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The Personless Touch

When quarantine ends, will it take “contactless delivery”
with it?

Article by
Charlie Hopper
Principal, Writer
Young & Laramore
Placeholder Image The personless touch article image

Tamper-evident screw tops on pop bottles. Latex gloves on your kitchen staff. Anti-microbial sphritz bottles to spray every surface raw chicken ever got close to.

Sometimes a public health crisis is the mother—and Covid-19 was a real mother—of inventions that last. On the other hand, there were protective measures floated during The Anthrax Scares of the Early 00s (eliminating the vent-holes on pizza boxes, for example) that ended up going nowhere.

Those-who-love-dining-out-but-are-now-staying-in have thrown a spotlight on carryout and delivery during quarantine. Restaurants scrambled and responded—question is, how many quarantine-engendered strange-changes will last? How many do you want to last?

Here are a few aspects of carryout and delivery that may or may not turn into business-as-usual.

1. Contactless Delivery.

Starting late February 2020 your team-members’ smiling faces suddenly seemed loaded, spitting microbes left and right. Get back! Remain distant! Drop the food in the neutral zone and the consumer will emerge and retrieve it alone!

IT MIGHT LAST.

Know what? Folks think they want human interactions, then it turns out many prefer low-contact self-checkout at the grocery—not for health, but because it’s less wearying. They don’t have to muster their faux-friendly personae, they can just be their self-absorbed, earbud-bedecked, own-thoughts-thinking, mildly misanthropic selves. For the DoorDash guy to ding-dong ditch and leave the food on the stoop might continue to be a treat for those in sweats with hair undid. Even if it has nothing to do with germ-coughing.

IT MIGHT NOT LAST.

One of the most depressingly efficient developments of the early-mid 20th century was the automat: a room of vending machines with customers who looked like film noir characters in long coats smoking cigarettes, putting in nickels and taking out egg salad or fatty roast beef sandwiches with pats of butter on the side to eat alone at tables, glancing around for the film noir detective who might be on their heels. One of my favorite ads was for an automat called Horn & Hardart, and the headline scoffs with frank practicality, “You can’t eat atmosphere.” They went out of business.

Then just the other day, my restaurant marketing cohort passed me an article describing “food lockers” that KFC, Burger King and Smashburger are trying out. The article says they’re the next big thing in fast food—your grub is shoved into its locker and they text you a code to come get it. Like those Amazon lockers. Hm. While I enjoy an efficient exchange when I’m dropping in for carryout, I wonder. Is that just too joyless? It’s one thing when I’m in my car looking to whiz through a drive-thru. But if I get out and shuffle in, the food locker just seems too Horn & Hardartish to me.

I predict we’ll feel the same way when drone vehicles roll up with our lunch orders inside. I know that’s happening in some cities now. Prove me wrong, technocrats of the technoworld! [if this were a text, I’d used the shrug-guy emoji here]

WHAT TO DO NOW.

Contactless delivery? Keep it up. I think we’ll enjoy that as a social development the way we were fine with the Texaco man disappearing with self-serve gas. As far as installing lockers inside? Let KFC, BK and SB give that a good trial run. Wait/see.

2. Tamper-evident Seals.

This was worthy of buying TV ads to crow about early on, as pizza companies suddenly worried about eaters being worried. At first, it was a terrific way to edge out competition (or create parity if they beat you to it) and win a sale. Now?

IT MIGHT LAST.

Who wants their pizza tampered with?

IT MIGHT NOT LAST.

It’s an extra step, it’s an extra expense, and either I trust your employees, or I don’t. As the pandemic drags on, it seems we’ve arrived at a kind of don’t-ask/don’t-exhale policy of implied trust. We’ve agreed to proceed with believing your back-of-the-house and front-seat-of-the-delivery-vehicle protocols are firmly-enough in place. My take? I think this faded in importance pretty fast, and will eventually be, like, “Remember when they put those pieces of tape on the pizza box as if that proved it the pizza didn’t have Covid?” kinds of things.

WHAT TO DO NOW.

Eh. I wouldn’t order any extra sealing materials.

3. Delivery Middlemenwomen.

Grubhub. DoorDash. NecessaryEvil?

IT MIGHT LAST.

They sure are prominent now. Special parking spaces. Special places at the counter to skip ahead of us regular folk, like their very own FastPass lane at a tollway plaza. And the costly TV ads they run! This is their ascendancy, and until cocooners nestled on couches clutching remotes go back to being okay with pizza, Jimmy John’s and maybe Chinese as their only delivery choices, well, get used to those harried, hassled, haunted-looking drivers (and their corporate overlords’ irritating surcharges).

IT MIGHT NOT LAST.

It’s such a luxury. Third-party-delivery gets pricey. If consumer demand fades, something tells me though it means extra biz for restaurants, most will be okay reclaiming those parking spots that say, “Reserved for [DeliveryServiceName].” Once we streaming-service-subscribed inmates are released from our various cells and can move about the world, I wonder if the perceived value of getting any whimsically dreamt-of meal dropped at our threshold will remain high.

WHAT TO DO NOW.

They’re here for the short-to-midterm. There will be ongoing negotiations on the price, but for now, just give them their space(s). As the same guy who passed me the food-locker article says, “Let the bad idea kill itself.” If it is, indeed, one of those.

4. Online Pre-orders.

This pre-dates the pandemic. You better make it easy.

IT WILL LAST.

I changed “might” to “will” and eliminated the “might not” category because you better have a mobile experience that isn’t just easy but also, if possible, branded and maybe even fun. It’s your brand representative in people’s homes. It’s your relationship-builder, your guest retention program, your loyalty rewards scheme, your online gingerbread-and-candy-house that lures @hansel and @gretel to your door to see what’s in your oven, whether they’re carrying out, requesting delivery, or just getting a jump on the drive-thru line.

WHAT TO DO NOW.

It. Do “it.” Do it do it do it. Maybe it’s an app, maybe it’s an optimized web page, however makes sense to you—but make that online experience as engaging as a trip to your restaurant.

5. Hacking Packaging.

This was such a great drill—how did your packaging fare? Were you sending masked carryouters off with big plastic clamshells that crack and pop as they fill kitchen trashcans to the top? Or good ol’ bad ol’ styrofoam, like it’s 1972 again? Did you take the opportunity to upgrade?

IT MIGHT LAST.

Keep up the upgrading, the packaging that retains heat better. The packaging that’s made of earth-lovin’ materials. The packaging that customers feel good about (where that good feeling becomes a branded emotion connected to you). With all this in-home dining, consumers have become hyper-aware of who’s doing it right. I went for one of those lent-timed promotional Popeye’s fish sandwiches one pandemic day, and my wife made me bring along an insulated lunchbox container we have to haul the fries home in. She hates cold fries. Guess what! Popeye’s knows that! Their foil-interior fry packaging was super-effective and made us think, “Whoever’s in charge at Popeye’s knows what they’re doing—I bet they take care of little things like that at every juncture of their business.” Well, we didn’t think that literally, but we felt that. We definitely felt it.

IT MIGHT NOT LAST.

Hello. I am your bottom line. Please do not place further orders to stock the expensive packaging that saves the world and makes people smile. It is too expensive. Goodbye.

WHAT TO DO NOW.

We opposable-thumb-proud humans have a knack for sticking with a problem until we come up with a better solution, then we do it again. Keep paying attention. Demand your vendors alert you to alternatives. Whether you personally worry about plastic replacing krill in a whale’s baleen, this issue isn’t going to disappear.

Maybe carryout and delivery will remain higher in your mix than normal—selling more foods without crowding more booths. Maybe life will go back to kinda like it was—that’s what usually happens, sometimes with little upgrades like latex gloves and anti-microbial spray bottles. Or maybe we should all absorb and assimilate our current learnings and force them into everyday procedures—how long before Covid-20 rolls around?

Charlie Hopper, Principal, Writer at Y&L

Over the past 30-something years, Charlie’s played many roles at Y&L, including writer, principal, general enthusiast and creative director on Steak ’n Shake during its heyday at the agency. He is also the author of Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word “Delicious.”