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Balancing office and housework while staying cooped up at home can fuel food cravings. Think pizza, burgers and chocolate-loaded desserts. For instant gratification, we are hardwired to tap online food order and delivery platforms like Swiggy and Zomato. But restaurants struggling to stay afloat now want to cut costs and deal directly with customers. ​

​Third-party platforms charge commission from restaurants, which can range from 19-25%, not including goods and services tax (GST). Forced to stay closed through the months of lockdown, cafés and delis are aiming to save on this expense by embracing technology for home delivery as well as dine-ins. And instead of investing time and money in creating an app, they have partnered with tech platforms with a payment gateway. This enables them to share a link on social media that leads to an online menu and checkout. For instance, if you visit the Instagram page of Smoke House Deli and click on the link in their bio, you will be led to a page where you can view their virtual menu and place an order. The link has been shared with their members on WhatsApp. Over the past couple of weeks, even dine-in orders have been digitized with a QR code in cities that have relaxed lockdown rules.​

​Riyaaz Amlani, managing director and CEO, Impresario Handmade Restaurants, explains: “Third-party apps give us little control over how the food would be delivered.... (With this, we will be) able to save our workforce from retrenchment by involving them in food delivery. This is a more democratized environment for the restaurant industry."

Moreover, food delivery apps have lost the other advantage they used to offer: enabling people to discover restaurants, propelled by deep discounts. In the time of covid-19, new restaurants are not coming up and people know exactly what they want and where they want to order from. ​

​For Smoke House Deli, dine-in is limited to select cities and neighbourhoods, such as Bengaluru’s Indiranagar and Chandigarh’s Sector 7. Impresario, its parent company, has introduced the format for its SOCIAL chain of bars. In Mumbai, these eateries are now home-delivering premixed cocktails and menu favourites via social media. Barista, Haldiram’s and Cafe Delhi Heights have also adopted this approach to digitize home delivery and dine-ins. ​

​A virtual townhall organized by the National Restaurant Association of India (Nrai) in mid-May discussed the need to encourage a shift to tech-enabled platforms. After evaluating close to 250 such platforms, they settled on a company called DotPe as the best option, though they are open to other companies too. For instance, Dash.menu and My Menu too offer dine-in menus with QR-code and prompts like videos of menu items. At present, DOtPe’s services are being used by Haldiram’s, Barista and Impresario. They pay a flat fee in the range of 1-1.5 on each transaction to it. ​

​Going forward, WhatsApp will be a powerful tool when it comes to home delivery, says restaurateur Thomas Fenn, partner, Mahabelly, in Delhi, and Nrai managing committee member. Speaking to Mint over the phone, he points out that although one might perceive the digitization of orders as a lockdown phenomenon, it can in fact be traced back to demonetization in 2016, when Paytm emerged as a key player. “But technology adoption will take time. It took Zomato and Swiggy almost seven years to reach where they are currently. Now restaurants are struggling to stay afloat. Although digitizing food orders seems like the need of the hour, it will take time to change the behaviour of both restaurateurs and consumers. I am more keen to have a larger playing field, beyond restaurant aggregators," says Fenn, who expects eateries modelled on home deliveries to make a quicker recovery. His restaurant is in the process of adopting a tech-enabled platform of its own for food orders. ​

​End-to-end control of home deliveries will also give restaurateurs ample opportunities for data-driven marketing as restaurants become familiar with customer food preferences. In a restaurant-aggregator-customer scenario, the restaurateur does not know who is ordering their food and cannot access the database of their customers. Amlani believes this new online model will help them serve their customers better. “It’s really about taking our power back," he adds. ​

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