By Michele Herrmann
Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.
Joe Ariel is founder and CEO of Goldbelly, an e-commerce platform for ordering food from a selection of restaurants and regional vendors across the United States.
Before the pandemic hit, we were a high-growth startup. Things were going great. We’re seven years in, and we did not know what to expect when the pandemic started. To this day, I remember the meeting I called with my executive team, as we were going to send everyone home. And yet through the pandemic, our team has doubled in size, and most of us have not yet met in person. Our growth intensified dramatically—for some obvious reasons, and for some less obvious reasons.
Now more than ever, people recognize the emotional power that food brings. And it’s something we’ve always believed in, but I think now, in this new state of the world, people appreciate food and their food experiences, and the restaurants and chefs that have brought those experiences to them over the years.
We now work with about 700 restaurants and food makers across the country. By the end of the year, we hope that the count from last year will have doubled—I think it was around 400. There are certainly some chefs in the restaurant world who, in the past, would be reluctant to do certain things. But restaurants and chefs dealing with this turmoil and these challenges are recognizing the new future of meeting customers. It’s different than being in a restaurant, but it’s still a special way to interact and reach customers on their own terms.
Danny Meyer, an advisor and a friend, often talks about how Goldbelly is at the perfect intersection of convenience and experience. The local delivery guys and Amazon are super convenient, but there’s no experience to it. A great restaurant is all experience—there might not be any convenience to it. You’re not going to get your Goldbelly order in thirty minutes. It’ll be a day or two. But there is an experience in the anticipation. The excitement of opening that box creates another magical touchpoint for a restaurant.
In retail, they call this being “omnichannel,” and there was no such word in the restaurant world. A big part of what we do is give a restaurant that has a brand or something special the ability to be omnichannel and reach customers outside of their neighborhood. The pandemic has changed the perspective on both sides of the marketplace, but certainly chefs are getting more creative and are more willing to meet customers on their own terms.
In the long term, consumers are falling more in love with the idea that they can get their favorite foods and experiences shipped to them. Just as many of the chefs may have been reluctant to ship five years ago but aren’t now, many consumers have been like, wow, this Goldbelly thing is crazy. Does it work? And then they give it a shot.
For chefs and restaurants, we create the opportunity for them to make one hundred percent purely ancillary or additional revenue—not cannibalizing anything they’re doing in the restaurant or on a local level. And the production is asynchronous, which means they don’t even need to produce the food at the same time. In the restaurant world, there are bottlenecks at lunchtime and dinnertime. But they can prepare their Goldbelly orders in the middle of the night.
Once restaurants realize how easy it is, and they get their bearings and get comfortable with it and see the kind of magical touchpoints they can have with customers who love their products nationwide, it’s something they’ll never want to give up.
In 2019, about 10 percent of retail sales came through e-commerce. It’s higher this year, and that number is even higher in other industries. In the last seven months, we’ve seen the same level of advancement in e-commerce as in the seven years prior. The expectation is that growth will continue next year, but if you take a step back and look at the entire world of e-commerce, we’re still in the early innings.
Every day, in every area, we’re improving every aspect of the experience, from the technology to the design, to the photography, to the food makers that come on board. We launched with Momofuku recently. Franklin Barbecue in Austin has lines of people congregating at six in the morning for their brisket. We launched Hattie B’s Hot Chicken a few weeks ago. I got a message from a friend saying they’re so excited that we have the Le Big Matt burger from Emmy Squared. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know it had gone live just yet. Things are moving so fast.
We have probably 100 testimonials from partners saying we’re the reason they’ve been able to stay in business and keep their people hired. One is from Chris Bianco, owner of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, who had mentioned early on something like, there are no butts in the seats, but there are Goldbelly boxes now. And there are more Goldbelly boxes than there were butts in the seats, which is kind of crazy. We feel blessed to be able to be in a position to help out food makers, and we’re trying to help out many more.
We want to keep bringing people comfort through food, whatever they dream of, wherever they are. We think that our growth is going to continue in a manageable way, and we think restaurants are going to continue to want to be involved. If we can create revenue for restaurants, helping people get hired—that’s what we can control.