Last year at this time, having an on-trend menu or holiday promotions may have been priorities for you. Fast-forward a year and restaurant hospitality – and the ethics surrounding it – looks much different. One recent Washington Post article mentioned how diners, in general, are going through a more rigorous decision-making process when it comes to determining if and where they will dine out. Criteria that would have seemed outlandish just a year ago – like a restaurant’s COVID-19 protocols, table-distancing measures, neighbourhood and amount of foot traffic – now speak volumes to consumers about a restaurant’s potential risks (and therefore, the quality of their hospitality). If local restrictions fluctuate in the coming months, how will you consistently communicate safety to your guests and off-premise customers? Continue to promote – via your website, social media and in-store signage – that you are committed to protecting the safety of both your staff and your guests. If guests want to access detailed information about how you’re handling COVID-19, provide details on your website. Post your employee sick leave policy, specific cleaning protocols and schedule – yes, recent research indicates that more consumers want to know these details – and what you are doing to protect the safety of off-premise meals as well. Much like restaurants that have developed a loyal following of customers who have food allergies, restaurants that visibly protect guest safety – not just for show but as a deeply felt value – stand to earn guest loyalty too.
COVID-19 has forced operators to scale down their dining room business while scaling up their capacity for off-premise orders. But preparing for an increase in online orders isn’t as simple as plugging your existing menu into your website. Your online menu needs to exude the same professionalism as the experience of sitting in your dining room. But instead of relying on your décor and friendly servers, your online menu alone must make people feel comfortable that they are in good hands. Restaurant Den suggests operators keep several tips in mind when revising their online menu, including scaling down choices, clarifying ingredients (and directing those with food allergies to more information on their website), and checking the spelling of each item.
As more quick-service restaurants look for ways to remove friction from the food-collection process, expect to see more vehicle-recognition technology in use that can detect the arrival of a customer and prepare their order for a quick pass off. It might become a useful tool for other restaurants that have adopted curbside collection for the long term too. White Castle, which has adopted a range of technologies in both the kitchen and at the point of sale, is adding vehicle-recognition tech to its lineup. Mastercard is providing it through its new AI-Powered Drive Through Platform.
Well before COVID-19, restaurants had been moving toward the adoption of technology that could support increased off-premise sales. Now, however, such technology is being perceived in the industry as critical to survival in the near term and as a means of becoming pandemic-proof in the future. The investment community is backing up the idea that the restaurant industry needs to make rapid, technology-supported change: AgFunder News reports that while investment into many sectors has slowed while people wait to see how the pandemic plays out, that hasn’t been the case for restaurant technology, where a number of multimillion-dollar fundings and acquisitions have taken place in recent weeks. Restaurants looking to make changes may be more apt to find – or be able to negotiate – deals with tech suppliers right now as a result. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that a number of providers of services including online ordering and delivery, curbside pickup and food safety have been offering reduced rates and waiving startup fees. Just use caution when considering nascent service providers entering the field. Screen offers carefully to ensure businesses have the financial backing and expertise to deliver on contracted services and that you won’t be surprised by high fees a few months down the line.
Does the technology you use help minimize the number of steps required for a customer to place an order? Off-premise dining is here to stay and major chains are focusing on perfecting the off-premise experience right now. That involves integrating new digital tools to make ordering easier and faster. Panera, for one, has a new integration with Google’s Search, Maps and Assistant apps that allows people to order food for pickup and delivery directly from Google. Other large chains are likely to follow – and while the investment may not be as feasible for smaller brands, it’s still important for the tech you use to bring efficiency to the process of ordering and connecting people with your food – whether that involves minimizing the searching, scrolling and number of clicks required for people to place an order online, or streamlining your pickup and delivery processes.
Is there an area where your restaurant can give a little bit in order to demonstrate customer benefits in the long run? According to this Bloomberg report for the Washington Post, Chipotle had offered free delivery for much of the second quarter to entice customers. Now it is beginning to charge for that service, but the company has found that customers who used Chipotle’s app for free delivery are now going on to use the app to place orders for pickup – especially when they are reminded that they can do this for free and for a typically shorter wait time. Chipotle is gaining new converts to pickup – as well as more customer data – all for charging more for delivery and communicating well through its app.
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?
Machine learning was singled out by Modern Restaurant Management recently as one of the top technologies that will differentiate restaurant brands as we emerge from the pandemic. It cited research from Hospitality Technology that found that 42 percent of guests will choose takeout from a restaurant if they receive offers tied to their past orders. These sort of precision analytics can fine-tune operations in the back of the house too – helping you monitor the supply chain to more accurately forecast food costs and order with less waste. How can you enhance the precision with which you order – and deliver to customers – just what they crave?
For years, geofencing technology has been helping restaurant operators target promotions to customers who are within a set radius of the restaurant at a given time. Now operators are adapting their use of the technology to improve their curb-side pickup business. Panera, for one, extended its wi-fi radius and added geofencing to help streamline the process of getting orders to customers waiting outside. For a customer who opts in to the use of the technology, the restaurant receives an alert when the person arrives to pick up their order, helping to keep curbside traffic moving.
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.