A Subscription Plan To Beat (And Join) The Lunch Crowd?

What’s for new for lunch? For some office workers and restaurants, it could feature a change in routine. For the March Payment-as-a-Service Tracker™ feature story, MealPal cofounder Mary Biggins spoke with PYMNTS’ Karen Webster about how the subscription platform is attempting to resuscitate the workday lunch break, while giving it a makeover at the same time. Plus, the latest headlines and developments and rankings of 130 players in the space – including newcomers Paysafe, YouTransactor and AstroPay – inside the Tracker.

Maybe it’s those long lines, the difficulty breaking the gravitational forces of the office cube farm or the monotony of eating the same thing day after day (we’re looking at you, turkey on wheat), but lunch just isn’t the mandatory workday break it once was. In fact, for millions of U.S. office workers, a daily lunch break just doesn’t happen — a study found just one in five employees take a lunch break during the workday, and 28 percent rarely or never take a lunch break.

To that end, some companies, like MealPal, are looking to give employees the motivation to duck out of work for a few minutes (or more) to pick up lunch from a local restaurant without waiting in line for checkout.

Mary Biggins, who previously launched the subscription-based fitness service ClassPass and is now MealPal’s co-founder, thinks a similar subscription model will reinvent the lunch break for both office workers and restaurant owners. PYMNTS’ Karen Webster recently interviewed Biggins about how she developed the MealPal business model and sees the company working to provide office workers with a new lunch experience and restaurants with a new way to maximize the value of the lunch orders they produce.

The Elusive “Real Lunch”

For Biggins, the idea for MealPal came from personal experience. She noticed she frequently had a hard time breaking away to get something to eat that wasn’t junk food. Too often, she said, she would find herself eating M&Ms at 3:00 p.m. instead of a “real lunch.”

While she wanted to create a better solution than eating candy for lunch, she realized there were several problems with getting out of the office for a meal. While many office workers are willing to return to the same lunch spot on a regular basis, Biggins pointed out that long wait times are causing these workers to miss the chance to try new foods and establishments.

“Everyone goes at the same time, and the line is long, so people tend to go back to the same places over and over again,” said Biggins.

Biggins said MealPal was created to help meet the demands of both customers and restaurant owners by offering both parties a subscription-based plan designed to encourage office workers to cash in on their lunch breaks.

With MealPal, Biggins believes she has found the way to do just that. Members choose a 30-day subscription plan, which costs around $6 per meal (with options for 12 or 20 lunches per cycle). Starting the day before pickup, members can choose the restaurant they want to visit between 5:00 p.m. and 9:30 a.m. the next day. The MealPal website and app displays an image of each restaurant’s designated MealPal meal, including the ingredients, and the customer can select the meal and schedule a pickup time. When lunchtime rolls around, they can skip the line when they arrive for pickup, and their meal will be waiting for them.

According to Biggins, restaurants that have partnered with the company have produced more than 1.5 million lunches over the past year. The service is available in several major metropolitan areas, including Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Miami. It also just expanded internationally into the London market.

By digging into data from the MealPal platform, Biggins said she has gleaned insights into how the company’s customers behave during their lunch hour. For example, she said members are more likely to return to a featured restaurant to select a meal that they have previously ordered through the service. The data also shows that customers are willing to walk an average of a half-mile to pick up their orders, an insight she described as “exciting.”

“It’s nice to get people out of the office and to stretch their legs at lunchtime,” she said. “This gives them a good excuse to do that.”

For Restaurants, a Return on Investment

On the other end of the equation, Biggins said the service can help restaurant owners by offering an efficient way to produce meals for customers, as well as a useful platform for marketing and exposure. The added efficiency can increase the value of the prepared meal by 6 percent on average, she said.

“A limiting factor for many restaurants is how many people they can check out in any given hour,” she said. “We wanted to create a way for them to get more meals out the door in a given hour and allow them to handle more volume … and to enable them to pass those savings back to the customer.”

Biggins explained how she initially encouraged restaurants to join the MealPal platform by conducting a series of tests at a Fresh Market location in Boston. The restaurant owner agreed to open the restaurant for Biggins and a group of 22 friends who all stood in line to order, waited for their food to be prepared, and paid with credit cards or cash. The restaurant took 28 minutes to prepare all 22 meals, she said.

In the second part of the experiment, Biggins asked the restaurant to create 100 of its salads with no special requests or customizations. The restaurant was able to produce the 100 salads in just 29 minutes. While the prep time took a minute longer, Biggins said the experiment demonstrated that the restaurant could produce five times its normal output and helped persuade the Fresh Market owner that operations could be streamlined if it focused on preparing a high volume of a specific order.

“Suddenly they’re more profitable on those meals than they were on all of the individual customer meals,” she said.

For some restaurant partners, Biggins said, the experiment demonstrated how they can more effectively use their labor resources. After consulting with several restaurant owners, the company concluded that a typical restaurant has about 25 to 30 percent of its costs allocated to food, while another 35 percent is devoted to labor.

As a result of the company’s testing, Biggins pointed out that some restaurant partners now have a staff member strictly devoted to preparing MealPal orders. This allows the restaurant to prepare designated MealPal orders without compromising its ability to handle the volume of walk-in customers.

“When we learned that, we realized there was probably an opportunity for us to help make that labor portion more efficient,” she said.

Always on the Menu: Delicious Data

In addition to offering restaurants more efficient solutions to meet high customer demands, the MealPal platform also allows customers a rating tool with which they can grade their meals. If a restaurant’s offering falls below an average rating, Biggins said, the company can remove it from the platform until problem areas with the meal have been addressed.

But while MealPal will allow restaurants to tweak their offerings in order to get better customer reviews, the platform currently will not allow customers to customize their orders beyond the restaurant’s specific offering. Biggins said this is necessary to meet efficiency goals.

While some restaurants offer their customers mobile order-ahead capabilities, where users can customize their orders through services like ChowNow, Biggins said she is not in a rush for MealPal to adopt these services. That’s because while these solutions enable customers to create customizable orders on their phones, she believes MealPal’s model provides businesses with more opportunities for efficiencies and is therefore more profitable.

“If there’s a time where if we can do it efficiently and it can be operationally effective for the restaurant, then we would certainly love to have people add other things to their order,” she said. For the time being, she said, the company’s focus will be on helping restaurants fulfill more lunch orders and encouraging the workforce to enjoy their lunch breaks by leaving the office to take advantage of local food offerings.

With subscription plans in place, some office workers may find that a more convenient ordering and checkout process could help make the lunch break enjoyable again. And maybe the best way to beat the lunch crowd is to join the lunch crowd.

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About the Tracker

The PYMNTS.com Payments as a Service Tracker™ is designed to give an overview of the trends and activities of merchant platforms that not only enable payment processing of new and old technologies but also integrate with other features to improve the merchant’s experience, including customer engagement, security, omnichannel retail, analytics, inventory management, software and hardware management and more.