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In today’s virtual restaurant model, some hallmarks of industry success remain.

It’s no secret that the restaurant business is undergoing a radical transformation with skyrocketing growth of delivery-only cuisine and off-premises dining becoming the new norm. This has created great opportunity, but also many new challenges around how SMB restaurants must realign to take advantage of the new Restaurant 2.0 ecommerce-first world. But in all the excitement, are we missing the most important point—the one that has always been the hallmark of successful restaurants—undeniably delicious food?

Growing up in the restaurant business at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, I know firsthand that it all begins and ends with the quality of your food. You can do everything else right, but if the customers are not craving your hot corned beef sandwich, returning for more, and singing its praises to all of their friends, it is all for nothing. In today’s virtual restaurant model, it’s no different. Success is still all about serving delicious cuisine at reasonable prices, and securing a solid base of regular, loyal diners.

Changing Perceptions

The challenge is how to overcome the longstanding negative connotations associated with delivery food—it’s been sitting in a car, it’s cold, it’s soggy, it’s smashed to one side, it’s visually unappealing—and on and on. These complaints are valid and not outlandish—they are the outgrowth of a system that tacked on to-go orders, or more recently delivery, and didn’t reimagine how to optimize the menus, preparation, packaging, and dining experience for the delivery-only model.

As leaders in virtual restaurant brand development, we are obsessed with ensuring that delivery-only dishes will make customers crave your cuisine and choose to reorder again and again. First impressions matter, and most of the time it is hard to get a do-over when there are so many other food options. A recent study from Wisely revealed that 24 percent of a restaurant’s revenue comes from the top 5 percent of customers. Repeat purchase behavior is critical.

SMB restaurants are currently challenged on many fronts, but getting the food experience right must be job number one. To accomplish this at Nextbite, we’re developing a full suite of evergreen on-trend brands designed to delight customers, as well as technology and services to help our restaurant partners compete and win by providing customers with the best experience.

Culinary Excellence with a Spark

The right chef can make all the difference in a top restaurant, and in the virtual arena it is also critical to have innovative leadership that understands the unique supply chain, culinary and operational issues involved in developing winning delivery-only brands. At Nextbite, our culinary director, Jeff Haskell, was an “Iron Chef” winner and had been at the helm of several highly rated NYC restaurants. His leadership in developing our menus includes a passion for creating traditional foods with an innovative twist, that are easy to prepare, and that will be delicious upon arrival. He works closely with our food and beverage brand experts to develop on-trend recipes and menus, supply-chain specialists to ensure nationwide scalability of our concepts, and culinary trainers to validate that menus can easily scale to hundreds of kitchens.

Quality Cuisine and Hospitality

When it comes to food quality, virtual restaurants must delight customers with great food and value, but also monitor for excellence consistently. In a brick and mortar restaurant, you can chat with diners to get immediate feedback, but in delivery-only you have fewer direct options other than carefully watching customer ratings. At Nextbite, we operate a full-fledged professional test kitchen staffed by line chefs and run by a food experience expert to test new menus that we want to bring to market. For every ten brands tested, fewer than one third will be released to fulfillment partners. And as we roll out new concepts to other locations, we include a QR code in all of our packaging for an easy direct consumer response. In the initial stages of menu development and brand launch we also solicit feedback from culinary staff and run focus groups with consumers to be sure our brands delight customers.

One example of how we designed our menus for the highest quality is with George Lopez Tacos: after starting in the test kitchen with a menu that delivered tacos ready to eat, we learned that the tortillas could get soggy and that tacos could easily fall apart in transit. That led us to decide to modify the menu, allowing customers to get the ready-to-eat ingredients delivered with an assortment of delicious meats, sauces and add-ons, for an easy family-style meal that each family member could then use to build their own. This assures that each taco is put together to the diner’s liking and that the ingredients are the most appetizing.

In addition to all of the above, Nextbite continually monitors reviews from all delivery services and uses this data to identify fulfillment partners that require additional training. Further, we use technology to monitor over a dozen other success criteria in order to proactively identify and address partner performance issues that impact customer experience. Leading this data effort is a large science team staffed with PhDs in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Full Business Partnership

As a virtual restaurant, a close partnership between the restaurant and company developing the virtual concept is vital to ensure a quality menu is fulfilled from beginning to end. In addition to providing the necessary training, they should offer ongoing support, a reliable supply chain, and drive local customer demands. The virtual restaurants need to have professional branding, packaging and a data-driven marketing program to ensure that orders roll in. And, the last thing restaurant workers want to worry about is technology, so make sure that adding an extra menu to your kitchen is simple, with a plug and play console, like Ordermark, that can seamlessly integrate your in-house menu with the new virtual restaurant concepts you are fulfilling.

It’s an exciting time to be part of this new phase in the restaurant business, but it is not the time to get distracted from our core purpose—cooking up delicious food that will keep the customers coming back for more. Remember, it’s all about the food.

Alex Canter, CEO and co-founder of Ordermark/Nextbite, is the fourth-generation owner and operator of the world-famous Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles. Alex and his team created Ordermark to help restaurants meet the challenge of online ordering and maximize their revenues in the emerging off premise dining space. A recipient of the Forbes 30 Under 30 award, Alex is a restaurant industry innovator, leading the delivery-optimized model for restaurants today with Nextbite, the leading virtual restaurant company.

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