How to start a restaurant delivery service during COVID-19: An emergency guide

A brief guide on launching your restaurant’s delivery and takeout service in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to start a restaurant delivery service during COVID-19: An emergency guide

If you’re in the restaurant business you know how rough things are out there.

COVID-19 has hit the industry hard. All around the world, people are treading water trying to keep their restaurants afloat, pay rent, keep their staff, and clear product before it goes bad—all while dealing with the grief of watching one of the world’s most important institutions crumble.

Industry veterans will remember how tough the 2008-09 financial crisis was for food businesses. But even that was a slow simmer compared to the coronavirus catastrophe today. In the United States alone, seven million restaurant jobs have vanished in days, and the global pandemic shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

Nobody knows what the future of food service looks like, but everyone agrees it will be short and brutal for those who can’t keep business coming. Several shops have closed for good, and the restaurants that remain are scrambling to meet customers at their homes, even as the world enters wave after wave of lockdowns.

How to start a restaurant delivery service when streets are empty

If your restaurant has not set up its delivery service, now is the time. There might not be another opportunity to start a delivery service when the crisis deepens.

This emergency guide is meant to help you focus on the essentials as you launch your restaurant’s delivery service and takeout business. Several of us here at RouteBasic are former food service professionals ourselves, and we want to empower you with the steps needed to survive in a world stricken by coronavirus.

Decide to act right now and start a restaurant delivery service

Commit to delivery or close the doors—on your terms. First of all, delivery isn’t the right call for everyone.

Food businesses in seasonal areas (such as ski towns) or tourist districts might be better off hunkering down until things get better instead of starting a restaurant delivery service, especially if they have other income sources. Maybe your main product doesn’t transport well in its current form; high-end sushi and other fine dining restaurants come to mind. Maybe the situation is bad enough that you feel the health and safety of your staff are at risk. But for everyone else, the consequences are clear: if you don’t add delivery and takeout to your menus during this period, you’re finished.

Even after a lockdown ends, the coronavirus is likely to hang around, and more lockdowns could happen when confirmed cases spike again. People will be worried about eating out until things take a turn for the better, and it could be months before they trickle back into your shop.

Or it could be years; nobody really knows. In the meantime, if it’s feasible for your shop, starting a restaurant delivery service will help keep the bills paid and get some business through the door.

Involve your staff—and be vulnerable with them

Let’s get real here: everyone on your team—and that includes you—is likely feeling grief and anxiety about their livelihoods right now. With no diners at tables and costs largely remaining the same, we all know someone in the industry who’s recently lost their job. Many are hoping that their restaurants will do right by them, even though this can involve some very painful decisions.

As the leader of your team, you’re the one they look to during these trying times. Pivoting to a restaurant delivery business model means that schedules change, staff may have to do unfamiliar work, and shift hours fall across the board. The industry is going through a hard reset right now. Communicating these changes to your staff and supporting them as they adjust is essential if you want to earn their trust, get them to buy into your new workflow, and weather the storm together.

Make your product restaurant delivery service friendly

Nobody likes tearing open a delivery package after half an hour of hunger and anticipation, only to see soggy fries or cold noodles. We’ve all heard the horror stories of meat still frozen on the inside, soaked buns, or delivery meals that were simply inedible.

Great packaging and preparation can do a lot to prevent situations like this, and we’ll cover how to do that later in this guide. But any chef worth the salt knows that great dishes start with good ingredients. Chef Amy Brandwein of Centrolina and Piccolina summarizes this well:

Right now, I’m thinking about an intersection of the following: Food that’s easy to produce, dishes that people want, and at a price point that is correct for the times.

Make your food itself delivery ready, and everything else falls into place.

• Reinvent your menu for the road
• Focus on the comforting and familiar
• Create easy meals for groups
• Find creative ways to stay affordable

Reinvent your menu for the road

Carefully screen your current menu for items that don’t travel well as part of a restaurant delivery service, then tweak them or add new ones if necessary. Third party delivery platforms are swamped these days, and an order from your restaurant will eventually be delayed. Do your best to ensure the food you serve stays tasty regardless.

Given how quickly restaurants have had to adjust, putting up your full menu for delivery right now simply isn’t the best idea. Start with a special menu of simpler dishes that are easy to prepare and pack.

You can always roll out more items after your restaurant delivery service becomes popular.

Focus on the comforting and familiar

Environmental psychology tells us that people attach powerful emotions and memories to places. For most of us, home is a space for comfort and familiarity, and this affects what we choose to eat in our safest spaces.  

Bring dishes that speak to the local communities you serve. Whether it’s pasta, noodles, pizza, or even curry, the most successful meals for delivery offer customers a sense of comfort and ease right in their homes, which is so crucial during stressful times.

Healthy balanced meals are especially essential these days, as you can imagine.

Create easy meals for groups

With households entering lockdown and crucial services such as hospitals working around the clock, you’re going to get many more group orders for your restaurant delivery service. Not to mention, group orders save everyone delivery costs and are occasions for people to rest and reconnect.

Now, the last thing exhausted essential workers and families with hungry children need is a menu with too many options.

Set up simple, clear packaged deals for large orders, and pay special attention to portion sizes. Think about it: a meal for “4-6 people” could mean the difference between one and two delivery orders for a team of 12. Many will skip the second order to head back to work or their kids sooner.

Will they come back for a third?

Be known as the place with easy big-batch takeout that’s delicious, though, and you’re set for a steady stream of group orders.

Keep your restaurant delivery service affordable

In a restaurant, diners will pay more for service, ambience, and all the extras that jazz up a meal. But delivery is a different game, and most customers will get sticker shock at seeing a $50 bill for the same dish in a restaurant.  

But with most delivery platforms gobbling up around 30 percent of sales revenue, restaurants are wary about a sprint to the bottom. The incoming coronavirus recession also means worldwide demand has a long way to fall yet. Most restaurants will not survive this race.

The solution? Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill here. These decisions are unique to your business, and cutting costs is always tough.

But we can get creative. Promote bulk orders and encourage customers to pay for regular deliveries of their favorites upfront. Be relentless about using affordable ingredients in several dishes, and figure out ways to collaborate with shops selling other products.

Optimize your operations for restaurant delivery

If you’re like most restaurants out there, takeout and delivery will not be news to you, and your staff likely already knows how to handle to-go orders.

But that’s back then. Now, your restaurant delivery service will count for nearly all your orders. The sheer volume of delivery requests—often large in size and full of specific instructions—can quickly back up your kitchen line, frustrating delivery workers, customers waiting for their takeout, and customers in their homes.

Restaurant staff starting a restaurant delivery service during a pandemic

And the last thing you want to do right now is piss off your customers or lose their faith in your delivery operation. We’ve come up with five key ways to prepare your restaurant delivery service for the wave of delivery orders coming your way.

• Review your workflow and identify choke points
• Upgrade your point-of-sale (POS) and order management systems
• Order your delivery supplies now, and buy sustainable if you can
• Reduce face-to-face contact with customers
• Choose: Delivery platforms vs. do it yourself

Identify choke points in starting up restaurant delivery service

Take stock of how your restaurant’s orders come in, and figure out where your systems might choke under pressure. How can you ease off incoming orders during peak periods if the line gets overwhelmed? Can your restaurant delivery service cope with the increased volume?

Public holidays, bad weather, and major events such as an election might cause orders to surge. Consider overlapping shift times during peak periods, and schedule additional staff if you know a big event is coming up.

Make sure everyone is clear on how your new restaurant delivery service will work. Are there any new food safety measures and workflow changes for preparing takeout containers, packing orders, including utensils, and organizing them for delivery. Consider setting up a special staging area and a dedicated staff member just for to-go orders.

Missing an order or sending out the wrong meal are disastrous for delivery—you won’t get a chance to make it up in person. Remind everyone of the need for accuracy, and do your best to streamline your systems so that orders don’t get dropped or mixed (pro tip: you might want to try a free route planner like RouteBasic).

Upgrade your point-of-sale (POS) and order management systems

In the early days, before your delivery patterns become predictable, you may get orders from several different channels at once. Requests from phone calls, texts, direct messaging apps, email, and social media can drain the time and attention of your staff, and both are scarce resources during rushes.

If you’ve been considering an upgrade to your POS or order management systems—and have the resources for it—it’s a good time to invest in technology, especially when you are just about to start your restaurant delivery service. A system that integrates these channels and automates them can save you much time and stress in the long run, even though the training time and resources needed to implement it can seem scarce at the moment.

No budget for a tech upgrade? Fret not. A dedicated staff member managing paper orders and a clear process for prioritizing them still goes a long way.

Order your delivery supplies now before you start your restaurant delivery service, and buy sustainable if you can

Restaurants everywhere are scrambling for more packaging, and you don’t want to be stranded without take-out boxes or carrier bags in the middle of a shift. Especially now that your suppliers may be open on fewer days or restrict their operating hours.

If you’re running low on supplies, get on that right now.

That said, it’s worth taking a moment to see how your packaging itself can be better suited to delivery. Some best practices to consider:

  • Clear packaging lets delivery drivers verify orders before they hit the road
  • Packing meal components separately can keep dishes fresh longer
  • Well-built containers with flat bottoms prevent frustration from spillage and breakage
  • Insulated containers are great for hot and cold food alike
  • Ventilated containers keep food crispy and prevent blowouts from hot food

A word on environmentally sustainable packaging - yes, it costs more, but you absolutely want to pay that cost if you can. As the public moves from freaking out about COVID-19 to grappling with how the coronavirus has changed lives permanently, single-use packaging is going to come under a lot of scrutiny, and your business can’t afford any negative publicity during this time. It’s just not worth it. Besides, it’s good for the earth and wildlife.    

Reduce face-to-face contact with customers and aim for no contact delivery

Your kitchen and service staff are likely well-trained in food safety standards and procedures.

But in a pandemic, everyone’s worried about catching the virus from everyone else, including food service staff. Not all of these worries are well-founded, but people have good reason to be cautious these days, which means businesses need to pay special attention to sanitation and hygiene.

When starting your restaurant delivery service, reduce person-to-person interactions wherever possible. Consider setting up an online menu, collecting payment before collection or delivery, and contactless payment systems for takeout orders. Get your service and line staff to mask up, sanitize surfaces often, and follow proper hand cleaning procedures.

Choose: delivery platforms vs. do it yourself

This is a big question, and we’re working on an in-depth article that goes into the pros and cons of each approach. For now, here’s a summary of what you should consider when choosing what’s best for your shop:

Should you choose a delivery platform for starting your restaurant delivery service?

Delivery platforms


  • Most delivery platforms have a large customer base that you can tap into for sales.
  • You can focus on your food and delivery prep without needing to set up a delivery service from scratch


  • Platforms take a huge cut (around 30 percent) of sales revenue. This can be lethal for smaller businesses running tight margins during a crisis.
  • You depend on the platform’s algorithm for your sales. A tweak could halve your orders next week, but you’d never know that’s what caused it.
  • A platform’s drivers and branding are theirs, not yours. This makes it much harder to build genuine relationships with your customers and ensure that the people who hand them your food represent your restaurant well.

Restaurant in house delivery


  • You pay nothing in commissions and keep the full revenue of every order.
  • You have far more control over customer relationships. When the crisis ends, your customers are used to engaging with you directly rather than with the platform.
  • You can train delivery drivers yourself and offer better service experiences.
  • There are plenty of ways to add perks: special deals, loyalty programmes, split payments, and notifications are all possible, especially with your own delivery app.


  • You have to drive your own marketing efforts, whether that’s on social media or reaching out to loyal customers directly.
  • Setting up a delivery system from scratch can seem confusing and complicated

In the end, the decision between using delivery platforms and doing it yourself depends on your patience and what you want your business to focus on. If immediate, straightforward access to a large market is worth the platform commissions and losing control over your customer relationships, by all means go for it.

For everyone else who wants to start their own restaurant delivery service, we created the RouteBasic free route planner to help you plan your routes and optimize them on the go with a click, without the need to rely on larger platforms. If you’ve decided to run your own deliveries for the reasons above, check out our 1-minute video. Or give our free trial a test drive for yourself!  

We’re in this together for the long haul

COVID-19 has forced the food service industry into a dark place in a matter of days. It will likely take years—and a permanent end to the coronavirus—for the industry to bounce back and thrive again.

But all is not lost. Food remains an essential part of everyday life, and there will always be a place for the restaurant industry wherever you are in the world. The businesses that survive COVID-19 are the ones most prepared to pivot and change. They will persevere even if the situation looks bleak.

If you’ve stayed with us so far into this guide, chances are that’s you.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be giving you more resources exploring what restaurants, breweries, coffee shops, and other food service businesses need to do to adapt. We’ll also take a look at how the industry will change after COVID-19, and what you can do about it.

Need a free route planner to manage your delivery business? Take a look at our 1-minute video and give RouteBasic (available on iOS and Android) a try!