El Pollo Loco says it will become the first national restaurant company to experiment with door-to-backyard drone delivery.
On June 24, the Costa Mesa-based restaurant chain, known for its fire-roasted chicken, will test "Air Loco," its drone delivery from restaurant kitchens to customers' backyards.
As more and more people ordered delivery during the pandemic, restaurants are looking for alternative cheaper and more efficient ways to bring food to customers' homes. In 2016, Amazon was one of the first companies to discuss using autonomous aerial vehicles to deliver packages to customers' doorsteps in 30 minutes or less. But Amazon Prime Air has yet to get off the ground and into widespread use.
With the Federal Aviation Administration recently approving rules for delivery services to people's homes, it is expected more and more drones will be taking to the skies to make restaurant and other types of deliveries.
For El Pollo Loco, delivery service became a larger part of its business during the pandemic, growing by 250% over the last year, and the drone service is a way to avoid service fees from traditional delivery services like Grubhub, Uber Eats, DoorDash and others that charge up to 30% in transaction fees. It also is a way to make more deliveries more quickly and is expected to be more cost effective and convenient for customers.
"We wanted to lead the way and be the first to deliver a memorable experience to our customers in a cost efficient, fun, and reliable fashion in a way no restaurant brand had previously attempted," Andy Rebhun, El Pollo Loco's Vice President and Digital Officer said in an email.
Other restaurants have tested drone delivery to designated pickup sites, like parking lots, wherein a delivery vehicle will pick up the order from the drop-off site and deliver it to the customer's home for the last leg of the trip. Rebhun said El Pollo Loco wanted to take the step of delivering the items directly to the customer's backyard or front door.
He doesn't think drone delivery for the restaurant industry will be a passing fad.
"I believe drone delivery is one of the more sustainable and cost-effective mechanisms for food delivery in the future," he said. "I believe there will be a bifurcated delivery model in the future where businesses will choose to operate in the most efficient and margin positive mechanism."
El Pollo Loco is launching the pilot with Tel Aviv-based drone startup Flytrex, which manufactures and operates automated drones that travel at 32 miles per hour and use a wire release mechanism to gently lower food orders from 80 feet.
The drone for the service is also outfitted with a fastened delivery box that keeps orders intact, which means customers will receive their orders packed in El Pollo Loco's new special packaging — used to keep food hotter for longer — more quickly than it takes for a conventional delivery to arrive.
When the order leaves the restaurant, the food will be loaded on the Air Loco drone and once it takes off, it will ascend to about 200 feet and start the flight to the destination, Rebhun said. The drone can carry up to 6.6 pounds of food. Once the food is lowered from the 80-foot wire, the tamper-proof sealed delivery bag will detach from the crane and the customer can retrieve their food.
El Pollo Loco will begin its pilot at 10 restaurants, which will be selected within the next 45 to 60 days, the company said. Once the test is completed, it plans to expand to more of its 480 restaurants depending on demand and regulatory approval from the FAA. During the pilot, a select number of El Pollo Loco's Loco Rewards members in Southern California will be surprised with one of the first flights, the company said.
It doesn't appear as though delivery orders will slow down for restaurants.
Analysts predict that online ordering will grow this year even as restaurants open back up to traditional full-capacity dining service. The global online food delivery market is expected to grow from $115.07 billion in 2020 to $126.91 billion in 2021.
The growth rate for online food ordering and restaurant delivery has been 20% in the last five years and is expected to comprise about 40% of all restaurant sales by 2025.
Earlier this year, Pizza Hut Israel said it would deploy drones to deliver pizzas. But rather than delivering directly to customers' homes, the company said the drones would drop-off the orders at a government-approved landing zone, like a parking lot, and from there a driver would make the final leg of the delivery.
In 2019, Uber Eats started testing drone delivery for McDonald's in San Diego.
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Four years ago, Bird Rides Inc. boldly began parking its first-generation e-scooters on the sidewalks of Santa Monica even though it lacked the proper permits.
What started as a novelty has now become a $800-billion worldwide business, with the devices now ubiquitous throughout the world. The scooters also became one of the most visible symbols of Santa Monica's booming and carefree tech scene, with top VCs scootering into the office with the ocean air blowing through their hair.
But as Bird prepares to go public via a blank check acquisition, the company is facing the embarrassment of being kicked out of its hometown this summer just as the tattered micromobility business recovers from pandemic lockdowns.
With a population of less than 100,000 residents, Santa Monica is not a financially important market for Bird. But the clashes it has had with city regulators are emblematic of what it has encountered worldwide after expanding to more than 150 cities.
Even though Santa Monica's transportation department was authorized by the City Council to permit four scooter operators, it chose just three – Spin, Veo and Lyft – for the next phase of its shared mobility pilot program, which lasts from July 1 to March 30, 2023. Bird placed fourth.
Bird declined to make anyone available for an interview but in a statement sent to dot.LA, it indicated it plans to appeal the decision.
"We are disappointed by the current recommendation for the next phase of the Santa Monica Micromobility Program and look forward to taking the opportunity to further demonstrate Bird's commitment to the city during the comments and objections process," the company said.
Bird has not filed an appeal as of Monday but has until May 26 to do so, according to Constance Farrell, a spokeswoman for the city.
Santa Monica transportation staff made their selection based on 10 different criteria. Bird was dinged for affordability, customer service, durability, safety and maintenance/ operations.
It performed well in the local preference category, though Bird received the same ranking as Lyft, which is based in San Francisco.
Bird also originally did not make it into the city's first e-scooter pilot in 2018 but was later added back in because of its hometown presence, according to the Santa Monica Daily Press, which was first to report Bird's pending removal.
Though Bird is still based in Santa Monica, its presence has been greatly diminished over the past year. It laid off half of its employees there last year as the pandemic ground worldwide ridership to a halt and put its airy headquarters up for sublease in October.
Bird has had a rocky relationship with Santa Monica, ever since deploying its scooters there in 2017, before it received the city's permission.
"We felt we were in a gray area," Bird founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden said at the time.
The city disagreed and sued, contending e-scooters were endangering local residents and visitors. Bird signed a plea agreement with Santa Monica in 2018 and paid $300,000 in fines. It also agreed to bring down maximum speeds from 21mph to 15mph.
"With this agreement, Bird and VanderZanden acknowledge that they failed to comply with the City of Santa Monica's business licensing requirements which are designed to protect the safety of the public," Deputy City Attorney Eda Suh said in a statement announcing the settlement.
As part of going public, Bird revealed last week it has been involved in more than a hundred lawsuits involving "brain injuries, internal injuries, and death," many of which are still pending.
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Bird Rides, the Santa-Monica e-scooter company that was once a startup darling but saw ridership plunge during the pandemic, is planning to go public through a so-called blank-check company, dot.LA has learned.
Bird is preparing to merge with Switchback II Corporation, a Dallas-based blank check company focusing on companies reducing carbon emissions, according to documents reviewed by dot.LA. Switchback has been marketing a $200 million PIPE offering in recent weeks that allows investors to buy shares of Bird at the IPO price.
Bird will receive hundreds of million in cash through the deal, which it can use to fund its operations as it struggles to achieve profitability and to expand to more markets. Last month, the company announced plans to double the size of its European operation, spending $150 million to enter 50 new cities.
The transaction values Bird at $2.3 billion, below the $2.85 billion valuation it reached in the beginning of 2020. But that was before the pandemic, which drove 2020 revenue down to $95 million, a 37% decline from 2019, according to a deck pitching the deal seen by dot.LA.
Neither Switchback nor Bird's media relations team responded to a request for comment.
The financials included in the slides reveal a company quickly burning through the $1.1 billion of cash it has raised since 2017, with a $226 million adjusted EBITA loss in 2019 and a $183 million loss last year.
However, Bird expects to trim this year's losses to $96 million and to $28 million in 2022 before reaching profitability in 2023. But that is predicated upon bringing in $815 million in 2023 revenue. In pre-pandemic 2019, the company generated $151 in revenue. It expects to bring in $188 million this year.
Bird, desperate to preserve cash soon after the seriousness of COVID became clear, laid off 406 employees via a Zoom call that former employees described as dystopian. The move reduced the company's Santa Monica staff by half. In another cost cutting move, Bird put its recently remodeled offices up for sublease last Fall.
In its pitch deck, the company says ridership has rebounded as much of the world emerges from strict lockdowns. Topline revenue increased 81% over the past month, though part of that reflects the seasonality of the e-scooter business with increased demand during warmer months of the year.
Bird touts an $800 billion market opportunity in micromobility in its pitch to potential investors, a more favorable regulatory environment post-COVID, more durable scooters, as well as consolidation in the industry. It also says it is valued relatively cheaply at 2.8 times 2023 projected revenue.
Formed in 2019, Switchback is led by co-CEOs Scott McNeill and Jim Mutrie, both former executives at RSP Permian, an oil and gas driller that was acquired by Concho Resources in 2018, which this year was acquired by ConocoPhillips.
Switchback merged with the electric vehicle charging company ChargePoint last year.
The Information reported in January that Bird was raising $100 million in convertible debt and has held discussions over the past few months with at least three special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), including former Uber executive Emil Michael's DPCM Capital. Bloomberg first reported in November Bird was exploring the possibility of going public via a SPAC.
Founded by the brash former Uber executive Travis VanderZanden in 2017, Bird became the fastest company in history to reach unicorn status in 2018, a milestone that has become less rarified of late as startup valuations have soared ever higher.
Offering startups a quicker and less scrutinized route than traditional IPOs, SPACs became all the rage last year, with 248 companies going public through that route compared to 59 the year before, according to SPAC Analytics. There have already been 315 this year though recently the market appears to be cooling.
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