Computing the outlook for restaurant tech

What’s ahead tech-wise for restaurants in 2012? Probably less of the pent-up demand they’ve borne in the years just prior, according to the National Restaurant Association.

In an assessment last year of restaurateurs’attitudes toward technology, the trade group found that operators highly value the cutting edge. Nearly eight of 10 survey participants view technology as a means of creating business opportunities, 73% said it boosts their profits, and 72% agreed that technology upgrades deliver a good return on investment.

Not that many of them would know first hand. Eighty-three percent had earmarked less than 10 percent of their budgets for buying or upgrading technology. No wonder nearly half the respondents (46%) expressed the opinion that restaurateurs lag the rest of the world in its adoption of digital tools and amenities.

"They don't have the revenues to buy it," observed Dave Matthews,   chief information officer and senior vice president of the NRA.

He sees that situation changing, or at least easing, in 2012.

For one thing, industry prospects are improving. The NRA has forecast real growth, albeit less than 1%, for the year. "“Fundamentals have improved, and will continue to improve,”Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA’s Research & Knowledge Group, said in releasing projections Feb. 1 for 2012.

"Restaurants might have more dollars to spend on it," says Matthews.

At the same time, "restaurateurs are being bombarded with technology as consumers," he asserts. "They ultimately realize it can help their business."

He also sees the process getting some topspin by the industry's traditional reliance on young people as employees. "Gen X and Gen Y are what I call technology natives--they've grown up with it," Matthews explains. "The older generations are technology aliens.  They're going to say to these younger generations, 'Help us figure it out.'"

Matthews says the industry, despite pronounced pressure on profits, has been drawn less to cost-cutting technology than to digital aids with the potential of boosting sales. "It really is about sales and marketing--new ways to spend their marketing dollars," he comments.

Choosing between cost-cutters and sales boosters won't be a major dynamic this year, suggests Matthews. Rather, "it's all about mobility in 2012 and migrating things to smart phones."

His assertions are underscored by an NRA survey late last year of almost 2,000 chefs who belong to the American Culinary Federation. Asked to predict the hot restaurant technologies for 2012, 26% of the respondents cited smart phone apps for restaurant customers.

Matthews predicts, "Texting is going to be bigger than e-mail marketing because it allows instant communications and it enables the restaurateur to craft messages that are time sensitive--'we bought to much of this, so let's send out a text special on it."

Further out, "we'll probably see more GPS mobile features, so a restaurant can tell where its customers are and who's close by."

Overall, says Matthews. "technology is always going to compete with other restaurant issues and way to spend money.

"But it's going to be a higher priority this year."

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