Technology

7 tech takeaways from the National Restaurant Association's annual forecast

Restaurants will add more technology in 2024, even as some consumers say they’ve had enough, according to the State of the Restaurant Industry report.
Ordering app
60% of restaurants plan to invest in customer-facing tech this year. | Photo courtesy of Toast

Think technology is a big topic in restaurants right now? The National Restaurant Association’s annual State of the Restaurant Industry report, published Tuesday, devotes 14 of its 60 pages to tech and concludes that it will continue to play a major role in restaurants this year.

Here are seven key takeaways from the data, which comes from surveys of operators and consumers.

Restaurants race ahead with tech

Restaurants looking to run more efficiently and win favor with customers are continuing to embrace tech. In general, more operators plan to invest in technology in 2024 than last year, especially in products designed to improve the customer experience (60%) and make the kitchen more efficient (52%).

Consumers, however, have mixed feelings on tech in their dining experience. A third of all adults actually said they want less tech in full-service restaurants, while 27% said the same of quick-service restaurants.

The responses varied significantly by age group, though: Almost half (48%) of millennials, for instance, want more tech in FSRs, and 40% of Gen Z said the same of QSRs.

And a good chunk of people (about 38%) just want restaurants’ level of technology to stay the same. 

Operators should know their audience before deciding how to spend their tech budget, because different customers expect different things.

If your restaurant doesn’t have a loyalty program, it probably should

As inflation-weary diners continue to seek out value, loyalty programs can give restaurants a serious edge. Nearly half (48%) of loyalty program users said they’re less likely to try new restaurants because they’d rather go someplace where they can earn rewards. And a whopping 78% said they’re more likely to visit a restaurant where they can earn points, even if it’s less convenient. A restaurant without a loyalty program or points system risks being left out of the consideration set. 

Robots aren’t coming for restaurant jobs …

The rise of robots and artificial intelligence in restaurants has stoked fears that human jobs could soon be automated away. And while nearly half (47%) of operators believe automation will become more common in 2024, just 14% said they added a piece of tech or equipment that actually replaced an employee last year. 

Instead, the majority of operators (69%) agreed with the common refrain that tech will augment rather than replace human restaurant staff. 

… But gig workers might be

But what about those positions that restaurants just can’t seem to fill? Some might turn to gig workers. A quarter of operators said tapping gig workers to do restaurant jobs will become more common in 2024. That included 29% of limited-service restaurants and 21% of full-service places.

It comes as 7 out of 10 operators say they’re having trouble filling job openings, especially in the kitchen.

Ghost kitchens are dead …

The report should lay to rest any lingering hope for a resurgence of delivery-only restaurant concepts: Just 1 in 5 operators believe they’ll become more common this year, down from 30% last year and 40% in 2022. 

Ghost kitchens—the catch-all term for restaurants that offer only delivery, often out of large, multi-unit facilities—got a boost early in the pandemic but have been in decline for years, largely because it’s hard to make money via delivery alone. As Restaurant Business Executive Editor Lisa Jennings wrote last week, many of the traditional ghost kitchen players have abandoned the business, clearing the way for new models.

… But delivery hangs tough

The return of in-person dining after pandemic lockdowns combined with significantly inflated prices for food delivery could have easily killed the delivery business. Instead, it kept right on chugging, and looks poised to continue doing that in 2024. More than half (55%) of operators expect off-premises sales to hold steady this year, and 31% believe they will increase. 

Meanwhile, 6 in 10 consumers said they ordered delivery from a third-party app at least once in the past six months, and 70% of restaurants offer delivery through one or more of those apps. 

Reservations emerge as a revenue stream

As on-premise dining has roared back to life in recent years, restaurant reservations have become harder to get. Now, a surprising number of consumers said they’d be willing to pay for them. Overall, 30% of adults said they would pony up for the chance to sit at a specific table, including 54% of Gen Zers and 44% of millennials. Boomers, on the other hand? Not so crazy about the idea. Just 10% said they’d do it. 

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