Railtown Catering | E-Commerce Insights from Selling Turkeys Online

I want to be able to sell a bunch of turkeys on the internet.

It's not exactly the first thing a software team is expecting to hear as a client request, but it's exactly what Railtown Catering needed to do.

And it marked the beginning of a great client/vendor relationship in building effective e-commerce systems.

The secret sauce:

E-commerce projects generally involve "ingredients" that need to be organized in order to launch with minimal friction. These include:

  • Identification of project stakeholders and in-house subject matter experts 
  • Establishing a point of contact
  • Cataloging product inventories, product attributes, product variations, product prices
  • Generating high quality brand photography and product imagery
  • Creating social media strategies for sharing times or major endorsements,
  • Communicating necessary dates, times, and product information with email and sms strategies (helpful resource)
  • Creating a plan to collect emails and phone numbers for re-marketing strategies
  • Establishing plans for shipping and fulfillment
  • Selecting and configuring a payment processor
  • Cataloging all steps into a testing plan
  • Testing the plan
  • Scaling the e-commerce offerings

Railtown wanted to take their existing Wordpress site and set it up for e-commerce.

Since their site was built using WordPress, WooCommerce was a natural choice for their e-commerce environment. Woocommerce is easily installed into WordPress, with a suite of themes available to support it.

Context is everything.

Developing on a particular platform isn't a decision made lightly. With many websites built using WordPress, we support clients who want to build with tools they already know. It's absolutely essential to minimize friction when setting up e-commerce systems. Staff familiarity with tools, costs for training and recruitment, and compatibility with third party services like payments or shipping providers are all decisions one should factor into selecting an e-commerce provider.

Since we're on the topic...

Many people swear by Shopify, too. For Acorn, it's important to understand how the operations are going to work for an e-commerce build to manage cost and complexity. Shopify is an excellent e-commerce provider that many are trained on and familiar with. Much like WooCommerce, Shopify projects require an analysis of fit.

  • Do third party extensions solve a business problem for the organization?
  • Are the costs of a Shopify and plugin subscriptions something your organization is comfortable with?
  • Does the suite product of product features solve your business case for solicitation?
  • Is a content management system migration worth the effort?

E-commerce is all about fit. Acorn is here to consult, educate, and train organizations across their e-commerce journey.

Let's get to work on it. It all starts with a chat and a handshake, even if that's virtual!

Strategy is everything.

There were three vendors collaborating on the Railtown To-Go campaigns in the beginning.

  1. Railtown Catering (food order production and delivery)
  2. Acorn Interactive (web services, web infrastructure, e-commerce)
  3. SMC Communications (PR and Social Media)
  4. Jelger and Tanja  (photography)

Railtown was responsible for creating items like the menu, the pricing, dates of sales, sales quotas, shipping and fulfillment strategies (pickup and in-house shipping).

Acorn Interactive assisted in setting up necessary hosting resources, building and securing the content management system, creating deployment pipelines for Github code, producing web related designs and style guides, extending WordPress modules, configuring content management administrative tools, content delivery networks, amongst other highly technical gobbledegook ...

SMC organized cable news spots, organized and scheduled press releases, operated social channels, drafted brand copywriting, maintained aspects of the content management system, and more!

Jelger and Tanja coordinated with Railtown and SMC to produce necessary photographs for multiple uses.

Now, before we continue...😍

photo by jelgerandtanja.com

Internal operations are paramount.

Ensuring that in house representatives were capable of using the web systems to process orders, manage payments, communicate with kitchens, keep tabs on inventory, and organize shipping was the only way this operation could work. Everyone else on the project, while important, was secondary to this requirement.

To begin a project like this, Acorn works to develop what are called User Stories, a way to capture the organizational and operational needs into criterium for building out an e-commerce system tailored to a business.

The user story:

As a catering outfit I want to sell turkeys at Thanksgiving to open up new revenue streams for the business.

By establishing their core user story, the rest of the project could fall into place.

Assigning in-house team members to own the project

E-commerce vendors are there to provide the right software and skills on a given project. With so many choices to make, these user stories give us the appropriate amount of context to make technical decisions. Staff members are critical to inform the technical requirements from the user story, or suite of user stories. By understanding the vision of the project, we can ensure we are supporting in-house teams in a cohesive manner.

With user stories written, plans were setup for Railtown's online store.

We worked closely with in-house team members to ensure they were able to perform all of the required aspects of their jobs. This included building custom code for pages and selecting software plugins to suit the objectives of the project. Projects end up being a series of little thing decisions made every step of the way.

In configuring Railtown's e-commerce plugins we experienced issues like:

  • A given plugin did 90% of what was expected, but the 10% that did not was mission critical.
  • A payment processor was extremely functional, but not cost effective for the client.

Consistent and clear communication with team members is how we ensured that a proposed solution solved an actual business problem.

We collaborated deeply with Railtown to resolve details like these. For example, Railtown started off using PayPal to process payments. As time passed and the company learned more about their online operations, it turned out that Moneris was a better fit for the business. This is because it connected with their brick and mortar point of sale (POS) systems, and integrated well with their online payments from Moneris.

Projects start with one set of assumptions and evolve over a series of iterations.

Railtown's requirements changed over the course of years. What started off as a single product in their system grew to include a suite of integrated products, known as composite products.

Let's walk through how products are sold today. First of all, there was the order itself. A product was created for the Turkey-to-go half size package. This half sized package, on its own, costs $299.

a turkey order without any bells and whistles

Of course, where is the fun if you can't have extra mashed potatoes, a couple more carrots... or even an extra pie?!

To accommodate this, we had to build in composite products, each priced individually, but added to the total price of the single order of the meal.

a little extra oomf for that family dinner anyone?

Let's review...

The Problem

Railtown wanted to have a single order setup. An individual wasn't supposed to be allowed to show up to the website and order one unit of gravy. For a lot of vendors, like clothing makers, this would make sense. I visit your site and buy one t-shirt, fair enough. Turkey-to-go was different. Their stipulated rules were

  1. Customers need to buy the turkey package
  2. Customers should be encouraged to extend the base order with add ons to extend their meal

The Solution

By working closely with the Railtown staff, performing a suite of trials and errors with available plugins and Wordpress configurations we determined that Product Add Ons and Composite Products solved their objective of having the base order be a turkey meal with configurability and add-ons for this product.

The reasoning for this is that the prices needed to be calculated as such: "Turkey order with extra mashed potatoes costs $x". The case we needed to avoid is "you have ordered 1 turkey order and 1 order of mashed potatoes".

The devil's in the details...

Shipping and fulfillment

Acorn didn't have as much to do with this part of the operation. Normally, there are plugins and service providers to ensure that a products sale data on the e-commerce system is communicated systematically to a shipping service. There are numerous resources to research this, like:

let's hit the road, turkeys | src photo by jelgerandtanja.com

Perhaps its too soon to tell what a digital project needs to be. Perhaps there's a lot of guesswork and unpacking todo to isolate firm requirements before spending a ton of money.

Consulting may be more appropriate for this stage of your journey!

Adding onto the complexity is the fact that they are high quality food and service provider with a reputation for good taste. I bring this up because e-commerce must exist to support the brand values. As such, it's very important to consider the supply and fulfillment chains behind online sales.

Questions for Railtown here included limitations.

  1. How many orders can we sell at once?
  2. Can we order that many turkeys, and from whom?
  3. Can our existing operations happen if our kitchen is displaced for a few days while batch processing holiday meals?
  4. Where can we safely store our cooked ingredients?

At the end of the day, any e-commerce project needs to have a broad understanding of these operational drivers. The more we knew about Railtown's selling specifics and limitations, the better we could design software to solve problems for their business.

It's all people at the end of the day...

Dan Olson and team making magic happen


Sales saw a massive spike update in sales from the 2019-2020 period compared to 2020-2021 period. 2019 was when we completely overhauled and modernized the sales systems. Legacy data for this store is not made available in this post. In 2021-2022 sales have remained growing at a steady pace. Having had multiple instances of running the turkey order sales, Railtown has found its cadence with the suite of offerings, now offering a Valentines Day sale in 2023.

Sales volumes with each iteration have stabilized and grown with the periods of services offerings. They've also produced marketing data for reselling and enhancing promotional reach.

*Please note that total sales values have been redacted per client request.

DEC 2019- DEC 2020
DEC 2020-DEC 2021
DEC 2021- DEC 2022

For more information about Acorns work on Railtown Catering, please see the Portfolio Page dedicated to our work on the project.

Railtown Catering with WooCommerce

To learn more about Acorn's work with Railtown Cafe, their brick and mortar establishment, see our Portfolio page here:

Railtown Cafe and Catering