OREM — On March 21, the burden of a new reality weighed heavily on Sun Choi.
Choi, the vice president of Yummy’s Korean BBQ in Orem, had just seen the worst week of sales since the restaurant opened in March 2018, forcing him to let go all of the servers and cut hours for many of the other employees.
With the novel coronavirus pandemic slamming the hospitality industry hard, the future looked more and more uncertain. So, really as a way to say thank you for the past two years, Choi offered free drop-off service to any city within an hour and a half of Orem as long as there were 10 orders from that area.
He made the announcement on his Facebook page, and the post has since been shared nearly 700 times and has nearly 2,000 replies. In the post, Choi says, “If you need an order, please text 801-691-1825.”
Utah startup Podium has designed a tool that allows restaurants to operate takeout services entirely on a text chain, from order to payment. And the kicker: It’s all free of charge.
“I think it's helped us a lot,” Choi said. “We do have online delivery partners with DoorDash and Grubhub, and things like that, but being able to have a personable communication with our customers and being able to answer all their questions — there's always customers that have specific dietary restrictions or questions on a menu item — being able to text them back and forth, I feel like it's easier for them. It's also much simpler for them for the ordering process.”
Right as the coronavirus restrictions were taking hold, Podium CEO and co-founder Eric Rea heard from a friend who owns several restaurants in Utah County asking if he wanted some extra food that was going to go unused.
His first thought: Bring it on over — we have four kids! His second: Why don’t we offer Podium for free to the restaurants?
“It immediately got me thinking about how rough the shutdown was going to be on restaurants,” Rea said, “and so it started turning the wheels in my mind.”
Soon, Podium’s Text-to-Takeout platform was born, allowing customers to message, order and pay over text messages. There have been several hundred restaurants that have expressed interest in the platform, and 150 of them are already using it, according to Rea.
For the last several years, Yummy's has been one of the constant restaurants that Podium has called to cater food for the office. So when Podium announced the new platform, an employee reached out to Choi to see if he’d be interested in trying it out. That was on a Friday. By Monday, Yummy's was taking text orders through the new tool.
"We've actually been delivering our food all over Utah," Choi said. "Two Saturdays ago we were down in St. George delivering food and used Podium a ton for that. So, I think that's kind of what helped our reach beyond just where we're currently located at."
Choi said that he’s seen his customer database grow from about 2,500 to around 4,000 people in less than a month using the new tool.
It’s been a lifeline to many restaurants that are dealing with new restrictions and a new way of doing business — giving them a tool to help with curbside delivery and allowing customers to place orders at all hours of the day and night. Rea said he has received a number of messages from Utah restaurants thanking him and the company for providing the service.
“Los Hermanos is my family's restaurant for 31 years,” said one message Rea read. “This free service has been a game-changer for us during the takeout-only time, my parents, as well as myself, can't express our gratitude enough.”
That was exactly the type of help Rea was hoping Podium could provide.
“We feel really grateful that we're in the position to help the community right now,” Rea said. “We're a business, and so our goal is to help our customers and make money, but during this time it's been a really special thing for us to help these businesses who need the most help right now.”