The past year has changed how restaurants compete. Restaurant success has become less about décor or even brand and more about how smooth, fast and engaging the process of ordering and accepting food is for the consumer. These changes may be permanent. This QSR magazine report predicts a more tech-focused future for the industry – with less differentiation on price across restaurant categories and more differentiation on the efficiency of customer interactions than there has been in the past. That means it’s become all the more important to have digital architecture and a user interface that presents your food in a compelling way, makes it easy and fast to place orders, enables customization to customer preferences, and includes a reliable “last mile” off-premise solution for getting food to customers.
As the contactless restaurant experience has become the norm over the past year, some restaurant operators may worry about permanently losing the kinds of quality in-person connections with consumers that once helped them build and sustain relationships. As we emerge from the pandemic, how will restaurants be able to deliver personal service in an era where physical distance, minimal conversation and touch-free experiences continue to be encouraged? The good news is that while technology enables more low-contact experiences, it also helps businesses get more personal – and restaurants can use it to build relationships in new ways. To a great extent, consumers have lived their lives online throughout the pandemic. They have become more accustomed to the Amazon experience – being able to order an item in a minimum number of clicks, having the site predict what they are apt to enjoy, and being less suspicious about having companies track the items they buy and enjoy. Some restaurants are literally using Amazon Web Services (AWS) to provide an Amazon-style experience. Using that kind of approach – and there are many services that can provide it – a restaurant with a strong command of its customer data can direct different targeted promotions to people whenever they happen to be in the neighborhood or on the days they are apt to crave a particular order. What better way to deliver personal service than to predict what a person wants before they even know they want it?
A whopping 91 percent of restaurants plan to invest in kitchen automation technology this year, according to a new survey data from the payments company Square. To be fair, Square is among the players providing back-of-house tech tools in restaurants and retailers, but their research still provides some helpful clues about where back-of-house tech is heading in the near term – and it’s not so much about robotic chefs and servers. The key theme restaurants are focusing on is adopting an efficient hub-and-spoke model where the kitchen is at the center and can seamlessly manage customer orders coming from a growing list of sources, including the curb, the drive-through, the dining room and beyond. This tech can also enhance flexibility by enabling a restaurant to integrate a new channel where needed – or scale back on another.
If you have been among the fortunate restaurant operators to have survived the past year, you’re about to be surrounded with some new potential opportunities (and perhaps competitors) in 2021. The restaurant closures of the past year have left a significant amount of infrastructure behind – including turnkey kitchens ready to be used for new concepts. Expect former cafés and other real estate equipped with professional kitchens to be scooped up and reopened as ghost kitchens (with or without walk-up service). If you have been considering either making the switch to a ghost kitchen or just testing a new off-premise concept with the help of one, now could be a good time to find deals.
The current pandemic has been a test of how effectively restaurant operators can pivot to offering new services – and as many parts of the U.S. face potential waves of opening and closing, restaurants will have to be able to scale up and scale back services quickly. Technology can help – and Modern Restaurant Management predicts a rise in microservices-based architecture, which allows different services (like curb-side pickup, for one) to be quickly developed, deployed and maintained. This nimble approach to technology allows operators to launch new services quickly, all while responding to data around guest preferences.
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?
Data is valuable currency for any restaurant business. But as cybersecurity becomes increasingly precarious as retail and restaurant brands experience more breaches, consumers will continue to be wary about parting with the personal information that helps you create experiences that will bring them back. However, if you find ways to tap into what your guests value most and build memorable experiences around those things, people will be more inclined to share their data with you. That was a key perspective shared by several speakers at Customize, a food personalization summit hosted by The Spoon recently. At the event, Melanie Bartelme, a Mintel analyst, said restaurant operators can provide real value in their products, services or experiences by offering such benefits as diet or cooking tips guests can use, food products that benefit their health, or even a streamlined technology experience. These benefits are advantageous in that they can appeal to broad swaths of your customers without being generic. Then once these customers are comfortable sharing their personal information with you, you can zero in on offering them more personalized experiences based on their preferences – seasonal drink recipes might appeal to the at-home entertainer, or customized Friday-night text messages could prompt a customer to order his favorite vegetarian pasta dish as he leaves work.
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.
Mobile loyalty apps will have a significant impact on the industry this year. That was the sentiment of 31 percent of respondents to a recent TD Bank survey of 254 owners, operators and executives of independent and franchised multi-unit restaurants. A separate survey from TrendSource found that diners are more interested in using a restaurant’s app for delivery and pick-up than a third-party app. Part of what makes restaurant-branded mobile apps an easy win for restaurants is that whether you operate a food truck, pop-up restaurant or fine-dining restaurant, there is mobile app functionality that can ease ordering and payment, deliver customized promotions and build loyalty – and at accessible price points.
Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to gather a group of people for a meal and not have food allergies and intolerances come up in conversation. From gluten sensitivity to lactose intolerance to the need to reduce sodium or sugar intake, there is a broad spectrum of dietary customization to consider. A restaurant that can accommodate consumers’ dietary needs and still provide flavorful dishes will build a loyal following. The customization trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and in fact appears to be deepening: Consider the likes of tech startups like GenoPalate, which the Spoon dubs “Ancestry DNA for your diet.” Like Ancestry DNA, the company uses a swab test to scan for certain genetic markers. Then it uses that information to assess how much of 24 key nutrients a person needs, along with any sensitivities to lactose, gluten, caffeine or alcohol, and then provides a list of foods best suited to the person’s genetic makeup. While one-size-fits-all dining may not exactly be on the way out, there is a significant opportunity for chefs who can provide extreme customization. Can you make it possible for guests to not just substitute gluten-free crust for traditional crust on a pizza, but to empower them to build a meal from scratch (with some guidance) that meets their taste preferences and dietary needs?