World Central Kitchen enlisted SmartLogic to build a platform to scale up their text-to-order food relief program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
World Central Kitchen (WCK), founded in 2010 by chef José Andrés, provides a hot meal when it’s needed most. They are first to the frontlines, providing meals in response to humanitarian, climate, and community crises, building resilient food systems with locally led solutions.
Prior to the 2020 global pandemic, WCK’s efforts were focused on natural disaster relief, feeding quantities of people all at once in a timely response to earthquakes, tsunamis, and other extreme weather events around the world.
As the pandemic set in and families across the United States found themselves without access to a fresh meal, the WCK team identified a new set of challenges and a unique way to offer assistance: employing restaurants to feed their communities. To enable deliveries, WCK developed WCK Direct, a text-to-order program that sits at a unique intersection of needs: the dramatic rise in food and nutrition insecurity, the increased strain on the emergency food system, and the sudden loss of business for the struggling restaurant industry.
Through our #ChefsForAmerica Covid response & now with WCK Direct, Manny's Deli has helped us serve thousands of meals in Chicago. Each day, households needing food assistance can order the restaurant's classic Chicago dishes via our text-to-order program. pic.twitter.com/bmzsrnqKeX— World Central Kitchen (@WCKitchen) January 21, 2022
WCK Direct works with restaurants and community organizations, allowing households experiencing food insecurity to order meals to be picked up or delivered to their homes. Partner restaurants are stabilized and, in some cases, able to bring back staff to help with the additional prep, which takes place during their normally quieter hours. Recipients are able to make choices about the restaurant they’d like to select for the day, and are able to get and eat the food at a time and location of their choosing.
WCK Direct is more than food service. It's more convenient and dignified for recipients, and resourceful for us. It lets me have a deeper connection with my neighbors one-on-one and a moment to ask, 'How are you? How's the family? What do you need?’— Walid, co-owner of Barcha in East Harlem
WCK Direct initially leveraged multiple off-the-shelf apps and software systems, including Airtable, Twilio, AppSheet, and Zapier. As the program grew and proved to be a success, the WCK team realized they needed a more robust solution to help them manage and scale the program. In the spring of 2021, WCK engaged SmartLogic to build this new platform.
Building a Robust Back End and an iPad App for Restaurants
WCK Direct has three main groups of stakeholders: meal recipients, restaurants, and WCK staff. Each group has their own set of needs and preferences for how they interact with the program.
In the first phase of the project, SmartLogic’s Product Designers began by interviewing the various stakeholders, and documenting both existing user flows, desired capabilities, and key processes. They dove into Airtable to understand how WCK was using it, and conducted user research and interviews. They then created user flows and stories, defining the features for the new build, followed by wireframes and then high fidelity designs that were translated into the actual application build. This process, along with feedback from WCK at each stage, helped SmartLogic ensure that when they began building, they truly understood the needs and priorities of all the application’s users.
The new WCK Direct platform consists of several components. The back end is written in Elixir leveraging Phoenix and PostgreSQL; the customer interface leverages Twilio for ordering by call or text message; restaurants see and manage their orders via an iPad app built with Flutter; and the WCK team gets visibility into everything happening in the system via a web-based admin interface built with Tailwind UI.
Initially, WCK was limited in their ability to provide support to recipients — text support was managed through TwiConnect and was managed directly from one WCK team member’s phone. With the new system, chat support is integrated into the admin interface, leveraging Twilio so that recipients can simply text a question, while multiple program administrators can respond via the web portal. Order status is also visible to the WCK team through the admin portal, so they can make adjustments and check status easily
In addition to designing and building the new application, all existing program data needed to be migrated out of Airtable to a more stable, scalable Postgres database providing a unified data source for all WCK Direct efforts. Beyond simplifying existing workflows and giving the WCK team the tools they needed to run the program, the new system has given the WCK team the confidence and peace of mind that their new platform is designed for scale and stability.
Supporting WCK Direct as it Scales
We have been able to scale this program significantly because of the new systems that SmartLogic built for us.— Kristi Katz, Head of WCK Direct
The new platform’s impact on the WCK team’s capacity has been substantial. Initially launched in New York City, the program was running in three cities before the new software platform was developed; WCK Direct is now active in 10+ cities, with more growth planned for 2022. The number of participating restaurants has more than doubled to a current number around 40, and will continue to increase in the coming months. The total number of orders processed has reached thousands per week, where prior to the new platform, the total volume was thousands per month. In addition to the expansion to new cities, the program has been able to reach more people in the cities they’re already operating in, partnering with more restaurants and providing meals to more recipients. The program has been able to scale, in no small part because the team’s efforts are amplified and facilitated by a custom built platform designed not just for the size of the program now, but also for future growth.
We love working with the SmartLogic team; they are genuine people, and appreciate our goal to feed people with dignity, through an accessible solution. They understand our goals and objectives, and they bring great ideas and experience to the table.— Kristi Katz, Head of WCK Direct
Ultimately, the software built for WCK serves to further its mission — to provide a hot meal where it’s needed most. The WCK Direct program provides more flexibility and dignity to meal recipients, while also supporting the local economy by partnering with local restaurants.
This program just in these first few days has allowed us to re-open a location we had to shut down during COVID. Now, we can create job opportunities for our community.— Miriam, owner of Three Amigos in Charlotte, NC
Here at SmartLogic, we build software that empowers our clients to do more of what they do best; we’re proud to have helped WCK Direct to grow its impact in such a substantial way, and we look forward to seeing how the program continues to expand and evolve.