By Sophie Bolich, The Cap Times

When new owners took over the Mediterranean Cafe in mid-March, they had to work quickly to set up a website, apps and delivery services in order to keep the restaurant afloat amid the pandemic. The restaurant was previously very old school, accepting only cash payments and having very little online presence.

“There was little to no technology involved in the operation of the business,” said Yina Xia, a manager and administrator at the cafe.

The combination of a change in ownership and the pandemic brought new technology into play for the restaurant, which now uses Square for mobile payments and offers delivery through third party services like Grubhub and EatStreet. Xia said that the services’ commissions (typically 12-30%) take a toll on the business. 

While services like third-party delivery, online ordering, mobile payment and apps, as well as improved sanitation methods, have allowed restaurants to stay in business during the pandemic, these can be costly for small, local establishments. Many restaurants have added new technology, while others have intentionally not changed.

All have had to weigh the benefits and convenience against the drawbacks and costs.

“It’s quite a challenge, actually, because a lot of platforms’ commission rates are pretty high, and our margins are very thin,” Xia said. 

Despite the challenges, Med Cafe has done well through the pandemic, a success that Xia attributes to a loyal customer base from the past 26 years. 

“We have been around for a long time,” she said. “We’re lucky enough that our community actually orders through our website … so we’re able to get a lot of orders for ourselves rather than going through the delivery platforms.” 

Mediterranean Cafe has been on social media for a while, but previously posted infrequently to announce specials and updates. Now, Xia said, social media is the main way that staff stay connected with the customers. 

“Before the pandemic, we were able to talk to our customers in person,” Xia said. 

The cafe also partnered with Starship, a robot delivery service. The service has also been used since fall 2019 by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s housing department to deliver dining hall food to students. 

“Our previous customer base was people of an older generation,” Xia said. “Right now, because we have been increasing our use of technology, we are attracting a lot of the younger crowd as well. So that really helps.” 

Phone it in 

Another restaurant that chose a more traditional approach is Plaka Taverna. Owner Beth Fatsis said she veered away from third party delivery, opting for phone-in orders and pickup only. Fatsis said the process was “a bit hairy” in the beginning, but staff quickly adjusted after adding a second phone line.

“We didn’t transition to internet ordering and I have my reasons, which are: I like to talk to the customers myself,” Fatsis said. She prefers to take orders via phone because she has a sense of how long each dish will take and can better coordinate a pickup so that the food isn’t sitting out. 

Now that some restaurants are reopening for dine-in service, owners are seeking ways to maintain a sanitized space. One approach is eliminating touchpoints like menus.

Jeff Spear, general manager at Graze, knew that reusable menus were out of the question but didn’t like the idea of throwing out single-use menus. The restaurant now presents patrons with a touchless QR code that opens an online menu on their individual smartphones. 

“Most folks think it’s pretty fun,” said Spear. Other nearby restaurants, including Heritage Tavern, are using the same method.

Graze is also installed an air purifier that uses bipolar ionization technology to clean the air. 

“That technology is very much a comfort to our staff,” Spears said. “First and foremost, we’re spending hours at a time, five days a week, here at the restaurant. And it’s a great thing to be able to broadcast to the customers that we’re trying to keep the facility itself as clean as possible during these strange times.” 

Graze uses EatStreet, a Madison-based company, for delivery and takeout.

“We thought for multiple weeks about trying to create our own delivery system, but that was a task that was just a little bit too large for us to accomplish,” Spear said. 

Delivery decisions

Third party delivery services such as EatStreet, Grubhub and UberEats have grown increasingly popular since the start of the pandemic, but many restaurant owners say that the services’ sometimes steep commission rates do more harm than good. Juggling limited staff and tight budgets, some owners have been forced to choose between paying more than they can afford for delivery services or closing outright. 

EatStreet, founded in 2010 in Madison, has lower commission rates compared to other services thanks to its local roots, said Jordan Bright, a managing partner for the Food Fight Restaurant Group. 

“Don’t get me wrong, commissions are still high,” he said. “But with EatStreet, we’re not paying the astronomical 30% that you’re hearing from some places.”

Bright said he also uses ChowNow, which charges a yearly subscription fee ($1,200) rather than a commission rate. 

Servers at Everly, one of the restaurants in the Food Fight Restaurant Group, use individual, handheld point of sale systems to minimize contamination between tables. 

Staff keep to a rigorous cleaning and sanitation schedule, but haven’t invested in any new sanitation technology. 

“They came out immediately when the pandemic started and claimed to have these systems that could kill the virus,” Bright said, noting innovations like virus-killing light bulbs and other pricey technology. “There are no peer-reviewed studies on these products.” 

“Yes, we can put up a lot of technology,” Bright said. “But if you’re still neglecting the basics, you’re missing a big thing, and that is not our approach.”