Olo And How Order Ahead Levels The Playing Field In Food

Red Robin Balances Mobile Ordering With Dine-In

The secret of sales, Olo CEO Noah Glass told PYMNTS in a recent conversation, was first explained to him early in his career by a mentor.  The situation, he said, is best pictured as you and the person or merchant you are selling to both holding sides of a rope — no matter how much you want to push the rope at them, it won’t work unless they are willing to pull the rope.

Glass said he thought about that a lot during Olo’s early days in 2005, when they were trying to push a mobile order ahead platform with restaurants that really didn’t quite understand the concept in a world that was mostly dominated by feature phones.

“In our early years, it was like pushing a rope — we offered this service and merchants were like ‘why would I want this?’”

Smartphones, at this point, were more a future conjecture than a reality — only 5 percent of customers had a phone that could even charitably be described as smart, and in the early days of the service, when it was still mobile order ahead via SMS message — most restaurants weren’t getting the vision.

But Glass persisted. Standing in line at his favorite coffee shop every morning waiting for a cup with the throng each day convinced him that the world was going mobile — and when it did, mobile order ahead was going to make life better for him and a lot of consumers.  In fact, he was so sure of that, he decided to withdraw his admission to Harvard business school to build that platform. As Glass put it, his parents were “mildly terrified but supportive,” and, after some raising so early funding to get it built, Olo was born.

From Inauspicious Beginnings

Even in the early rope pushing days, Olo found adherents to the mobile order ahead concept like SweetGreen, Chipotle and Five Guys — all of whom had a reason for needing the service early on.

“FiveGuys for example, had a very specific use case. They wanted it because their burgers took a while to prepare, and so they would get a lot of orders over the phone.  However, they didn’t have a secure way to take payments — so they would take the order and hope people showed up to get them. So they told us ‘we want to make sure people are paying when they are ordering because we are throwing out $10K in food per year from people not picking up orders.’ So we could really help them both save staff time and eliminate waste, just by tying payments to those orders.”

And, as the technology evolved, Olo found it was pushing less and less rope — merchants were starting to understand what Olo could do.  It didn’t hurt that Olo could do more — it progressed from SMS ordering, to mobile web ordering, to providing the app ordering experience that most consumers know and love today.

“These days, we are the leading digital ordering provider around the nation. We work with over 160 restaurant brands to build their white label online ordering platform mobile app — that can be order ahead pay ahead or customers getting their food via delivery. All told, 30 thousand restaurants are on the platform — and we have about 45 million consumers who are using us to order ahead and skip the line.”

Olo has also expanded what it does, Glass noted, as it's been upgrading its platform allow restaurants to offer delivery — without actually having to build up its own infrastructure to support it.

“We also have been operationalizing delivery through a nationwide network of  3rd party delivery couriers called Dispatch. The customer pays for their meal, they can also pay for delivery — and those funds flow through our platform to the delivery provider and the restaurant respectively.”

The goal, he said — for Olo and the restaurants it serves — is two fold.  The first is to tap into the digital consumer, and realize that at all times there is an access point ready to be used.  The second is to realize that the digital consumer isn’t the same consumer that existed ten years ago, now with a better phone.  This customer is on-the-go and expects most of its services to follow suit.

“I think those two things and these restaurants seeing the early success from brands like Panera and Starbucks has really kicked off a new arms race when it comes to convenience for the on-demand consumer.”

And recently, Olo has helped another big name in chain restaurants up the level of is competitive game — by helping bring order ahead to Red Robin.

Red Robin Goes Order Ahead

Red Robin has recently, with Olo’s help, made it easier for consumers to get their hands on grommet burgers faster with the nationwide launch of its online order platform.  On desktop or mobile, consumers can now go to the Red Robin site, place their orders, schedule pick-up times and pay.  The food will be ready, cooked to order and on time.

“What makes Red Robin special,” Glass noted, “is that from the top down they are fully committed to not just bringing it in as a side project, but really adapting the business to this.  Starting with the CEO Denny Post, they have really bought into digital ordering being a revolutionary moment within the industry — not just an evolutionary moment.  She sees it as a critical strategic element of Red Robin’s future.”

Olo also hinted — though could not confirm since Red Robin is “publicly traded” — that mobile order ahead was more the beginning of Red Robin’s digital adventures than the conclusion — but did note the world would have to “wait and see.”

What’s Next

The biggest change that comes with mobile order ahead and delivery on demand expanding is that in many ways it will change how customers see convenience food — as the distinction between what someone really wants to eat, and what they can get ahold of quickly, dissolves to an increasingly degree.

“What we are seeing is mobile order ahead neutralizing the convenience advantage of fast food players because of the power of made-in-advance and made-to-order.  So you can have a Red Robin gourmet burger the way you like it ready on time, or you can have a pre-made fast food experience. And I think may consumers, holding convenience equal between the two places, are going to pick Red Robin over fast food ten times out of ten.”

Fast casual can go where where only quick service has gone before — low wait or no wait service.

How will the world of food look when that playing field is level?  That remains to be seen.  But it seems like a sure bet that consumers will spend less time waiting and more time eating what they actually want as opposed to what they happened across.



The September 2020 Leveraging The Digital Banking Shift Study, PYMNTS examines consumers’ growing use of online and mobile tools to open and manage accounts as well as the factors that are paramount in building and maintaining trust in the current economic environment. The report is based on a survey of nearly 2,200 account-holding U.S. consumers.

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