Redesigning restaurant layouts and creating a touch-free environment are about to become non-negotiable for quick-service restaurants (QSRs) across America as they prepare to reopen their storefronts. In the latest Order To Eat Tracker, founder and CEO Akash Kapoor of Indian street-food chain Curry Up Now explains how the chain plans to apply lessons learned from reopening stores in Georgia — one of the first states to ease stay-at-home rules — to its operations nationwide.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s spread and the subsequent closure of dine-in restaurants and quick-service restaurants (QSRs) across the U.S. has sent shockwaves throughout the industry, with no roadmap on how such businesses will survive without their normal revenue streams.
Same-store sales declined by 55 percent in April compared to the same month one year ago, according to a survey of 50,000 restaurants. This drop has left many restaurant owners quickly shifting to upgrade and fine-tune their online ordering, pickup and delivery services to keep their operations afloat.
San Francisco-based fast casual Indian street food chain Curry Up Now chose to preemptively close its dine-in areas before many other Northern California eateries, according to Akash Kapoor, founder and CEO. This allowed the chain to quickly turn its attention to digital ordering services and adding menu offerings.
“Most of our stores already had a very heavy out-the-door business model with delivery and online orders, and digital ordering has always been very plentiful for us, so we didn’t have to do much on that front,” Kapoor said in a recent interview with PYMNTS.
Like other order-to-eat restaurants trying to keep business flowing during the pandemic, the decade-old national chain has benefited from already offering digital ordering and partnering with all major third-party delivery services. All of Curry Up Now’s locations use Thanx’s online ordering and digital engagement platform, and the chain is now offering curbside pickups as well as digital ordering for delivery and pickup. This required making menu adjustments to cut items requiring longer prep times and meals that were more perishable in nature, Kapoor said.
Curry Up Now had experienced steady growth and opened three new restaurants in January, bringing its total number of locations to 11, and it doubled in size from January 2019 to January 2020. Business has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kapoor said, which forced the chain to close all of its dine-in operations. It had 215 employees as of March, but layoffs and furloughs lowered that total to 65 for the chain’s corporate-owned stores. There are now approximately 60 franchisee employees, down from 120.
Contactless Dining Spaces, Contactless Payments
Parts of the U.S. are looking to reopen businesses, and QSRs are preparing to open their doors by making adjustments to their locations’ layouts. Some are creating more space by cutting down on the number of tables they set up, while others are installing plexiglass shields in front of counters and welcome areas. Curry Up Now is carefully considering how to redesign its dining spaces to abide by social distancing guidelines and welcome guests to a contactless environment.
“When the dining rooms open, we are going to have a process where instead of ordering food at the counter or from a kiosk, where you take a number and the food comes to your table, guests are going to go sit at a table, which will have a number assigned to it,” Kapoor said.
Guests can use QR codes or go online to place their orders, enter their table numbers and pay using contactless methods like Apple Pay, Google Pay or Square. Their food will arrive at tables in five to seven minutes.
“We are removing the need for ordering with the cashier by allowing our guests to [order] at the table,” Kapoor explained.
Curry Up Now also plans to remove condiments from its restaurants’ tables and halt the use of self-service soda machines to avoid the risk of contagion.
“Some of our restaurants have merchandisers for soda and for drinks, and we would still display them, but instead of self-serve, we would bring the drink to the guest at their table because there isn’t any element of guests ordering with the cashier, so there’s no point of guests picking up anything there,” he explained. “However, they can still see the colorful and inviting drinks. We’re trying to be as normal as possible, as if this were normal times, but still cognizant that there still might be some risk.”
Upping Sanitization Standards
Restaurants typically work under exceedingly sanitary conditions to comply with rigorous health department standards, but cleaning and sanitization regulations are expected to be even more strict when eateries reopen post-shutdown. Temperature checks for guests and staff may also become routine.
Kapoor said the doors at Curry Up Now’s recently opened Georgia and Utah restaurants are kept open so nobody touches them, and hard surfaces are sanitized every 10 minutes. So far, none of its workers who have been tested for the virus have come back with positive results, he added.
“We’ve had symptoms, and they might have been the flulike COVID symptoms,” he said. “We take the safe route and quarantine.”
The QSR is taking a conservative approach, taking its time to reopen once fully prepared so as not to endanger customers.
“Our view is, we’re going to open when we’re ready, and when we feel it’s best to reopen to not endanger our guests or our employees,” Kapoor said.
Its Salt Lake City and Atlanta franchisee is also waiting to reopen until it figures out what is best. Working at a slower pace during the COVID-19 pandemic has given Kapoor time to rethink his business strategy for the next five to 10 years, he said.
“That’s why I love these times,” he said. “It’s a good time to reset menus, your tech stack, job duties and also diversify, which we have done by selling our food online through GoldBelly, because otherwise, in our business, it’s always go, go, go, and we don’t generally have the luxury of time that other industries are afforded.”
Kapoor said he hopes the decisions he makes during the pandemic will translate into sound investments and stronger customer trust for better business in the long run.