Whether we like it or not, we’ve all had to get a lot more comfortable with technology recently. As opportunities for in-person interaction have dwindled, they’ve quickly been replaced by invitations to live-streamed get-togethers, telemedicine checkups, even virtual weddings moderated by remote officiants. Everyone younger than 50 probably has a story about helping a parent or grandparent learn “how to do the Zoom,” as my mother-in-law once put it.
Food businesses are no exception. Confronting dramatic dips in face-to-face (or mask-to-mask) patronage, they’ve been forced to revisit their strategic plans just to stay afloat. For many, adapting rapidly has also meant an unavoidable embrace of online technologies.
Like before, just more
At first glance, Beal’s Lobster Pier wouldn’t strike anyone as a high-tech operation. The traditional New England seafood shack stands knee-deep on saltwater-slicked pilings sunk into the mud of Southwest Harbor, where the restaurant has been for half a century. Tack on another 30-plus years for its still-bustling seafood pier.
Behind the scenes, Beal’s management has, over the past several years, shifted much of its nationwide wholesale and retail business to online automation and fulfillment. And in 2019, the company launched an app-based menu for its restaurant, allowing for online ordering through its ChowNow.com website.
According to co-owner Stu Snyder, the app was successful, just not overwhelmingly so. That is, until this Memorial Day, when the restaurant reopened for the season. “We could only be open for takeout obviously, because of the restrictions. But we promoted the app more, and it blew up,” he said. “Plus we added more technology. We set up a separate texting number so customers could tell us when they arrived, so we could do totally contactless delivery and run the orders out to their cars.”
Beal’s also opted to continue curbside delivery after it reopened for indoor dining on June 18th – a decision that Snyder views as important to retaining and expanding their customer base. “People are exposed to this new technology, for whatever reason, and they’re adapting quickly. So we’ll keep it, even as things hopefully improve downstream,” he said. “We don’t ever want to lose who we are, but we also have to stay current and accommodate tech-savvy consumers.”
A crash course in course-correction
Not everyone has been so eager to adapt. Ask Bob Cutler, the owner of upscale Novio’s Bistro in Bangor, whose original business plan spelled out his intentions in all-caps and boldface lettering. “It said ‘NO TAKEOUT’ right there. I didn’t want to put food in a box, ever,” he said. “Now we’re doing whatever we can to survive, and it’s actually going OK.”
When the state announced plans for a lockdown in mid-March, Cutler locked himself in his office for four hours to map out a new trajectory for Novio’s. “I sat down with the chef, and we developed a new menu. That was the easy part,” he said. “Then I started working with Square (a point-of-sale and online business platform), and I had to figure how to plug that in to our website.”
The first week was agony: only $100 in online orders came through. But as Cutler and his team spread the word on social media, business picked up – so much so that Novio’s continues to offer online-enabled takeout more than a month after its dining room reopened.
And Cutler doesn’t foresee it going away any time soon: “Why would we? It’s a new, easy value-add, especially for people who aren’t ready to eat in a restaurant yet,” he said. “I honestly think we’re going to be doing this for a very long time. People will expect it. I mean, I’m kind of liking the curbside pickup at Target. I would hate it if they took that away.”
Robin Ray, chef and owner of Maple’s Bakery & Café in Yarmouth, also envisions her Square-based takeout window sticking around for a while. “We have put a lot of work and effort into setting up our online ordering system, getting it to work well and also making it as warm and friendly as we possibly can,” she said. “I wish that it were going to be just a stopgap. I want to see people in the store, have the hustle and bustle, the fulfillment when you make something and get to see someone enjoy your food. On the other hand, I’m an extreme realist. I don’t see us going back to business as usual any time soon.”
For Robin Ray and her daughter, front-of-house manager Scout Ray, the success of their Square-based online takeout business represents hard-fought mastery over previously unfamiliar technology. “There were some hiccups along the way. The first few weeks, it felt like every single week there were problems we had to take care of within a half-hour of the site being open. There was no IT department. It was Scout and I at the kitchen table, unplugging and restarting the computer to get it to work,” Robin Ray said.
But, as they quickly discovered, customers were desperate for Maple’s baked goods after nearly a month without them. “The second week, we had told people what time we were going to turn the site on (orders were placed on Wednesday for collection that Saturday), and I was sitting with the iPad, just watching,” Scout Ray said. “Suddenly we had probably 20 orders come through at once. I said, ‘Oh my god, we’re about to sell out of 900 bagels in 10 minutes!’ And it was seven minutes later, they were all gone. It was shocking, because that would take us three hours on a steady, really busy Christmas Eve when people are just buying dozens.”
Two weeks later, Maple’s sold 1,500 bagels in under half an hour.
Robin Ray attributes some of the volume of those first several weeks to pent-up demand, and some to the effortless nature of online impulse buying.
That’s a fringe benefit that Hillevi Jaegerman, acting farm manager for Basket Island Oyster Company, understands well. As wholesale and restaurant orders for the Casco Bay-based oyster supplier vanished, the company adopted a new business model that is at once technology-driven, a little bit old-fashioned, and geared toward spontaneous purchases.
Rather than pitch its Twitter, Instagram and Facebook posts to business clients, as before, Basket Island began addressing consumers directly, guiding them to four insulated coolers stationed at employees’ homes in Saco and Portland (including one on Peaks Island), where $20 will get you a dozen Basket Island or Wolfe’s Neck oysters, and if you need one, a shucking knife for an extra $10.
“Now when we post, we hope our own neighbors see it,” Jaegerman said. “We want people to walk over to a cooler and see the little sign we’ve painted by hand.”
Bonus: The chance to socialize at a distance
As retro as an honor-system cooler and a chalkboard sign sound, technology powers another element of Basket Island’s new business: online payments processed by Venmo. A sensible move in an era when people are skittish about handling cash or checks, the ability to pay by mobile device also creates space for serendipity and spontaneity.
“If somebody is taking a jog around the neighborhood, they’re probably not carrying a lot of cash,” Jaegerman said. “This allows them to pick up a dozen oysters on the way home. It’s safe because there’s no contact, easy, and Venmo has a real community feel to it.”
By that, Jaegerman means the social-media-style feed where every payment submitted through Venmo appears, visible to the world, along with a short note about the payment. Visit Basket Island’s Venmo account (@Hillevi-Jaegerman), and you’ll discover hundreds of messages of thanks and mini-reviews, lavish with emojis.
“This is how I’ve met people who live in my neighborhood I’ve never known before. Now I see them regularly when their name pops up on Venmo, and sometimes I’ll send a little message back,” Jaegerman said. “I have a family friend in Virginia whose sister told her, ‘I love how every weekend I see Hillevi get a bunch of oyster emojis,’ so she’s far away, but she can keep up with what I’m doing.”
Even when the technology behind the order isn’t inherently social, customers find ways to use it to transmit messages back to the proprietors. At Novio’s, diners use Square’s “Special Order Notes” box to send motivating notes to employees. “That’s always so nice because morale is easy to lose when there are so many extra steps and pressures with everything you do,” Cutler said.
In addition to kind notes of encouragement, Robin and Scout Ray also frequently find jokes appended to orders. At Maple’s, these are more effective than customers might think. Because all incoming orders print simultaneously at several locations — kitchen, barista stand and cashier’s till — the entire staff sees the joke at the same time, leading to waves of much-needed laughter throughout the bakery.
But, according to Scout Ray, one unintentionally funny incident made the team feel especially connected with (and amused by) their temporarily distanced customers. “One person sent us a message asking us to wait to complete their order, saying ‘We haven’t gotten dressed yet!’ and everybody thought it was so hilarious. We just got such a kick out of thinking about these people sitting there, ordering bagels in the nude.”
Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]