The pandemic has forced restaurant operators to consider new revenue streams. Robots may help open some doors. Salad bars and buffets may not be operating as they were, for example, but could a robot offer a similar product – and operate in a context removed from a sit-down restaurant? Candace MacDonald, cofounder and managing director of hospitality consultancy Carbonate, told Modern Restaurant Management that companies like Salad Station are using robotic vending to serve up salads in new locations – and at the same time, are likely reaching new customers. Could you envision offering menu items through robotic vending via a grocery store or hospital cafeteria?
Back in June, the National Restaurant Association named virtual gift cards on a list of restaurant tech tools that it predicted would best support the industry’s recovery from the pandemic. Virtual gift cards – as opposed to the plastic ones that clutter a person’s wallet – make contactless, fast payment possible, so they’re well suited to these times. Further, since more than 70 percent of gift card recipients spend more than the face value of their cards, according to research from Givex, they can help lift check totals. Are you offering and promoting virtual gift cards on your website, app and social media platforms?
As restaurants have taken steps to keep business running, operators have embraced radical reinvention: transitioning from fine-dining establishments to takeout providers, from selling deli sandwiches to groceries. How can you fortify your restaurant for the future? Now is the time for considering ideas that may have seemed crazy just last year. The restaurant industry advisory Aaron Allen & Associates found that 82 percent of restaurant positions today could potentially be automated. Though they stressed they aren’t suggesting the human element of restaurants be removed, their findings do provide reason for operators to assess how technology brings efficiencies to not only restaurant categories but to other industries – and anticipate what they may have to do in the future to compete.
When Boston-area Kowloon Restaurant had to adapt its 1,200-seat restaurant to new operating requirements for COVID-19, it got creative – with technology and with the experience it decided to offer guests. It adopted a new online payment system that allows people to start a drinks tab, view menus, order food, pay, tip and even ask the restaurant to wrap leftovers. It also converted its large parking lot into a drive-in movie theater, which gives guests an old-school, carhop-style experience while minimizing contact with staff. How can tech help you change the experience you’re able to offer guests right now?
If you can customize and personalize your menu for guests, you earn loyal guests, which are what operators need right now. Technology is making it easier for operators to give guests the choices they want on demand. Case in point: Taco Bell recently unveiled a feature called Veggie Mode on its self-order kiosks. It will allow users to push a button and immediately change the options on their screen to vegetarian ones. Ostensibly, it’s a feature that could be extended to eliminate any food to which a guest has an intolerance or dislike. Through your website, app and text/email promotions, are you using your available technology to help guests quickly see the options best suited to their tastes?
The restaurant industry is one of extreme ups and downs – in labor expenditure and availability, sales and costs. But what if automation could bring predictability to your operation by supporting staff in certain areas or ensuring safety during the pandemic? Expect to see more of it in both the back and front of the house as operators manage changes in service right now. While automation may still seem futuristic in restaurants, it had been on the rise even well before the pandemic: Oxford University research predicted that 90 percent of quick-service restaurants would become fully automated within the next decade or two. There are ample applications beyond quick service too: Restaurants are now using it to reinvent the traditional buffet for the current environment. Of course, the costs of conversion aren’t insignificant but should factor into your longterm recovery strategy as you also consider the costs required to recruit, pay, insure and train employees on an ongoing basis. Once the technology and insurability of self-driving cars and delivery drones solidifies, automated delivery is likely to become more commonplace for restaurants too. How can tech automation – whether through emerging robotic innovation or even automated tools currently available to you on your POS or mobile app – improve your balance sheet?
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.
As technology has become a bigger part of people’s lives – and a growing part of the restaurant industry in recent years – there has been much discussion and warning about its potential to replace humans or to stifle human connection. But for so many people right now, technology is precisely what is making it possible for people to remain connected to family, friends and colleagues despite the physical isolation we have had to adopt. People are gathering for virtual happy hours and dinner parties – occasions that we may not have considered before. As we emerge from the pandemic, are you looking at your technology any differently? Will this change how we develop technology for restaurants and consumers alike? How will you want to use it to help protect you in the future – and to better connect you with the people you serve?
Despite recent news about bans on cash-free (i.e. app- or card-based) payment requirements at restaurants in New York and other states, there is plenty of momentum pushing restaurants toward even more seamless, tech-based payment systems. Software companies like PopID, for example, are providing artificial intelligence-enabled facial-recognition platforms that can not only process payment rapidly but also recognize a customer – then quickly pull up previous orders, which are often repeated at quick-service restaurants. Payments Journal reports that the result at CaliBurger, a brand using the technology, has been shorter lines and compressed ordering times.