I live in a very urban part of St. Louis for a reason: it is walkable, it is vibrant, it is near a wonderful park and transit. All of that has changed in the past two weeks.All of these advantages now have to be examined under a different lens.
Like many of you, we are staying home. When we do go out for a walk, it is a bit eerie: the streets are empty. Street parking — which used to be an issue especially weekend evenings — is copiously now available. Meeting other pedestrians used to be under the midwest code: you nod and say hello as you pass. Now we hold our breath and hope that we have enough room on the sidewalk to “socially distance” ourselves.
The dozens of restaurants that were at the core of our community are mostly under lockdown. The ones that are closed have small signs in their windows, hastily printed. The few that are open are only for carryout, under orders of the city. I want to support the ones that are still doing business, even though it is a risk: do I trust the sanitation and health protocols that the restaurateur has adopted in these post-COVID times? Many of these places are run by people I have gotten to know over the years living here. My wife and I eat out frequently. Not anymore.
Still, I feel that I need to do something. So I started looking into how to make it easier for customers to get their meals from the local restaurants. If you are willing to take this risk — and there are many of you that might not even go here — there are three main issues:
First, many local restaurants have terrible websites. One of our favorite places has been in business for decades and is about a three-minute walk from our apartment. It has a single page website with a phone number. No online menu. No online anything, really. Others just have Facebook pages, which aren’t much better. I realize that there are many places which are not tech-savvy. But still, there are many restaurants who are. Take for example this group of local places (none of which sadly is in my neighborhood). They have a very nice website. But that is just first hurdle.
Second, I want to be able to purchase my carryout food online. Here is a complicating factor. There are two typical ways that a restaurant does this: either through a food delivery provider (you can select a pickup option if you don’t want the food delivered) or via the restaurant’s point-of-sale (POS) vendor. In our neighborhood, there are at least five different delivery vendors: DoorDash, UberEasts, Postmates, GrubHub and FoodPedaler (the latter being a hyper-local St. Louis startup that has concentrated in our neighborhood and downtown). Some restaurants have setup accounts with multiple delivery vendors. But many of the places don’t have any accounts with any of these services.
The problem isn’t just technology. The restaurant has to be setup with a place for the pickup orders, or have the workflow for how the delivery provider is going to interact with its staff. These days where interpersonal interaction is scrutinized, that means being extra careful with sanitation.
One way to simplify matters in these dire times is to present just a few choices. That is what Grace Meat + Three has done with their online ordering. You just have two menu choices. Sadly, even this didn’t work, and they had to shut it down this past weekend. As you can see, it is a very fluid situation.
Third, I want to purchase a gift card to provide an interest-free loan to my favorite places. This can be done in one of several ways. The easier way is to use a gift card with one of the food delivery vendors mentioned above. The second method is by using gift cards that are associated with a POS vendor. Clover (shown here), Toast and Square are the three POS vendors that are most often found around here. The rub is that the restaurant has to enable this option, and not everyone has set this up.
Another method of obtaining gift cards is to make use of one of the E-Gift service providers. (Everything is a service nowadays, so why not gift cards?) There are two that I found: Yiftee and TheGiftCardCafe. The latter vendor is waiving its setup fee for new accounts, which is a nice gesture.
Some restaurant websites have direct links to gift card purchases, but most don’t. Usually they are found on the bigger national chains’ websites, which is not where I want to go at the moment. And one local chain listed gift cards on their website home page, but the link brought me to a page saying that it hasn’t been setup yet. FAIL!
One effort has already begun, called CurbSideSTL. It is a good first attempt and does a decent job of listing who is still open and how to order and obtain food. But it lacks direct links to gift cards and online delivery services. I realize that involves a lot more work, but given how quickly things are evolving, it would be more helpful with these links.
So, where does that leave us? If you own a local restaurant, I will give you some help to at least get your carryout menu posted online. If you have a POS system and haven’t gotten online ordering or gift cards setup, I can do this for you. My price is a free meal. Now more than ever, we have to make it easier to do business online.