overall restaurant business, as the Chicago Tribune noted recently, currently comprising just three percent of total restaurant transactions. But even in the face of an overall restaurant traffic slowdown, the delivery business is growing. As mobile food delivery apps like Seamless, UberEats, Caviar, and Postmates steadily expand their delivery zones and their customer bases, many restaurants are increasingly relying on delivery orders as a significant source of revenue — and they're having to adapt operations accordingly to keep up with demand.

For Souvla, an upscale fast-casual Greek concept with three locations across San Francisco, delivery has grown into one of the pillars of its business. When Souvla's first store opened back in 2014, delivery wasn't even a twinkle in owner Charles Bililies' eye. "Historically, San Francisco has never been much of a delivery town," he says. "Certainly not in the way that NYC is, where Seamless and Grubhub have been a way of life for the better part of a decade."

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That all changed starting toward the end of 2014 and early 2015 when mobile delivery apps began arriving in SF. Now, Bililies says, delivery makes up nearly one-fourth of Souvla's total business; it's the number-one restaurant in San Francisco on the Caviar app, with respect to both order volume and sales dollars.

Bililies has witnessed a major shift in how customers interact with Souvla: "In the years since we opened, the faces we used to see day in and day out, we started to see less and less which would be concerning for any restaurateur," he says. "So when I would run into someone I hadn't seen in a while, I'd ask, 'Did we do something wrong? Why don't we see you as much anymore?' Across the board they've all said, 'Oh, we're just ordering delivery now. The restaurants are so busy, we don't want to wait in line.' So they're still eating Souvla, they've just changed how they're accessing it."

Though Bililies didn't have delivery in mind when developing the Souvla concept, the pita sandwiches and salads that make up the backbone of its menu are happily well-suited to being boxed up and transported to customers' doors. Now that Americans are deep in the throes of food delivery obsession, some restaurants are specifically designing their menus with an eye toward being delivery-friendly — including recently opened Cosa Buona, a new-school Italian-American restaurant in LA's hip Echo Park neighborhood.

"Sometimes we'll get Postmates orders at [my other restaurant] Alimento, which is more refined," says chef-owner Zach Pollack, "and it breaks my heart a little bit when I see a tortellini stuffed with broth, this very sensual experience, going into a plastic container and leaving the restaurant. So there was a very conscious effort on our part to make sure that would never be an issue [at Cosa Buona]." To that end, everything on the menu with the exception of a semifreddo dessert is available for delivery, including mozzarella sticks, meatball and chicken parm sandwiches, and white clam pies. Takeout and delivery combined make up as much as one-third of its business, something that's no doubt helped along by a license that allows it to deliver beer and wine.

While some restaurants are now being concepted with delivery in mind, others are simply adapting as they go along. For Veselka, a 63-year-old Ukrainian diner in New York City's East Village, delivery is a relatively new phenomenon: "We started out just taking delivery orders over the phone, and we'd have the busboys take the food around the neighborhood," says owner Tom Birchard. Eventually, Veselka signed on with Seamless, followed by ChowNow and, more recently, Caviar.

A menu full of relatively delivery-friendly fare means Veselka has proven a popular delivery choice for hungry Manhattanites: pierogis, goulash, and soups all travel well. Birchard says delivery and takeout comprise about 20 percent of the restaurant's overall business, and it's still growing. Though a select few restaurants, such as NYC fast-casual barbecue chain Mighty Quinn's, have separate service counters dedicated solely to to-go and delivery orders, most simply have to find space where they can, and Veselka is no exception: For now, a small takeout counter at the front of the restaurant is home to the phone, tablets, and fax machines that intercept delivery orders, but "it's getting to be problematic because it's too much volume for that small of an area," Birchard says.

Now, an area behind the counter at that's currently occupied by coffee and juice dispensers is being downsized to make way for a staging area for packaging delivery orders. Veselka is also setting up a sort of delivery command centerin its upstairs mezzanine office, so that during busy delivery times there can be a dedicated staffer whose job it is to take orders over the phone, manage the computers and tablets intercepting orders from the various apps, and enter them all into the restaurant's POS system.

Despite some minor operational hiccups, though, Birchard says, "It's been a nice addition to our business. The great thing about it is, when the weather turns bad it tends to slow down the dine-in business a little bit — but delivery picks up the slack. And it's provided an even more steady, predictable overall income for the business."

At Dallas-based Neapolitan pizzeria Cane Rosso — home of the famous $1,000 bottle of ranch dressing — accommodating a growing demand for delivery has also meant making some adjustments in order to prioritize the customers occupying its always-bustling dining room. For one thing, director of operations Megan Santonicola explains, each Cane Rosso location chooses only one delivery app to partner with. "I've been to one restaurant where they were juggling seven different iPads [for the various delivery apps] behind the counter, and the poor manager was about to have a complete meltdown," she says. "We won't have more than one iPad behind our bar, it just can't happen." Selecting just one app to deal with — Cane Rosso uses either Caviar or UberEats, depending on the store's location — keeps the process of intercepting delivery orders manageable for the restaurant's staff.

Delivery makes up as much as 10 percent of the pizzeria's business, depending on the weather — but even so, the restaurant doesn't hesitate to shut it down when necessary. "When we start seeing a huge influx of delivery orders starting to slow down ticket times, we cut delivery off," Santonicola says. "We won't punish people who are in the restaurant eating due to demand from a third-party delivery system. Our ovens are only so big. We can only do so much."