The ability to innovate and push technology in the restaurant industry has always been an option. Many times, though, restaurant operators delay implementing certain technologies out of fear of going too far ahead of what the customers will accept. COVID-19 has forced the industry to be open to and accepting of many ideas that may have not even had a chance just a few months back or may have taken much longer to evolve and become mainstream during normal times.
The phased approach to open the economy has created an incredible display of how much the industry can adapt and how quickly we can do it. We have seen full-service restaurants converted to grocery stores, steakhouses selling raw steaks, parking lots turned into drive-thru systems or outdoor seating. The biggest impact COVID-19 will have in technology will be the removal of the guardrails that prevented these solutions from taking the driver’s seat in an ever-changing industry. While consumers may have been reluctant to embrace and use technology due to their unfamiliarity with it. With the current crisis, however, technology provides a critical safety benefit when ordering food. Using smartphone apps means customers no longer must handle cash or swipe their credit cards at terminals touched by countless consumers who came before them. And some operators even allow for contactless delivery of food, simply placing orders in the trunks of customers’ cars. And now that they have used the technology, consumers continue to find they like it since doing so introduces many convenience factors. I don’t think they will turn back, even once the pandemic is behind us.
Allowing technology and innovation to take a bigger role in foodservice operations can have major impacts to all the metrics that drive unit economics. Technology can disrupt the way customers flow through the system; whether they walk in the building, use curbside pickup, utilize the drive-thru, or some version of a pickup window or locker where they don’t enter the building. Proper use of technology can allow for restaurants to better utilize the space and labor available to maximize the needs and desires of the customers.
Take, for example, order taking. Traditional order taking was slowly evolving over the years and these changes accelerated the last few months. From a customer’s perspective, it is nice to have the ability to review the menu on your personal device or at a kiosk and make a decision on what you really want to order without having the pressure of a line of 20 hungry people behind you. Kiosks and apps not only relieve the stress of waiting in line but also allow guests the opportunity to explore different options they may have not even considered. It’s no surprise when analyzing sales patterns that kiosk and online orders typically have a higher check average than in-person ordering. The future of kiosks is nebulous, as restaurants need to invest in hardware, software and space to facilitate their use and still be compliant with ADA regulations. Not only is the space allocated for kiosks taking away from additional seating but they require maintenance, cleaning, and many times hard wiring. We quickly realized during the crisis that almost everyone carries an item with kiosk capabilities in their pockets. I am referring to, of course, our smartphones, which we can access without worrying about how often it gets sanitized.
Whether through an application or QR codes, phones are becoming the safest and most convenient form for communication between the customer and the foodservice production team. Instead of handing out physical menus, many restaurants now use a QR code. The guest scans the code with their personal device and a menu appears. This works great, but can restaurants take it further? I’ve seen some concepts use QR codes for the checkout process. What about ordering? This gives customers the ability to come in, see the menu, order, and even pay for their meals all from the comfort of their own phones.
QR codes have the potential to have a great impact in the industry; they do not require the customer to download and use an app. Apps do offer a variety of benefits for customer and operator alike. Consumers can order in advance, which often means they don’t have to wait in line, and they can even coordinate contactless curbside delivery if the operation offers that. For operators, app ordering allows them to deploy labor in other areas while often not compromising throughput. Also, apps often allow operators to better manage production and guest expectations. And apps help operators gather data about their customer base, which is more important than ever in this ever-changing environment.
Of course, apps are not for everyone. In my case having to download an application and add another bubble to my phone for every place I eat at is just not worth it. This becomes even more so when you consider third-party delivery services now serve as a consolidator by housing a variety of restaurant menus all in place.
Pickup lockers represent another technology that was taking off before the pandemic. Will the use of pickup lockers take off, or will customers opt to receive their food via curbside pickup, drive-thru, delivery – third-party or company operated — or another other model (perhaps a drone?)
As dine-in sales continue to decrease and off-premises revenues increase, the ability to have a contactless pickup experience continues to become more important. Here’s a quick look at some of the pros and cons of each approach to facilitating off-premises sales:
- Drive-thru: Very convenient to customer. No major implications to labor, however it lowers the half hourly throughput capacity of the drive-thru system. This translates to lower peak hourly, daily, weekly and annual sales.
- Curbside pickup: Convenient when executed correctly. Labor implications are significant, potentially delayed delivery when understaffed.
- Locker pickup: Less convenient because the guest must get out of the car. This does not impact labor. And it can help promote food safety by keeping orders separate and secure.
- Drones: All you need is a sunroof! Seriously, though, this solution offers lots of promise and can be complex.
Some additional technologies that have emerged as a result of COVID-19 focus on safety and the reassurance the restaurant operator is doing its part. There have been automated people counters, touchless temperature sensors for use with staff and guests, sanitizing cubies for personal items and sanitizing equipment.
Technology has always played a key role in the restaurant industry, but for many years it has been applied to kitchen equipment, food quality, kitchen display systems and many more areas all in the back of house. You can say that while some of these customer-facing technologies were coming along before the crisis, COVID-19 pushed the guardrails off and gave technology a jolt to eat with us in the dining rooms, drive-thrus and pickup areas.