While the pandemic has held plenty of challenges for foodservice operators, it has also sparked a period of creative solving like never before – and the lessons will be useful for the long term. One example is the ongoing refinement of menu engineering, and specifically, operators’ ability to adjust prices on the fly based on supply and demand. Operators can use dynamic pricing to increase the price of a menu item that is selling well, for example, and decrease the price of an item being sold during a slower shift (some restaurants are even starting to use dynamic pricing for the chance to reserve their most in-demand tables on busy nights). Using a QR code system can enable this sort of flexibility. At a time when it’s become all the more challenging to keep the right supplies coming in and anticipate customer traffic, dynamic pricing may provide some extra flexibility. The key is adjusting prices downwards (when possible) as well as upwards so customers perceive it as a fair strategy.
It used to be a whole lot simpler: Restaurants were valued as places where consumers could share a meal and connect with people. While that is still the case, the pandemic has turned the idea on its head. Whereas the early months of the pandemic made it necessary for this “coming together” to happen at home or virtually in an effort to keep business flowing, many foodservice operators – along with complementary brands – are now redefining what it means to gather, even as dining rooms fill back up again. A new food-and-drink-trends report from Mintel mentions the increase of online hubs that offer ecommerce, brand-specific communities and opportunities to socialize virtually. Some restaurants are already well on their way: As reported by The Spoon, Chipotle recently created a Halloween promotion in partnership with the online game platform Roblox. Roblox gamers could enter a virtual Chipotle restaurant (specially decorated for Halloween) and collect a promo code good for a free burrito back in the real world. Granted, such partnerships may well be more feasible for major brands than small independents, but the example shows how the idea of coming together over restaurant food is being reimagined for the current times. How might you reimagine what it means to create memorable experiences for your guests?
If your restaurant is located within close reach of an airport or sports stadium, look for potential opportunities to branch out into new new business streams via third-party delivery companies. (And these options aren’t about delivery but about bringing extra convenience to people in places where they really need it.) Uber Eats is offering order-ahead pickup options at airports for participating restaurant vendors, allowing customers to order ahead via their app, then pick up a favorite item en route to a connecting flight. Meanwhile, Grub Hub now offers fans at FedEx Field in Washington, D.C. the ability to scan a QR code on the back of their seat and place a pickup order for food from stadium vendors – allowing people to avoid long stadium lines.
At a time when labor challenges in the restaurant industry persist, could now finally be the moment when robotic servers go mainstream? The idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched now that Chili’s has announced the introduction of robotic waitstaff in 10 of its locations in the U.S. The robot the brand is using, which is a version of the Bear Robotics Servi robot platform, could prove to be an important case study in to what extent automated waitstaff can ease labor woes, how well they manage tasks once handled solely by servers, and how feasible they could be financially for the standard American restaurant.
The QR code has been among the many tech advances to have experienced a sharp rise in usage during the pandemic. To be sure, it delivers safety benefits within restaurants as a tool that limits face-to-face contact, and it helps restaurants swap menu items quickly and collect more insight-rich data from guests. But it’s not for every guest or every restaurant – and what has been embraced as a useful tool while consumers are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 may become less appealing once the pandemic is safely behind us. FSR Magazine indicates, it comes down to the experience a restaurant offers. Do your guests want convenience and speed delivered in a less personal way, or a relaxed opportunity to reconnect with friends? If your restaurant falls somewhere in the middle, consider how you can balance efficiency and the need for a special experience.
Amid ongoing labor challenges, automation is something many restaurant operators are willing to try. According to the foodservice technology firm Lightspeed, half of restaurant operators in the U.S. are planning to incorporate automation to fill labor gaps in the next two to three years. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics research from August, the quit rate among hospitality workers is 6.8 percent – more than double the national average – and full-service restaurants are operating with 6.2 percent fewer kitchen employees than they were in 2019. While larger brands are taking on labor challenges by offering enticements ranging from educational benefits to higher pay to even iphones, providing these incentives to potential hires may not be sustainable or even possible for everyone. So how feasible is it for the average restaurant to automate tasks normally delegated to an employee? While the idea of automation may conjure ideas of big-ticket robotic chefs and servers, there are a number of ways to ease labor pressures through automation with far lower barriers to entry. Start there to make sure you are already automating what you can. That could mean automating your bookings, social media posts, online (or even in-person) orders and post-visit marketing so those tasks require less involvement from your staff. Assess your back-of-house procedures as well to weed out any manual processes you use to pay invoices, schedule staff, track inventory, manage food safety and monitor the functioning of equipment.
Restaurant technology is one industry that has thrived during the pandemic – but we have yet to see how that will fully manifest itself. Restaurant Business reports that more than $5 billion has entered the industry so far this year alone– and that the investment has been feeding many mergers of complementary businesses that will likely develop new all-in-one solutions for restaurant operators. If you currently operate a broad array of tools and systems that don’t communicate with each other as well as they could, you can expect to see new options on the horizon that simplify tech for restaurants (and enough of them to make pricing competitive).
The challenges of the past couple of years have also created opportunities for restaurants – but any restructuring can also open the door to increased cybersecurity risks, particularly as data is migrated and new employees are brought on board. This has been especially true throughout the course of the pandemic as cybersecurity attacks have climbed for organizations of all sizes. The costs are high: According to IBM’s 2021 Cost of a Data Breach Report, the average cost of a data breach is $3.28 million, with an average cost per each lost or stolen record of $161. To help protect your business, consider hiring a risk management professional who can assess your data and systems, help you minimize any weak links, and enable you to train your staff to minimize your risks. Your cybersecurity procedures should ensure that know who is using your systems – every transaction should be linked to an employee, for example – and that sensitive information is protected behind firewalls and accessible only by those who need to view it. Make sure that cybersecurity training is ongoing for your staff – and that it includes information about how to avoid falling for phishing scams. Stand-alone cybersecurity insurance can provide some additional protection as well.
Many restaurants have added new guest-facing technology in the past 18 months – or at least considered adding it. According to the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Restaurant Industry report for this year, 40 percent of operators said they added tech solutions to their businesses. At the same time, there have been a dizzying number of options coming to market and operators have had more-limited resources to devote to additions. To ensure any new tech resource passes the litmus test for practicality, aim for it to simplify and smooth out the key pain points of the guest experience, yet fade into the background. How easy is it for a guest to use tech to view your menu? Can a guest quickly alert someone on your staff if they have a question? Can they place their order and pay without any delay? Can they split the tab with a friend who wants to pay another way? Consider any potential snag a guest may experience in the duration of their time with you – and how your tech can minimize it, shorten it or eliminate it.
At a time when restaurant operators can’t count on dine-in customers, off-premise sales have taken on elevated importance. This also means operators are trying to elevate the experience of ordering food off-premise so that it feels more like ordering from the restaurant’s dining room. Restaurant Business reports that a number of brands are updating their apps to improve the ordering experience with information that a server might otherwise provide to a guest onsite: Outback Steakhouse had added more detailed menu descriptions and photos, for example, and Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes has added pop-ups that recommend complementary dishes. Whether you have an app or would simply like to improve the experience of ordering on your website, think about the aspects of ordering (and dining) in your restaurant that are currently lost when a customer is off-premise. How might you bring the off-premise experience alive for them?