Elizabeth Tomlinson worked her way up at Potbelly as an assistant manager, GM, part of the corporate operations team and then district manager. Now she’s director of ops for urbanbelly, Chicago’s hip Asian fusion concept owned by the Cornerstone Restaurant Group. Over a spread of steaming pot stickers, “phat” rice and Togarashi fries with curry mayo, we sat down to talk about the delivery side of the business.
With a newly opened location in the Revival food hall near Willis Tower, it was Tomlinson’s first day out of the kitchen in a while. She seemed grateful for some downtime while she watched me stuff my face and chew through some questions.
“When you grow delivery, carryout to 50 percent of your business, you really are running two businesses at one restaurant,” she said as the snow fell onto a busy street outside the big windows. “The lines can be blurry of where your priorities should lie during a dinner service when the dining room is packed and to-go is blowing up—it’s just a challenging environment to navigate.”
Founder and Chef Bill Kim may have designed the perfect concept for this moment—and for delivery—with savory soups, crunchy/spicy fried chicken and curry bowls, but Tomlinson said delivery has been a work in progress she and her team have perfected as they go. Beyond the cuisine’s ability to travel well, urbanbelly has steadily improved its delivery packaging, built a catering program and increased capacity to streamline workflow and consistently reach new records for off-premises volume.
“Every time we hit a new sales record with delivery it’s great for us to know the capacity is there and what resources we need on a shift to be able to hit those sales goals,” she added. “If we want to grow [delivery] another 20 percent, what does that look like for staffing and execution for dine in.”
As she went on to explain, any time the dine-in experience suffers it’s “absolutely” the time to turn the tablet off until the kitchen catches up. That doesn’t happen often, but it’s careful for her and other managers to be mindful of antsy dine-in guests watching countless delivery orders leave the restaurant, while they’re still waiting on their own food.
As it has learned from experience, urbanbelly signed an exclusive agreement with Caviar, rather than working with countless other delivery partners they’ve tried in the past. Tomlinson said they appreciate how consistent Caviar has been in terms of accuracy, presentation and use of hot delivery bags that her team is directed to insist for every delivery order.
Going with an exclusive provider lowered urbanbelly’s delivery fee, although they declined to offer specifics, other than saying that the savings were significant.
In the coming year, Tomlinson and company are working to extend the lunchtime daypart at the Revival location with catering sales to make up for the doldrums after the intense lunchtime. They are also working to improve the presentation of packaging after refining its basic performance in recent months.
As the new location in the Revival food hall just ramps up, Tomlinson said she is drafting a catering plan to take advantage of the countless office workers near that location a few blocks from Willis Tower.
“If we could push carryout during this time or have large catering orders going to offices at 2 in the afternoon, that’s a huge opportunity,” she said.
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