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When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the “Stay Home, Stay Safe, Save Lives” Executive Order in March 2020, employees at Tea Ninja — a boba tea store on East Liberty St. that had only been open for two months — was left scrambling to recover from the loss in sales due to limited dine-in opportunities for customers.

Wenjing Fei, the Tea Ninja social media strategist, said they quickly adapted to online ordering with a mixture of feelings. 

“We (had) no other options but to switch to online ordering,” Fei said. “The platforms helped us a lot (with) reaching customers … But unlike restaurants, we were not a necessity for (customers). The orders through delivery platforms were also expensive on customers’ ends.”

Two years into the pandemic, foot traffic has resumed, and students and Ann Arbor residents pack the bubble tea cafe again. Though the demand for delivery has waned, Tea Ninja’s ordering logistics and interior scene have permanently changed: instead of lining up at the counter, customers now spread out among the kiosk machines. Each notification jingle at the counter signals a new pick-up order from online-ordering apps, including SnackPass.

“SnackPass is one of our earliest partners,” Fei said. “It helped us set up the website and the kiosks’ ordering machines and connected us with their user base. It also appears to be very popular with the students.”

SnackPass was founded in New Haven, Conn., by two Yale students who wanted to  revolutionize the ordering experience. Unlike delivery platforms, the company focuses on pick-up service, which fares well in a college environment. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Chris LeMaster, regional growth manager at SnackPass, said the pandemic marked a turning point for its operation in Ann Arbor.

“We’ve been in Ann Arbor for about three years, but it wasn’t until the last two years that we saw significant growth from 20 restaurants to now close to 100,” LeMaster said. “With COVID, we had to change quickly … We worked on our other products to build deeper relationships with restaurants. That includes our online ordering, our QR code ordering and then the self-service kiosk.”

The self-service kiosk, according to LeMaster, has helped SnackPass sustain momentum among customers even as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. The machines are popular among both customers and the restaurant staff as they expedite the ordering process and reduce stress among staff.

“(I) also heard compliments from the staff that (the kiosk system) is not replacing employees but is actually helping them, given the staffing shortage” LeMaster said.

Information junior Serena Wang, an employee of Tea Ninja for almost a year, said she thinks the kiosks and online app orders are overall helpful in streamlining the customer experience. 

“(The kiosk system) helps because customers no longer have to wait in line and order, and it also helps us because they can also see the options themselves,” Wang said. 

LeMaster said SnackPass aspired to reach beyond the student circle and the downtown region. He already saw success through partnering with Zingerman’s, an iconic delicatessen in Ann Arbor since 1982, which has adopted SnackPass’s services, including the kiosks and their ordering apps.

Rodger Bowser, managing partner at Zingerman’s Delicatessen, told The Daily customer ordering preferences have undergone tremendous shifts during the pandemic. Prior to online ordering systems, Bowser said the store would see long lines of 60-100 people on game days in Ann Arbor. Now, Zingerman’s is seeing much more online ordering, allowing them to consider changes to their ordering process in the future.

“There are some people that really prefer just being able to order on their phone or order on one of our kiosks and they get a text when it’s done, ” Bowser said. “On the other side of the spectrum, there are some people that definitely miss coming into the deli (and) looking at the big, ornate menu boards, talking to a person (and) placing an order the old school way (with) a pen and paper and all that kind of stuff … We are somewhere in the middle right now.”

The changing customer ordering preferences are not unique to Zingerman’s. According to a recent report by U-M researchers, people in Washtenaw County have spent, on average, 25-28% less time in restaurants and retail stores in January and February 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Bowser said he appreciated the remote ordering and self-service capability offered through SnackPass. He added that he hopes to implement further improvements to integrate the system. Currently, deli and grocery orders have to be made separately from the restaurant services, making it hard to manage the unique requirements for the different business styles..

“We kind of had to do (separate mobile ordering) before,” Bowser said. “But now it’s 90% of (our) orders. It takes a little bit more effort and more time … We have to figure out how to get these two systems to talk to each other and work together for the guests’ experiences.”

While SnackPass offers a great platform, some food and drink businesses in town are taking matters into their own hands by creating their own ordering systems.

Phillis Engelbert, owner of Detroit Street Filling Station, said the restaurant’s efforts to curate their own ordering platform was driven by their goal to retain employees during the pandemic.

“Several of our staff are willing to become delivery drivers, and we reimburse them at the federal mileage reimbursement rate,” Engelbert said. “Others will be in the restaurants, doing whatever needs to be done like answering the phone and bagging for carry-out orders.”

Engelbert also explained the steep learning curve of switching overnight from nearly totally dine-in to having more than half of their sales come from carry-out orders.

“Pre-portioning-out the side things that go with every dish, putting dressings into cups and putting chips in small wax bags — those things now occupy our staff time, ” Engelbert said. “Our system has changed incredibly regarding carry-out orders during the pandemic.”

Some self-developed ordering systems, however, do not allow employees to provide reliable ticket times for customers. Ben Mantyk, the shift supervisor at the State Street Starbucks location, said the Starbucks mobile ordering system has been slow to accommodate the needs of the employees. 

“We tend to just get bombarded with a lot of mobile orders all at once,” Mantyk said. “One second we’ll be caught up but then two seconds later we get 7 or 8 new orders. Once we get hit with that many orders, it’s kind of hard to stay … on top of everything else.”

Starbucks has recently begun to make changes to the app to take the stress off of employees, according to Mantyk. 

“There might be a new update to the system that is gonna make the wait times more accurate so hopefully we won’t be as backed up with mobile orders from now on,” Mantyk said. 

Engelbert said the Detroit Street Filling Station also experienced a similar challenge. They now authorize employees to toggle orders, making sure they only take in new orders if they have the capacity to handle the order at any given time.

“We’re watching the time to see if we are actually making it in the right amount of time, (and if) the cooks (are) putting out the food fast enough, or (if they) are … overwhelmed,” Engelbert said. “Then we can do things like extend the time that it’s going to take, or we can also adjust how many tickets print … every 15 minutes.”

While Engelbert said Detroit Filling Station is already well-adapted to online ordering, she said she still missed the in-person interactions and the community aspect of dine-in experience that were lost during the pandemic.

“When guests are interacting with each other, they see someone they know at the next table. There’s conversation and we had live music four times a week before the pandemic,” Engelbert said. “We’re doing all the carry out right now to keep feeding people and to keep the business alive, but the real heartbeat of the business is having people dine-in.”

Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at Daily News Contributor Sailor West can be reached at