States are reopening, but major challenges still persist for restaurants, maintaining the need for strong delivery and off-premises operations.

Sharing best practices, technology opportunities and key insights from the delivery marketplaces was the core focus of the Food On Demand webinar titled “Off-Premises and Third-Party Delivery Strategy,” the first session in the second weeklong Restaurant Recovery Week focused on how operators can manage through the new norms of the strange times brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the webinar, moderated by Food On Demand Editor Tom Kaiser, three industry heavyweights shared key learnings that will help the industry survive the chaos and prepare for what comes next. Kaiser was joined by Jersey Mike’s President Hoyt Jones, NovaDine Founder and CEO George Istfan and DoorDash General Manager Debbie Litow, who oversees the company’s Midwest, Texas and Rocky Mountain markets.

Jones said momentum was the best thing Jersey Mike’s had going. The brand was already on multiple delivery platforms, not just the big names, but “another 100 throughout the country.” And the company recently rolled out a newly enhanced app with an expanded digital ordering experience.

Both allowed the company to move relatively seamlessly to a world without dine-in, where orders are naturally higher. Helping customers feel safe was another key traffic driver.

“Tickets are about 20 percent higher, so you may have fewer people coming into the store, but they’re buying more product. So those two things have helped us weather this storm,” Jones said. “The main thing we wanted to get out to our customers is that it was a safe and healthy environment—our founder, Peter Cancro, went out with that message.”

Like a lot of brands, the company saw trends accelerate, while things were moving toward digital and convenience already, COVID-19 added fuel to that movement. But for those without that kind of momentum, he said one in-store operational change was pivotal for contactless pickup and to make customers feel safer.

“One of the first things we did at the outset was put spacing stickers on the floor so everyone was spaced six-feet apart,” said Jones. “Then we had a pickup tower that was very visible so they could come in and just take their bag of subs and leave to make it no contact at all. In some stores that are busy, some of those will have a lobby attendant to route traffic to make sure people are socially distancing properly.”

He said efforts there would continue with a company-funded retrofit that moves a second make-line up to the front so it could efficiently stock the pickup tower. But for brands struggling to separate the line and pickup customers, a tower makes a lot of sense.

Litow said DoorDash’sposition as a partner got a lot closer with restaurants amid social distancing. She said those who were already familiar with the operations around delivering on the platform immediately sought to expand that dramatically.

“They were asking, ‘How can we 2x or 3x that.’ I remember sitting down with a partner and going through the menu to highlight items that would do well,” said Litow.

At the other end of the spectrum, she said her role as guide to new delivery partners expanded, too. The best practices she shared were around menu optimization, but also platform-specific tweaks to make delivery more efficient, such as adding instructions for delivery drivers. That’s a key thing many operators overlook, and while it might have made sense previously for drivers to go to the counter and ask for help, in the COVID-19 era, directing them to the food and not to overworked staff is a smart tactic.

NovaDine’s Istfan said another trend pushed along by the crisishas been technology adoption, and with smaller staffs and lower sales volumes, automating some basic things has been a bright spot.

Something like menu management, for example, was already a headache but with smaller menus and more delivery, speed is even more important. He said in NovaDine, if something is marked as out of stock in the POS system, it automatically takes it off the online menus.

But one big shift has been to self-delivery. As operators look to keep their staff and pay them, they’re expanding their own delivery or starting it from scratch.

“It’s definitely getting a lot more traction during the crisis,” said Istfan. “In our system, you can set delivery rules. For example, if the restaurant is using DoorDash as a service but has some drivers, they can set rules to say if it’s in one mile we’ll deliver it, but if it is two to three miles, dispatch that to DoorDash.”

He also plugged his delivery management tool that makes it easier to route internal drivers without just giving them an address and a burger. It’s the same system Panera used before bringing the technology in house.

Another key tactic is order throttling. With all delivery orders, some restaurants are seeing a surge in orders at peak times and simply can’t keep up. But it’s not just saving staff’s sanity; it also gives customers realistic timelines.

“It ends up proving a much better customer experience, the customer expectation is set properly. So if I come and want to place an ASAP order, and if I order mine right now, I should surely be able to pick it up in 15 minutes. But if I get to the end of the order and it tells me it will take an hour and a half, I’m not going to be very pleased.”

That’s doable on his and many tech platforms, but Litow said she advises partners to pause orders via their tablet if the kitchen gets into the proverbial weeds.

Check out the full webinar for more insight from the group and Q&A from other restaurant operators.