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Grubhub and Chick-fil-A are upping the mobile ordering experience

Grubhub Ultimate adds self-order kiosks, NFC check-in, back-of-house improvements

Andrew Hudson   ||   Oct 02, 2020  ||   ,

With increased availability and popularity in mobile ordering, has come increased usage and order volumes – a challenge that Grubhub and Chick-fil-A have faced head on. Mobile ordering has become nearly ubiquitous on college campuses in recent years, with more universities adding the service to its portfolio than ever before.

Grubhub is a giant in mobile food ordering, and for the campus environment, Chick-fil-A is one of the most highly trafficked merchants for student mobile orders. So it made sense for the pair to work together toward a mobile ordering system that could both process Chick-fil-A’s massive order volumes and maintain the convenience of mobile ordering that students have grown to love.

Chick-fil-A had been partnered with Tapingo years prior to Tapingo becoming part of Grubhub. “Back then we viewed mobile ordering as a nice feature to have for students,” says Tucker Perkerson, Consultant, Satellite Restaurant Concepts, Chick-fil-A. “But we were also getting frustrated with the operational issues that came along with ‘non-integrated’ mobile ordering solutions.”

With Grubhub, Chick-fil-A wanted to streamline its mobile orders because the previous method was cumbersome. “We needed to clean up the ordering and fulfillment process and have Grubhub orders integrate with our existing POS system,” says Perkerson.

But integration isn’t easy, it can be expensive, and it’s often glitchy. According to Perkerson, Grubhub didn’t have a POS system that could integrate with existing POS systems already in place at on-campus Chick-fil-A locations. At least in part, that’s because those POS systems are dictated by the campus and their food service or other contracts.

This is where Grubhub Ultimate came into the picture. “It wasn’t about integrating with an existing solution, it was replacing one system with another,” says Perkerson.

Grubhub Ultimate replaces the existing POS system chosen by the university with hardware from Grubhub at participating Chick-fil-A campus locations.

Chick-fil-A rolled out three test sites for Grubhub Ultimate in August 2019: The University of South Florida, West Chester University of Pennsylvania – both Aramark customers – and the University of Texas El Paso, which is a Sodexo account. The number of Chick-fil-A locations using Grubhub Ultimate rose to 15 locations with the start of the fall 2020 semester.

The Chick-fil-A phenomenon

Chick-fil-A tends to be a very high-volume shop on college campuses – in the same bracket as Starbucks. The company also holds itself to notoriously high brand standards and expects a customer experience that meets those standards.

“Initially Chick-fil-A was just another concept on our platform, and we’d put our printer or kitchen display screen (KDS) in the back of house,” says Sean Ir, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Grubhub. “But that created operational difficulties because Chick-fil-A still had walk-up business coming through their POS system, which forced back-of-house staff to process orders from two separate channels.”

As Ir explains, having separate queues is workable when mobile orders are a smaller fraction of your total volume, if your kitchen doesn’t get too busy, or you’re not seeing a lot of business. But Chick-fil-A does a substantial amount of business, and notably, has a very high rate of mobile adoption.

“When you start getting 150+ mobile orders per hour, in addition to another 150+ through your traditional POS system, things get tricky,” explains Perkerson. “You end up having to add to your staffing requirements – which was probably already optimized to begin with – and you’re also adding a separate system communicating orders that requires additional processes.”

Grubhub Ultimate does a number of things to help solve this problem for Chick-fil-A, including displaying accurate wait times for customers to add comfort and satisfaction throughout the ordering process. It also intelligently manages the way orders are sent to the back of house.

“What we’re able to do now is pool like products together so that the overall operation is smoother and faster. Chick-fil-A has seen some pretty dramatic results with Grubhub.”

“A lot of this comes down to how organized and efficient Chick-fil-A already was in the back of house,” says Ben Anderson, head of campus industry relations at Grubhub. “The challenge with Chick-fil-A, in addition to consolidating order queues, became how to build into their existing highly defined processes.”

Chick-fil-A’s commitment to its tight operational process added to the congestion that it’s back of house was facing with disparate order queues. “But those same processes are also what enables Chick-fil-A to get the most out of its mobile ordering system, because they’re using Ultimate to do some really advanced things,” says Anderson.

Down to how items are printed on a ticket, Grubhub Ultimate at Chick-fil-A breaks order tickets into components and sends those individual items – normal sandwiches, specialty sandwiches, fries, drinks, etc. – to different assembly stations based on the item type and its needs. As they’re prepared, all those items are then all reassembled at an “Expo station” where it all gets bagged and sent.

“So before Ultimate if you were an expediter and you had 10 items on a ticket, they would appear on the monitor in the order that the cashier added them. Every order would be different and there was no rhythm to it,” explains Perkerson. “What we’re able to do now is pool like products together so that the overall operation is smoother and faster.”

“We’ve seen some pretty dramatic results with Grubhub,” adds Perkerson.

"We partner with a store, not only to initially deploy our equipment in their kitchen, but also to help improve the operational flow over time. It gets incredibly granular, and that degree of customization is available on Grubhub Ultimate.”

The attention to detail is almost unthinkable, right down to the type of sauce.

“We’ve had locations – because every Chick-fil-A store is different – where they’ve requested to change the order in which items are printed on tickets. For example, grouping all the sandwiches, then all the sides, and finally all the sauces together so that they can be produced and assembled in an optimal way,” says Ir. “It gets incredibly granular, and that degree of customization is available on Grubhub Ultimate.”

Grubhub Ultimate also logs prep times so that the store can retroactively look at every stage of the process for each item to identify bottlenecks, explains Ir. “What we found with Chick-fil-A was that production was getting so fast and so streamlined that the Expo station was becoming the bottleneck - which allowed us to jointly focus on solving that problem.”

“It’s another example of how we partner with a store, not only to initially deploy our equipment in their kitchen, but also to help improve the operational flow over time,” Ir adds.

Grubhub and Chick-fil-A deploy NFC Check-in

Further consulting with Grubhub revealed another major challenge that Chick-fil-A faced with its first stab at mobile ordering: pick-up efficiency.

“We had no idea where students who placed mobile orders were or when they were going to arrive to pick up their food,” explains Perkerson. “Our waffle fries have a two-minute hold time, nuggets have a 5-minute hold time. So you’re talking about a lot of food losing quality very quickly.”

It became clear that a check-in feature of some kind was needed.

The early inspiration for mobile check-in at Chick-fil-A came, in part, from the chain’s Manhattan, NY location. Also a high-volume order environment, that location was offering automated kiosk check-in that would send orders to the KDS monitor at the time that customers arrived and entered their code.

"Chick-fil-A would have never done mobile ordering if we didn’t have the capability to support campus card payments, meal plan dollars and the like. The Grubhub Ultimate solution has that function already built in.”

The move to Grubhub Ultimate brought new tablet-style hardware to the Chick-fil-A POS process. This marked Chick-fil-A’s first time implementing self-order kiosks at a university location.

“That was our first option, but Grubhub came back to us with that and then some,” says Perkerson. “Grubhub pitched NFC and suggested placing tags in posters that removed the need to input a one-time code. We send an image to the user’s phone of the poster so they know where to tap their device, which then sends the order to the KDS.”

“Before the NFC check-in solution was implemented, you’d see 4 to 5 bags of food sitting on the counter at a time and people periodically showing up to retrieve their order,” says Perkerson. “We’re big believers in a quality product. Our traditional side doesn’t operate that way, and we’re not going to let our licensed locations do that either.”

As for payment options and the campus card account, the message is loud and clear.

“We would have never done mobile ordering if we didn’t have the capability to support campus card payments, meal plan dollars and the like,” insists Perkerson. “Tapingo had that piece in place long ago, so when the Grubhub Ultimate solution came around that function was already built in.”

“Grubhub Ultimate is how we see technology evolving to connect busy customers with the restaurants they love as conveniently as possible … and it’s continually evolving.”

The bottom line for Chick-fil-A and Grubhub Ultimate is that this is likely the furthest foray yet into what mobile ordering can accomplish for a college dining environment. And new lessons are still being learned.

“Grubhub Ultimate is really about using technology to accomplish three main goals: improve the customer experience at the point of purchase, support and optimize the back-of-house with KDS and routing capabilities, and then use visual displays and in-app messaging to help streamline the pick-up process,” says Anderson. “Grubhub Ultimate is how we see technology evolving to connect busy customers with the restaurants they love as conveniently as possible … and it’s continually evolving.”

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