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The blue ocean of off-premise opportunity

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

(Image: Pixabay)

A dear friend and avid scuba diver recently said to me, “If you never explore the ocean, you will only ever see half of the world.”

Above water, enjoying the same kind of pure oxygen I’ve been breathing my entire life, is a more comforting environment by nature. Unfamiliar places are the ones we tend to fear. Yes, you’re still reading a restaurant column. I’ll come back to this.

Speaking of oceans, Olo Founder & CEO Noah Glass turned the ICR XChange’s Mediterranean Ballroom blue during a part of his presentation showing a blue pie chart at 75%. It represented the three quarters of all restaurant purchases that are consumed outside of the restaurant property itself according to Hudson Riehle, SVP of the National Restaurant Association’s Research & Knowledge group.

The chart on the screen seemed infinitely large — and not just because it towered over the audience in a fifteen foot radius of blue.

It also reminded me of the vast and nuanced sets of ways in which people live their lives, interacting with food and restaurants along the way. It’s the mother with busy kids in tow, bolting from dance to soccer in 13 minutes, with no buffer to sit in a drive thru standstill. It’s the executive winding down a ten hour day with just enough energy left to tap his screen a few more times to pick up dinner on the way home. It’s the group of football-loving friends who want to enjoy Sunday games and wings from their favorite pub without stressing about taking up the table for too long beyond the normal order cycle.

“The blue part of that circle will get larger and larger,” Noah remarked, signifying a shift away from the days of long in-restaurant dining occasions as the norm. It’s already massive. Using Hudson Riehle’s stat, $525 billion in food is consumed outside of restaurants each year.

At ICR XChange, I had the pleasure of hearing more than a dozen brands share their past and present visions. Of many hot topics, the challenges of landing good locations for new stores was a prevalent theme. Development teams are busy mining customer behavior and property trends for real estate gold. For niche brands, the challenge is even more cumbersome when there is pressure to multiply.

What if the answer to the dilemma of increasing unit count is right there, inside the blue space? Hidden in plain sight are the customers who are already within that radius of the powerhouse stores, those who need to be better communicated with or given better digital options. Reaching these customers and increasing their visit frequency takes the focus away from leases and construction, moving it to a different way of connecting.


The only-comfortable-on-land mentality I had before my first dive reminds me of the sheer focus of restaurant operations on their own ‘land’ — or, the activity taking place inside their stores. We’re certainly missing out on more than half the world by focusing only on interactions that happen inside the store. Shifting service models and doubling down on a seemingly unfamiliar world can be a frightening proposition, but only if you’re working with the wrong partners.

I don’t know many people in any industry who look back to 2008 with rose-colored glasses, but it did bring about new lessons that are applicable as we plan for short and long-term future of serving customers. Reading market reports from the era with stories of increased off-premise dining and alcohol consumption told the story of a time without gathering outside of the home as much for meals. Under the surface, even among those who were still fortunate enough to hold on to discretionary income, there could still be softer psychological signs of the times like not wanting to go to a full-service establishment and receive service for a ‘low’ check amount. Thinking about both the large and extremely subtle parts of consumer behavior and dining psychology can help us think about how to recession-proof operations, especially as it pertains to serving customers who are simply eating elsewhere.

I think about next year’s ICR XChange and wonder if brands will be talking less about real estate expansion and more about driving sales per square foot, by catering to the growing share of customers inside the blue space.

Jackie Berg is the Marketing Director of Olo. Since 2005, Olo has helped restaurant brands increase revenue per square foot by delivering faster, more accurate, and more personal service through digital ordering. Today, over 12.5 million consumers use the Olo platform to order ahead and Skip the Line at the restaurants they love.


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