In March, an Eater report about the post-quarantine reopening of restaurants in China provided a glimpse at the social distancing requirements and health checks that it predicted would become the norm for restaurants everywhere. Three months later, as a second wave of virus infections is hitting China, the region is again modeling the situation restaurants in other countries may be facing in the near future. Even as restaurants reopen in the U.S., there is a nagging question about if, and when, another lockdown may be needed. Restaurant technology companies are stepping up to provide solutions to help operators not just manage new requirements but navigate an uncertain future. Food & Wine reports that companies including Resy, SevenRooms, Tock and OpenTable are offering tools to help operators reconfigure floorplans and communicate with guests about new procedures. Resy disables its reservations feature once a restaurant has reached capacity, while SevenRooms suggests delivery or takeout once a restaurant is full. In addition to helping operators manage guest traffic, such technology may provide the added benefit of helping communities contain the spread of the virus: By tracking guests’ visits to the restaurant, they can also alert them promptly if and when a second wave of the virus occurs.
Just a few months ago, the use of robots and other technology to automate food preparation and service tasks may have seemed more quirky than practical for much of the restaurant industry. Fast forward to now, and the ability to automate various foodservice tasks looks like a clear advantage: It could help operators preserve social distancing requirements in the kitchen, better protect employee and customer health, and manage labor challenges at a time when infections could strain business. While the cost of such tech has been a barrier to entry in the past, look for that to change as restaurant tech companies take steps to kick-start their own businesses. A report from the San Francisco Chronicle details how the preparation of products ranging from smoothies to salads could change as automation is adopted more widely.
Technology that enables you to transact business in a contact-free way can help you send a message to guests that you value their safety. Beyond offering contactless payments – a recent Mastercard study found that 74 percent of respondents plan to use contactless payments even after the pandemic is over – restaurant operators are increasingly posting QSR codes on tables and at facility entrances to help guests connect to their menu via smartphone. Not only can having a QSR code help you minimize menu wipe-downs, but it is also easy to get one via any number of websites that generate the codes for free.
Virtual waitlists have benefits that can not only help you manage safety regulations now; they can also provide permanent benefits if consumers are open to using them post-pandemic. If you haven’t used them before, they are like reservations systems in that they let people add themselves to a list online and allow you to let them know when to arrive, so they can avoid a long line at your restaurant. This frees up your staff to wait tables or bring food outside for curbside pickup. What’s more, virtual waitlists allow you to have guests pre-order and pre-pay to limit interaction with staff and minimize their wait. That means fewer no-shows and faster table turns for you.
If your restaurant hadn’t been adopting technology to help manage business prior to the pandemic, it is surely heading in that direction now. As you prepare your business for the future, how can you best use technology to empower your restaurant – and not overwhelm or sidetrack it? Senior technology leaders who comprise the Forbes Technology Council recently weighed in on the tech functions that are ripe for an upgrade right now. When it comes to restaurants, expect improvements to logistics automation in an effort to protect the supply chain, cybersecurity and digital privacy protections as more data moves online, and tech offerings that enable a contact-free restaurant experience. As you look at your operation, which of these areas do you anticipate needing a boost from technology in the months ahead? The vast array of options coming to market will create opportunity for restaurant operators needing solutions.
Your restaurant has no doubt been making adjustments to its menu – both in terms of dishes and the physical list you present to customers. Have you thought about moving your menu to phones and mobile devices? A report from The Spoon predicts the shift toward digital ordering will make this inevitable. The approach has its benefits, beyond the germ-related. Customization is a critical one. Consider a guest who wants to know the origins of the fresh produce on your menu, access reviews prior to ordering, or even request special portion sizes or ingredients. Digital hand-held menus can build in that functionality, all while allowing you the flexibility to make prompt changes to pricing, ingredients and limited-time offers.
Your restaurant marketing strategy has likely done an about-face in recent weeks and months – or if it hasn’t, perhaps it should. Schedules and traffic patterns have shifted, so the people who used to buy a quick, easy meal they could pick up on their route home from school or work are likely spending a lot more time at home at the moment – and may not be passing your restaurant at all in the course of a week. Cravings may have changed too. This doesn’t mean people haven’t been craving your food – in fact, they may be missing it more than ever. But how can you tap into their current mindset and make it appealing for them to place an order or, better yet, venture out to dine with you or pick up their food themselves? Start by showing how your restaurant is relevant to people’s lives: Is there an easy, tasty recipe you can share that will satisfy everyone in a household? Can you post a video of your chef inventing a meal on the spot using a few ingredients – or dreaming up ways to use pantry staples when certain ingredients are unavailable? Total Food Service suggests sending out surveys to guests, asking them questions about your menu and getting a sense of what they are preparing at home. What would entice them to come out right now? That may help you refine your current menu and promotions – and avoid offering a family-style pasta meal deal if they have been reheating spaghetti Bolognese for days on end.
Welcome to the era of social distancing technology. As restaurant operators reopen their dining rooms, they have to envision their space and their traffic patterns in new ways to keep employees and guests safe and manage overall health concerns. Tech is emerging that aims to make that an easier task. Advanced Industrial Marketing (AIM), for one, is launching wearable technology tags that use ultra-wideband radio technology to measure the distance between two tags. Modern Restaurant Management reports that when two of the tags get too close to one another, they vibrate and flash a red LED light in an effort to keep high-traffic areas clear.
There has been some recent buzz about the use of new ultraviolet lights that reportedly kill viruses and bacteria in the air without harming the body. If effective, they could have broad applications in restaurants, food distribution facilities and beyond. But do they work? Columbia University researchers tested the technology, called far-UVC, over the course of eight months and found that it killed the flu virus (their research was published in Scientific Reports) and their previous tests of the technology against MRSA also reportedly killed the bacteria without harming human tissue. Eater reports that Magnolia Bakery, for one, is replacing their recessed lighting with far-UVC light and also having customers pass through a far-UVC light scanner (akin to passing through a metal detector at the airport) upon entering their facilities to kill virus or bacteria they carry with them. Portable UVC lamps are also on the market. While the research is still new and it’s not clear whether the technology is effective against COVID-19, it promises to offer at least some additional protection in conjunction with other sanitation measures as we approach flu season. Find more background on the pros and cons in this New York Times report: https://bit.ly/2LNaG3t.
In case it wasn’t already clear pre-pandemic, off-premise dining isn’t going anywhere. Since third-party ordering poses ample challenges for operators it’s important to entice customers to order directly from you. Have you thought about how to encourage them to do that in the coming months? You might try incentives like filling every takeout order with a coupon good for a discount off their first direct online order from you, or offering some extra value for signing up for your in-house app (if you want to build your own ordering app, here is one option that may help https://bit.ly/36maBNz). Beyond that, make it as easy as possible for customers to order from you directly. Ensure your business information is accurate and up-to-date – particularly with adjusted hours – on Google. Your ordering button and menu links should be visible as soon as someone loads your webpage. Toast also suggests you find ways to simply make it more interesting to come to you directly – from including a personal thank-you note or small Instagrammable memento in each takeout bag, to selling special merchandise, to offering rotating promotions like Taco Tuesday to-go packages or EBTV (Everything But the Vodka) take-home Bloody Mary kits.