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Free digital tools from Utah’s Podium helping businesses impacted by COVID-19 stay viable

Cowboy Donuts owner Derek Johnson delivers donuts to customer Bryce Measom outside his shop in Spanish Fork on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Podium has developed and released, free of charge, an interface that allows food businesses to operate takeout services entirely on a text chain from ordering to payment.
Cowboy Donuts owner Derek Johnson delivers donuts to customer Bryce Measom outside his shop in Spanish Fork on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Podium has developed and released, free of charge, an interface that allows food businesses to operate takeout services entirely on a text chain from ordering to payment.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SPANISH FORK — Even for veteran business owners, maintaining a viable food service outlet amid myriad and still-evolving restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has been a near-futile struggle.

But thanks to a new — and free — digital tool developed by Utah customer interactions specialist Podium, a slew of Utah businesses are having a little easier time getting the fruits of their kitchen labor to customers in a world where dine-in options have come to a halt and social distancing guides the rules of engagement.

Cowboy Donuts owner Derek Johnson said navigating the almost hourly changes to public safety rules that marked the early days of COVID-19’s eruption in Utah was a nearly impossible task. Johnson decided, even before state officials banned dine-in restaurant options, to shutter his outlets in Spanish Fork and Rock Springs, Wyoming, for a week to reassess and make sure he was following the best path forward in light of safety concerns for both his staff and customers.

“It was brutal, especially at the beginning when things were happening really fast,” Johnson said. “Every day we had a new problem to solve ... changing operations, figuring out new signage. It was just wearing us out.”

But Johnson and his team did finish the week out of action with a plan and, thanks to a tip, a new way for Cowboy Donuts to be “open” for its customers even as the doors stayed locked.

“A friend from Podium reached out with the offer of trying out Text-to-Takeout,” Johnson said. “We do have a website that you can place orders from but its pretty clunky. Before COVID-19, we were mostly an in-person store with some traffic from customers calling in and then picking up orders.”

Johnson said Podium’s text-based tool can handle the entire customer transaction from ordering to payment while also allowing his stores to be functional, and ready to engage with customers, around the clock. He said the new digital option is playing a critical role in keeping the business afloat and employees working.

“(Text-to-Takeout) is not only working great now but it’s something we’ll continue to use after we’re through all this,” Johnson said. “Even though we’re in our 10th year of business, it feels a lot like we’re a first year startup again.

“We’re seeing orders coming in at midnight or 1 a.m. when we’re just starting to make our dough for the day. It’s been amazing and made me wonder why we didn’t do this before.”

News of another successful digital transformation amid extraordinary challenges is exactly what Podium co-founder and CEO Eric Rea and his team were shooting for about 3 1/2 weeks ago when the idea for Text-to-Takeout first arose.

Just after in-restaurant dining was banned in Utah, Rea heard from a friend who owns several Utah County restaurants and was trying to make use of his food inventory as customer flow came to a halt.

“It really hit me hard that these businesses were going to be deeply hurt by coronavirus restrictions,” Rea said. “And I thought we could do something to help.”

All the functionality any restaurant would need to make an easy move to a text-based ordering and payment system already existed in Podium’s products, Rea said, and he noted that even though the company really wasn’t used to doing business with the food service industry, the adaption was quick and easy.

And, in just the few weeks it’s been available at no charge, the company has received hundreds of inquiries from Utah restaurants and over 150 of them are already using the tool to keep orders flowing in and food going out to homebound customers around the state.

The desire to help small-business owners get through the pandemic also led to another giveaway idea, Rea said.

Podium Starter is a no-frills version of Podium’s premium product that can help any type of business to interact digitally with its customers and process contactless payments. While the company is still gearing up to release Podium Starter, Rae said the company has heard from thousands of companies from around the world that are looking for digital solutions to keep services and products flowing to customers in a world that, in many ways, has been physically shut down.

“Even though we’re focused on helping businesses get through this crisis, this is a continuation of what we’ve been doing with Podium for the past five years,” Rea said. “We’re pulling the future forward for these businesses ... and opening up new ways to provide customer convenience and a great experience.”

Businesses interested in learning more about Text-to-Takeout and Podium Starter can find details at blog.podium.com.