As Asheville restaurants have struggled to segue between various phases of the pandemic shutdown while adhering to shifting policies and protocols, one sector of the dining industry has powered steadily onward: meal delivery.
Restaurant delivery businesses like Kickback AVL have seen strong growth since Gov. Roy Cooper closed the state’s dining rooms on March 17, with room for more like newcomer Take It 2 Go, which went live in mid-October. The owners expect that trend to continue with winter weather and limited outdoor dining options on the horizon.
In late May, Jennie Townsend, founder and owner of Asheville-based Kickback AVL, took a minute to comment on the madness that had enveloped her restaurant delivery business since March. “Overnight we had a whole lot of new restaurants sign up and a whole lot of new customers,” she said then. “I’m working nonstop trying to manage it.”
Checking back four months — or four COVID years — later, Townsend says business hasn’t slowed down, partly due to the return of tourists to the area. “Since summer, we have seen a big jump of deliveries to hotels and short-term rentals,” she says.
She also points out that inclement weather drives more traffic to her site, partially from customers of member restaurants that rely on outdoor seating areas. She cites the rainy Oct. 11-12 weekend as a prime example. “Saturday, Oct. 11, we beat our previous record by 25 orders, and the next day we had our second-biggest Sunday ever,” she says.
Townsend has responded to the growing demands of her business by hiring more salaried staff, including Stu Helm, graphic designer, food writer and — up until March 17 — a busy guide for Asheville Food Tours. “She needed help, and I needed a job,” Helm says. “Her thing is local, my thing is local, we’ve been friends a long time, and it worked out.”
Since he was hired in late August, Helm’s most public role has been creating prolific daily social media posts. But behind the scenes, he has worked on building menus on the Kickback website — particularly helping restaurants tweak offerings when necessary for a better takeout experience.
“We want to help them figure out how to have a good to-go menu and the best packaging for a better delivery experience, as well as how to be innovative and create family meal packs, heat-and-eat and par-cooked meals,” he explains.
He wants to increase participation by local food trucks that have a consistent schedule and location — Blue Collar Diner & Food Truck’s all-day breakfast has been a very popular addition. He and Townsend are also committed to bringing more ethnic eateries on board. “It’s hard when we don’t speak Spanish for example, and Hispanic restaurants don’t speak English,” he points out.
To help meet this challenge, Helm has recruited his friend, professional translator Luis Serapio of Descubre Asheville, to accompany him when he visits places like Pupusaria Patty. Having passed with flying colors Townsend’s recent menu taste test, the Patton Avenue restaurant will soon be added to the Kickback roster, employing a tablet for online ordering to help overcome the language barrier of phone-in orders.
Townsend has also added more dispatchers and is rolling out a new service area in Black Mountain. “One of the biggest reasons I’m opening in Black Mountain is to build some zones to set limits on how far drivers have to go,” she says, adding that the next area to be added will be Hendersonville.
Also looking to expand its service beyond Buncombe County is the new kid in town, Get It 2 Go. Asheville native Carlos Banks, a former UPS driver who also ran his own transportation business for 14 years, launched his franchise of the national Time to Eat network on Oct. 15. “I know transportation logistics,” he says. “I just decided with everything going on, it was a good time to transition to food delivery.”
Banks’ purchase of the franchise came with support such as training, an individualized website, marketing materials, uniforms, thermal carriers, tablets and participating national chain restaurants. Banks screens and hires drivers, manages his franchise and recruits local restaurants — there are nearly 30 options now on his roster.
Get It 2 Go also picks up and delivers grocery orders made online, and Banks plans to add pharmacies and pet supply stores soon. He is currently focused on restaurants and delivery in the Arden area, but like Townsend, has his eye on Hendersonville. “Delivery was a growing field before the pandemic,” he says. “I see that increasing as colder weather sets in and not slowing down even when this is over.”