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?
By 2021, almost 50 million people will be using food delivery apps. It’s a good time to understand how people are using your mobile app if you have one. Placing an order may be only one part of it. According to The Rail, while 32 percent of restaurant mobile app users are using them to order food, even more – 42 percent – are looking for information on coupons or other deals. Close behind are those looking up your restaurant’s menu (38 percent) or searching for local food options (37 percent). These figures may change how you go about attracting people to your app – or in how you prioritize updating the information on it. Consider push notifications when you’re running promotions to encourage customers to begin earning rewards. Understand – and continue to ask customers to confirm – which rewards appeal most to them. As for your menu and local profile, make sure your information and menu are up to date on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Google My Business.
At a time when restaurant delivery has become critical for so many restaurants (even pre-COVID-19, off-premise orders were accounting for nearly 60 percent of foodservice occasions, according to the National Restaurant Association), new technologies that offer operators more control and monitoring of the delivery process are on the rise. They may help you zero in on the areas that need improvement and can help set you apart among competitors. Food delivery analytics software like ActiveDeliver, for example, pulls together onto a single dashboard data such as sales metrics that extract total sales for in-store, drive-thru and delivery customers, delivery metrics that illustrate trends in driver wait and travel times, customer analytics that track sales by new and existing customers and whether customer satisfaction is driven by specific menu items or delivery times, and a breakdown of food delivery fees and who is paying them. Whether you use technology designed to monitor your delivery or not, using your POS data to understand (and improve upon) the lifecycle of the delivery process will become increasingly important as you accommodate more off-premise sales 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?
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 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.
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.
While technology had been making sweeping changes to the restaurant industry before the pandemic, expect it to play a transformative role as we emerge from it. Many of the systems and tools that had been nice-to-haves a couple of months ago could now provide the limited physical contact needed to keep your employees and guests safe – and your business running. This doesn’t mean investing in new bells and whistles but it does mean finding ways to maximize the technology you currently have and any additional tools that can be used for free. As the National Restaurant Association’s new report Covid-19 Reporting Guidance advises, update your website and use basic text messages to communicate with guests and staff. Use your email list and social media to provide up-to-date information about your current hours, menu changes, reservations and other information that may be helpful, such as approximate wait times. Of course, contactless payment systems, automated ordering functionality and mobile ordering apps can all help too. Be in touch with your POS system provider to ensure you are fully using all of your system’s functionality and any additional features or support your provider is offering right now. Bo Peabody, a tech entrepreneur who helped create the reopening guidelines for Georgia restaurants, told the Spoon that POS companies might soon take such actions as giving restaurants the ability to add a QR code to their check – a means for a guest to pay for a meal with a quick, contactless scan of their phone. (Paytronix and Sevenrooms recently announced new contactless order and payment capabilities, and the restaurant tech company Presto is offering free contactless dining kits for restaurants while supplies last. The company says the kits can be set up in an hour – and without any contracts or costs.)