BeanScene asks café owners how they’ve implemented new technology in the face of COVID-19 and an evolving customer experience.
The phrase ‘new normal’ has been tossed around a lot in 2020, as people adjust to life in lockdown with the spectre of COVID-19 looming overhead.
For many cafés it has meant fundamental changes to their levels of business, how they operate, and the way that customers behave.
Fifteen Pounds in Fairfield, Victoria, was one café forced to act swiftly when restrictions came into effect in March.
“We’re located next to a train station, so we’d already lost 20 to 30 per cent of our clientele off the bat because there was no city commuting,” Fifteen Pounds Owner-Operator John Kanellakos tells BeanScene.
“We’re an old school-kind of a café, and the only online presence we had before COVID-19 was Skip pre-ordering and a bit of social media. We had to be adaptable and moved quickly into that space.”
Fifteen Pounds launched its own website and enabled pre-ordering, drive-up service, and delivery through Uber Eats, HungryHungry, Menulog, or over the phone. John says these services have helped Fifteen Pounds cast a wider net to catch new customers.
“There’s 15 other cafés in our area and only ‘X’ amount of people, so the advantage is reaching out beyond that five-kilometre radius and into other suburbs, like Northcote, Thornbury, Ivanhoe, and Alphington,” he says.
“The disadvantage is that some of these platforms, like UberEats, take a large percentage of your profits. That makes it a little bit disappointing, but they have a strong platform that a lot of people use who wouldn’t usually come out to us. It’s keeping us afloat.”
The café has also been organising and carrying out deliveries itself. John says this ensures extra care when it comes to food handling and helps to create a connection with customers.
“You meet the people who order from you, which puts a face to the name. I do most of the deliveries for the café, and I think people enjoy seeing the owner/operator working through the pandemic and knowing they’re directly supporting us,” John says.
Fifteen Pounds has also offered themed family meal packages, including a South American barbeque, make your own taco pack, and Father’s Day hampers. “Everyone is selling a lasagne or pasta bake, so we thought we’d try to do something different and they’ve actually been quite successful,” John says.
“We’re quite family oriented, so a lot of our preprepared meals are made with families in mind. It’s important to understand who your market is and who you want to reach.”
With the possibility of Victoria joining the rest of the country in reopening table service in the coming months, cafés in the state will still need to be careful of how they approach customer service. John says HungryHungry in particular will be very useful to Fifteen Pounds once the café can welcome back customers.
“We’ve put QR codes on the tables that customers will be able to scan with their phones to connect to our point-of-sale system and order,” he says.
“I think it will actually give us more time with the customers, because we’re not spending so much of it taking orders. We’ll have floaters now more than actual waiters, which will be better for our service.”
But it’s not just cafés in Victoria that have had to adapt to the new climate. While restrictions there have been harsher and for longer, cafés in every state and territory have felt the blowback of COVID-19 and acted accordingly.
Three Flamingos Espresso in Albion Park, New South Wales, was lucky to be in a suburban area when the state went into lockdown, as more people working from home actually led to an increase in customers, even if a lack of table service meant smaller spends.
“We’ve seen really consistent growth year-on-year, and come April/May, I was really concerned COVID-19 would put a halt to that. But we’re lucky being in quite a local area,” Owner Brad Petitt says.
Three Flamingos still saw the importance of keeping customers connected and launched a custom mobile app in July to encourage regulars to keep coming back.
“It’s gone gangbusters. We’re doing about 200 transactions a day through the app,” Brad says.
“We previously used a third-party app and saw steady growth through that platform, but it had pretty high fees. We stumbled across a company in Melbourne called Loke.Global, that provides a fully white label app you can brand up for a much smaller commission fee.”
The Three Flamingos app features pre-ordering and pre-payment capability, a loyalty points program, and special offers for those who sign up.
“The app provides us with data about how people are purchasing from us, and the loyalty program and offer really let us engage with our customers,” Brad says. “It’s been a change and people are starting to really notice and appreciate it.”
While many cafés have been able to successfully implement new features and services during COVID-19, it’s important to remember no piece of technology is ‘one-size-fits-all’. Nolan Taing, Owner of three Workshop Brothers stores around the Melbourne CBD and STN in Braybrook, says café owners need to look at how new technology will impact their bottom lines.
“When you open a café, implement new technology, or increase and decrease prices, you need to ask yourself: ‘are you doing it for the benefit of yourself and your customers, or are you doing it because it’s what the café down the road did?’” Nolan says.
“At the end of the day, many café owners haven’t realised how much of their bottom line is getting eaten away by these platforms. We need to get back to some of the basics.
“It’s great that a lot of people are ‘pivoting’, but if you don’t understand where you’re pivoting to, you’re just going around in circles.”
Nolan says for cafés, a do-it-yourself approach to marketing, like free mailing lists and loyalty programs, can help make sure they are reaching the right audience. Social media can be a valuable tool, but only if used correctly.
“It’s important to have that presence and people are on their phones now more than ever. We use social media quite aggressively as well, but you need to think about where you’re based. Depending on the demographic, people in your five-kilometre radius might not be on those platforms,” Nolan says.
“It’s all well and good to have a beautiful Instagram page with lots of followers, but if you’re not reaching your actual customers, it’s almost pointless. A lot of cafés out there wouldn’t have a clue how to contact a customer that comes in every day.”
He adds that there are platforms out there that are helping cafés gather that information, suggesting Mr Yum as one of them. With consumer behaviour likely to be very different post-COVID-19, that insight will be more important than ever.
“A lot of the sales tactics of these current platforms are geared just to the benefit of the customer. But we need technology that’s mutually beneficial to the customer and the café,” Nolan says.
“As much as I want to see a resurgence of people going to cafés, people have adapted to touchless ordering and online menus, and I can’t see them rushing back to lining up in the city shoulder to shoulder. The industry will change, and cafés need to understand and only adopt the technology that will help them as a business move forward.”
This article appears in the October 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.