The World of Online Ordering for Restaurants


This post by my best friend, Cynthia Roberts. She is going to be getting into blogging in the coming weeks. Please let her know what you think of this post in the comment section!

My husband and I own a chain of three Mexican restaurants in Southern California. We have wanted to incorporate online ordering into our operations for a while, so when I got too big to safely navigate around the takeout order desk last fall (we had twins) and my ankles swelled to the size of cinder block brinks, I announced that I was taking maternity leave. But my maternity leave was not going to be a luxurious and pampered one of foot rubs and shoulder massages (as if anyone has ever had one of those).

I explored the world of online ordering.

For most restaurants, take-out is a good chunk of the business. For fast food, or quick-serve as they prefer to be called, take-out is huge, sometimes more than 50%. We’re more of a casual dining operation, with a wait staff. Still, last year our three locations did 16.2% in take-out on total sales of $2.8M. That’s more than $450,000 in take-out, not uncommon for our type of restaurant. The overwhelming majority of those orders, over 90%, came either from phone calls, or people coming into the lobby, placing their order, and then cooling their heels until the order was ready.

Online ordering offers a way for people to get on the internet, go through your menu, and place the order. They can even pay online. It’s convenient, and the order is right all the time (because when someone is placing a phone order and three other restaurant employees are asking me questions and glasses are breaking in the background, I have been known to get an order wrong).

It’s the best of both worlds. The customer goes home and eats the meal they want, and we do what makes us money – The customer is not sitting in the restaurant occupying real estate and keeping the restaurant staff busy, which costs us money. Added to that, when someone is leisurely placing an order on their desktop or laptop (they can also do if from their tablet an even their Smartphone) and not having to talk with me or one of the other people who handles orders at our restaurants, orders tend to get bigger, as much as 20% to 30%.

Pretty nifty.

There are two main types of online ordering. The first, which is what I planned to research while I was on leave, is a service specific to your restaurant. It is part of your website, and the better ones can even be made to look like your website. The customer accesses it from a button on your home page, and anyplace else you want to place it. Orders are instantaneously transmitted to you to put into the kitchen.

The second type of online ordering are services referred to as portals. Portals are megasites, listing hundreds or thousands of restaurants. A consumer on the portal enters their geographical preference, maybe the price range and type of food they are looking for, and the portal pulls up a list of restaurants meeting that criteria. Then the customer chooses and orders from the portal and the information is transmitted to you.

Portals typically list restaurants for free, but the charges can be as high as 15% to 20% of the bill, as opposed to individual services that charge much less (5% or less). You may get more exposure through the portals, but you are up against a lot more competition. Our restaurants are listed on a few portals. Since we didn’t pay unless the service was used, what did we have to lose?

Then I did some more research, and I ran across a study about online ordering done by Cornell University. Turns it that “nearly half of the consumers [47%] on multiple-restaurant sites [or portals] said they clicked over to the restaurant’s own website to order their food.” This made me kick myself (no easy feat considering how big I was with twins and about a week away from my due date). Almost half the people who ordered from us by the portal would visit our website. We could have gotten their business for far less money if we had offered online ordering. I know of two or three customers who order takeout through the portals at least once a week. We’re giving the portals a lot of money that we could keep if we offered online ordering through our website.

So now that I’m convinced that we need to offer online ordering, the question is, What do I look for in an online ordering service? There are a lot of them out there. Here is what I found:

Branded Online Ordering Site. Portals make us all look alike. We’ve put a lot of money and effort into cultivating a brand and we want to keep doing that. I wanted a site that would allow us to.

Ease of Use. Think of this in terms of how many ‘clicks’ it takes to complete an order. The fewer the better. Stay away from clunky looking systems that don’t offer customers an attractive and easy way to order.

Payments Directly to You. When a customer places an order using your site, you want the money deposited directly into your bank account. This is not the case with portals and is also not a guarantee with all individual online ordering systems. Make sure it works that way on the system you chose. I read an article about a portal that was holding $20,000 of some restaurant’s money. I don’t think so.

Mobile Site. People ordering from Smartphones make up a larger and larger chunk of the total online business. I needed to find a service that was mobile-order friendly.

Easy to Update. Even the good portals are difficult to update. At least once a week we get an order from a portal where the item has an old price, or we don’t offer it anymore. We needed an individual site that was easy to update, and could be done anytime.

Control of Customer Data. When you get an order from a portal, you know very little about the customer. In fact, it is the portal’s customer, not yours. I found individual sites out there that collect customer data and allow you to download it into an Excel database where you can slice it and dice it. The best ones allow you to do email and other marketing promotions. They can remember a customer’s birthday and send out an offer, and track redemption rates, too.

Linked with Facebook. With over a billion people on Facebook, and lots on Twitter and Instagram, the idea of an online ordering service that easily links to social media is a must. They are out there, too.

I’m five weeks back in the restaurant now. My two little ladies are still small enough that I can keep them in playpens and nurse them when they’re hungry. I even found a source for online ordering that meets all the requirements I’ve outlined here. It’s a company called NetWaiter: Online Food Ordering System For Restaurants. They’ve been a wealth of good advice, including how I should do a gradual rollout of online ordering through the three restaurants, one at a time. We’re getting ready to roll out the second this week.

NetWaiter even gave me something I didn’t include in the list of things I gave you. That is a strategy. I was telling my sales rep that as soon as we went live with NetWaiter I was planning on canceling all the portal entries we have.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “Instead, come up with a program to convert those portal customers over to your online ordering website. Let the portal do the heavy lifting for you, and then turn those customers into customers on your website.” The first thing I did was to remove all the links on our website referring folks to our portal sites. That was just plain dumb. Then I started offering portal customers incentives – discount offers and such – to order from our website. NetWaiter is so easy that once is all I need to convert a customer to a lifelong association.

Besides, online ordering also takes me off the phone and gives me time for what’s really important—playing with the baby girls and their big brother.