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Online Ordering: Is It Your Future Blessing or Curse?

You can do anything on the Internet these days, and increasingly people are relying on the web to do all kinds of things that make their daily lives more convenient.  On paper, the idea of introducing an online ordering service sounds exciting to restaurateurs.  After all, who can complain about making sales before your customer ever steps through the door?

At this point, it’s mostly national chains that have introduced online ordering, many with some considerable success.  But as the technology gets more advanced, like order integration with your in-house POS system and cheaper to implement, many smaller operators may seriously consider implementing an online ordering system.

And as this technology trend continues, many can probably learn from the school of hard knocks Chipotle Mexican Grill has been through with online ordering.  When Chipotle launched their online ordering feature a couple years ago, it was almost too successful.  Orders poured into some chain locations, and staff trying to fill online orders frequently got in the way of staff trying to take care of customers in the store.

How many times have you walked up to a restaurant, taken one look at the line, and walked right out again?  Traditionally, this is how food service has regulated its peak periods and prevented extremely long wait times.  When customers are ordering online, however, they have no idea how many people are already waiting in line.  That created all kinds of problems for Chipotle, because online orders kept pouring in even though the restaurant was already full.

A great problem to have, right?  Chipotle responded by adding a dedicated prep line for online orders in their busiest locations.  They also streamlined the order generation process and added staff for those peak times.

For smaller operators, there’s a couple lessons to think about.  Because sooner or later, you will probably have online ordering, especially as customers catch on and start expecting everyone to provide the same service as Chipotle and other big operators.  Besides, an online ordering system can really help boost sales and customer convenience, which makes the concept very appealing to any restaurateur.

Be prepared.  Internet sales aren’t going to come in during the afternoon lull.  They’re going to pour in when everyone else is hungry: right at lunch and during the dinner rush.  When you first start out, assign some extra staff.  You don’t know how online orders are going to shake out, and the last thing you want is to compromise service to your in-house customers because you can’t keep up with online orders.

Manage order flow.  As Chipotle learned, having two teams, one working on walk-in customers and the other devoted to Internet sales, is a great idea in theory, but when those two teams are competing for the same food prep resources, problems and inefficiencies arise.  Make sure you develop a way to either give both teams their own resources or a way to integrate orders from both sources that allows your staff to deal with them in a timely manner.

Be flexible.  Every restaurant is different, and each one trying an online ordering service is going to be presented with a unique set problems.  No matter how well you prepare, something is going to go wrong.  Be ready to make adjustments and continue to tweak your service until you get it right according to your circumstances.

For many restaurants, online ordering seems like a distant prospect.  But I’d be willing to bet it’s a trend that sneaks up on the food service industry faster than most realize, and when the day comes for your restaurant, no matter how large or small, to accommodate customers coming in from the Internet, be prepared.

About Greg McGuire

Greg has blogged about the food service industry for years and has been published in industry magazines, like Independent Restaurateur and industry blogs like Restaurant SmartBrief. He lives in Colorado with his wife and two sons and enjoys reading, live music, and the great outdoors.

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