- Information for:
- Future Students
- Current Students
- Employers & Industry Partners
- Alumni & Friends
- Faculty & Staff
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses large and small, but perhaps no sector more severely than independent local restaurants. These small, often family-owned businesses were hit with strict capacity limitations and the sudden transition to take-out service as their primary revenue stream. These challenges left many struggling to navigate the new and unchartered waters of online ordering and meal delivery.
The Harbert College of Business recently spoke with Harrison Evola, Harbert alum and founder and CEO of FetchMe – an Auburn-Opelika food and essential items delivery company that is helping many local restaurants accelerate their transition to the new pandemic environment – and two members of Harbert’s faculty, Linda Ferrell, and O.C. Ferrell, about the rapidly evolving food delivery market. The question we posed was: What role does local engagement and robust investment in the community play in successfully competing in an industry dominated by some of the largest conglomerates in the world?
HCOB: You founded FetchMe in 2017. Tell us a bit about your mission at launch – the ways you set out to differentiate yourself from much bigger competitors and how that approach ended up paying dividends when the pandemic hit.
Harrison Evola, Founder, CEO of FetchMe
Harrison Evola: Our strategy and focus on local community engagement has turned out to be somewhat prescient – not just over the past half a dozen months.
We saw an opportunity to provide the greater Auburn/Opelika area with a high-contact, customer-focused restaurant delivery service that went beyond “mere” delivery. As the gig economy started to mushroom and open up new opportunities to better serve customers, we recognized the potential of providing customized services that go beyond the “first level” of food delivery. We saw our mission as significantly different from the independent contractor-based, incremental return-on-investment ride-share models the national food delivery brands were basing their entry into our market on.
HCOB: You envisioned something distinct from what was available already, a market strategy that leveraged the inability or reluctance of the “big boys” to invest in each local town when that was what local restaurants needed and residents in the greater community would embrace.
Harrison Evola: One of the most important lessons I learned through Harbert’s unique combination of classroom curriculum, entrepreneurship initiatives and student resources was to focus foremost on addressing unrecognized or poorly served customer needs. Replicating what companies with far more resources than we could ever amass were doing wasn’t a viable option. Approaching local customers with the specific services – and high-touch service – they were looking for made much more sense from a business perspective.
FetchMe also builds websites for locally based businesses, runs marketing campaigns promoting local restaurants, and recently started a restaurant blog called “Behind the Scenes” Every week we publish a story where our readers learn the secrets behind the success of one our favorite locally based restaurants in Auburn and Opelika.
FetchMe builds websites for locally based businesses and runs marketing campaigns promoting local restaurants.
HCOB: What were these large competitors not doing or were unable to do – that best characterized the opportunity you saw?
Harrison Evola: Their business models were – and still are – primarily transactional. They co-opted the customer-acquisition side through listing restaurants on their delivery platform without their permission, implementing marketing campaigns with a low ROI for the local restaurant, and leveraging an already-strained independent contractor relationship. We took a completely different approach. Our business model flips the value chain of takeout delivery by aligning three key factors:
HCOB: How did you roll-out this three-pronged approach back then, and how has that changed now?
Harrison Evola: We approached each of these factors as a means to differentiate ourselves, and that focus continues today. For example:
“We ensure the satisfaction of our customers by creating a unique experience.”
HCOB: Let’s bring in Linda and O.C. Ferrell, two of Auburn’s Harbert College of Business’s pre-eminent scholars in the areas of marketing and ethical corporate positioning. What is the role of community engagement in the marketing and positioning of a small, local company seeking to compete against the vast resources of much larger, better-resourced competitors?
O.C. Ferrell: First off, this is an industry dominated by a few, very large, extremely well-financed companies. As a recent article in The Hill entitled “Food service groups offer local alternatives to major delivery apps” points out, 98% of the national market is under control of a handful of big companies – Grubhub, Postmates, DoorDash and Uber Eats. Differentiation is critical in order to succeed, and FetchMe’s focus on a high-touch, personal, and trust-based customer experience is one way they have differentiated themselves.
O.C. Ferrell, Eminent Scholar in Ethics
The second opportunity appears to be that FetchMe has at its disposal closer relationships with local merchants compared to their larger competitors – that’s a significant asset they can build upon going forward, a move the big boys aren’t either able or likely to address as well as a local player.
Finally, as a business ethics enthusiast, I’d point to their employee-based workforce model and diligent hiring processes as another key differentiator. We’ve all gotten into an Uber or Lyft and felt less-than-comfortable, haven’t we? Imagine having to question whether that driver is being diligent in handling your food. That concern has only been magnified in today’s COVID-19 world.
Linda Ferrell: In the latest edition (8th) of our book Marketing Strategy (Cengage) we talk about avoiding “Commodity Hell,” which means if your product is strictly a commodity, and you don't have any differentiation, you're not going to succeed in a market where scale matters. I think taking the hometown angle and trying to provide value beyond the commodity service – whatever that value might be – is key. Maybe even hand-delivering a promotion for their next order?
Linda Ferrell, Faculty Fellow of Marketing and Business Ethics
But it can – and should – be more than that. The power of asking the question of your customers: “Do you want to deal with someone who's local and part of your community or a big national organization?” is something not to be trivialized. Promoting the integrity, record, and courtesy of drivers who live and work in the community is a tremendous potential differentiator.
HCOB: One final question: What could this already successful local business, with plans for expansion into other markets, do to ensure their business strategy succeeds beyond Auburn?
Linda Ferrell: For me it is very simple: execution, execution, execution. Their strategy seems sound, and the pandemic has given them an additional opportunity to leverage their initial positioning into a potentially powerful competitive advantage. Doubling down on their local community relationships and emphasizing their hiring and training approach will be instrumental to their success.
O.C. Ferrell: I couldn’t agree more. The only additional strategy I would consider is taking a stronger industry leadership approach to their positioning. Given their plans to expand into other markets where they are not as well-known, it will be critical to be able to demonstrate success in their initial market and position that success as the blueprint for expansion. By speaking on behalf of all the “Davids” competing against all the “Goliaths,” FetchMe can further position themselves for continued success.