Amid labor challenges and an escalation in carry-out and delivery business in the past 18 months, food lockers have become a tech solution on the rise. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that Smashburger has been testing a couple of versions of them – one that displays the status of an order on a screen that directs a customer to the locker where their food can be found, and another that lets customers use the restaurant’s mobile app to unlock the correct locker when they approach, thanks to geofencing technology. If you’re considering food lockers as a pickup solution, find ways to make the experience feel human and personal – that could be as simple as placing the lockers within view of your kitchen assembly line.
QR codes, which have enabled no-touch digital menu reviewing and ordering throughout the pandemic, all while helping short-staffed operators keep up with orders, have become ubiquitous in recent months. The National Restaurant Association said half of all full-service restaurants in the U.S. have begun using the codes since the start of the pandemic. But now concerns about privacy are making some question consumers’ use of the codes because businesses can gather valuable data about consumer spending patterns through the codes – and it’s all connected to their credit cards, the New York Times reports. If you’re using QR codes in your business, be sure you understand how the tech companies enabling your codes are using your data (i.e. ensure they aren’t selling it) and how you can best protect your customers and business in the event of a breach.
We all know that data is important to operating a successful business – hence the sharp rise in restaurant tech before and during the pandemic. But even if you have tools to gather reams of insight about everything from your inventory to your guests, they aren’t as useful as they could be if you can’t make sense of the information they collect and readily translate it into actionable steps to boost your business. Brightloom, for one, has been making a business out of helping operators put their data to work. When you look at your systems, how much do they tell you about your guests’ preferences, their order history, and other business-critical variables such as the weather forecast and local goings on? Can you review that information and quickly make incremental improvements as a result?
An app-based reusable packaging system that has been piloted in restaurants this year might provide a model for how sustainable packaging can improve sales and loyalty (and harness the valuable guest data that comes along with it). A company called R.ware (an offshoot of the reusable R.cup often found in stadiums) allows restaurants to get propylene hard plastic packaging in a range of sizes and styles that can be washed and sanitized multiple times. Restaurants are given a small collection bin equipped with an iPad. After guests are finished with a take-out container, which is labeled with instructions on how to download an app and scan a QR code, they can return the container to the collection bin and start earning rewards. Participating restaurants have freedom to customize those rewards to entice guests to return. In the process, they are reducing waste – and likely gaining some fans who want to reduce their takeout waste too.
Just like flexibility has been key to keeping restaurants running in the past year, it’s also a critical aspect of any technology you’re implementing. Your existing system should not only be able to handle your current sales streams but also be capable of scaling up in different ways to accommodate changes. Flexibility extends to the ways in which you are able to collect and present data about your guests and other aspects of your operation. Even if you don’t know how the industry is going to evolve, your systems should be agile and user-friendly enough that you are getting the kinds of actionable information you need to be able to make incremental changes.
Restaurant employee theft is a common problem, accounting for 75 percent of inventory shortages and 4 percent sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. Your systems and tools can help you stop it soon after it starts – or even prevent it altogether. A TouchBistro report advises leaning on your POS for help. For example, your POS settings can help you place controls on what employees can do when placing orders – such as preventing the printing of a bill if an order has not actually been served, or the deletion of items on a bill before it is closed and then keeping the cash. Your POS reports can also help you investigate questionable activity by flagging transactions that were removed or modified after they were finalized and those that involved voids or discounts, and scrutinizing day-end reconciliations that create an opportunity for underreporting earnings. It can show you how many times a cash drawer was opened and by whom, so you can quickly identify the employees to speak to in the event of a shortage. It can also identify discrepancies between an employee’s scheduled hours and how many hours they are reporting. Beyond your POS, consider the use of cameras at your POS and inventory storage areas, which can help you send the message that you’re committed to keeping everybody honest.
It’s putting it mildly to say that restaurant tech – already on the rise before COVID-19 – has experienced a renaissance in the past 18 months. New players have come on the scene in response to pain points in a broad range of restaurant tasks. If you’re considering adopting new technology this year – or even just looking to make sense of the array of options currently available – you might check out the 2021 Tech Ecosystem map, an annual collaboration by TechTable and Culterra Capital. A lot has changed in the past year.
If you’re unable to fill staff openings – and unwilling to raise prices to make it possible to raise your hourly wage – technology is quickly becoming the alternative restaurant operators choose to manage business. In a recent article in the New York Times, Shana Gonzales, a Checkers franchisee, said she could fully staff her restaurants if she offered $14-$15 an hour, but that would mean increasing prices so much that her customers would be driven away. So instead, she has introduced voice-recognition technology in her drive-thrus that can take orders, accommodate special requests and modifications, and send that information directly to the kitchen and cashier. At the moment, this technology isn’t replacing staff – at least not on a one-to-one basis – but is serving as a support, allowing employees more time for face-to-face customer service. But it’s safe to say that operators who find ways to incorporate automation can operate more smoothly with a slimmed-down number of total staff. What repetitive tasks in your restaurant could be ones to automate?