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6 tech takeaways from the takeout frontier

FARE Conference 2015

Some 75 percent of foodservice consumption is off-premise, according to the National Restaurant Association. And while delivery is the new frontier for many, much out-of-store eating still consists of people going to a restaurant and taking food to go, said presenters at this week’s FARE Conference. In fact, despite having a model built for in-store consumption, 28-unit fast casual Pizza Rev sees a quarter of its pizzas walk out the door to-go, says founder and CEO Rodney Eckerman.

“There’s a large shift in foodservice to food consumed elsewhere,” said Noah Glass, founder and CEO of mobile-ordering provider Olo. “There’s an idea of using restaurants as a surrogate home kitchen. Someone else preps and cooks the food, but you still eat at home.”

Yet the ordering process looks nothing like it did a decade ago. “We’re going through a digital shift, and not seeing that is extinction,” he says.

Technology is rapidly making its way into the ordering process, but it’s still new and often confusing. Here’s what FARE presenters and attendees had to say about the development of tech impacting their businesses, especially with takeout.

1. Tech still has a lot of risk

The marketplace is changing at a fast clip, with new hardware and software rolling out constantly. But operators need to be careful that they’re not too far ahead of the curve, says Eckerman, because the tech could become a financial and physical burden if adopted before consumers are ready.

Tech expert Rob Grimes went as far as to suggest smaller operators look to larger counterparts—which often have the fiscal wherewithal to conduct research and tests—to see what’s working before jumping in head first.

2. Have a digital roadmap

There’s a lot of technology being sold right now, said Eckerman. He’s found that there’s not a one-size-fits-all package that does everything he needs at PizzaRev. So instead, he suggests operators create a technology roadmap—a list of all the tech functions they’re hoping to incorporate—and find suppliers that fit all of their needs and work together to form an integrated web.

3. There’s a reason large suppliers might be dragging their feet

Some suppliers see online ordering as an existential threat to their hardware and software, said Glass, since guests are using their own devices and software. While cashiers once needed POS systems to punch in orders, are doing it themselves remotely.

Especially as more operations go to cloud-based systems, suppliers are “like cornered animals,” Glass said. While the POS will never fully go away, it will serve a different, less prominent purpose, since fewer customers will need to frequent it.

4. It’s about more than consumer convenience

Yes, convenience to the guest is a big driver behind the push towards mobile ordering and delivery, but these tech implementations also can help throughput, says Glass. He gave the analogy of open-road tolling taking the place of change collectors in tollbooths. You can get many more cars through with EZPass, versus having every single one stop. It’s fast and more efficient for all parties involved, he says. And those efficiencies can help with labor costs on the P&L, says Eckerman, who expressed concern about Los Angeles’ jump to a $15 minimum wage. “We’re adapting a lot of programs that allow us to do the same job quicker,” he said. “It is a necessity for us to find ways to do things more efficiently and eliminate manpower.”

5. Restaurant design will have to change to accommodate flux in digital ordering

Newer chains such as Sweetgreen are laying out stores to accommodate the large number of guests who place orders ahead of time. Half of its counter is designated for customers who’ve ordered digitally. But operators also need to keep back-of-house capabilities in mind, says Grimes. Kitchen software needs to be “smart” enough to realize how quick a kitchen can crank out orders—or if there are times when it’s too slammed—in order to properly quote a pick-up time to guests. That’s the same with delivery programs; they need to take weather, traffic and more into account and focus on intelligent routing to give customers real-time feedback, something they’ve grown to expect.

6. No more no-show, no-pays

Another benefit, aside from throughput and convenience, is the security digital payment puts in place. Five Guys used to take a lot of orders over the phone, but it ran into a big problem when it couldn’t take payment over the phone, said Glass. It lost a lot of money when call-ahead orders weren’t getting picked up, and the chain wanted to make guests pay ahead of time. Switching to a mobile app, guests pay for orders before the order is even submitted, protecting the bottom line.  

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