Data is the future of restaurants

Photograph: Shutterstock

As someone who covers both trends and technology in the restaurant industry, I talk a lot about the future. And I’m not just talking driverless cars and robots. Instead, it’s the more realistic questions: What might the typical restaurant of the future look like? How are consumer preferences going to change over the next few years? What will the top traffic-drivers be in 2019 and 2020? What should brands prioritize operationally?

So, for the end of the year, we want to help answer some of those questions with this special issue. Driven by data from our sister company Technomic, we look at some of the key areas poised for growth.

Breakfast and lunch, for example, are shaping up to look a little different in the coming years as consumers continue to demand more convenience. As more working millennials age up into parenthood, it’s all about ease of use on weekdays. Weekends, the data shows, are another story.

Operators should also consider thinking beyond the three square meals, as consumers aren’t eating that way anymore. There’s opportunity to capitalize on snacking, especially knowing that consumers often take a buy-now-to-eat-later approach to preparing for between-meal bites.

One of the biggest drivers of change is the increased availability of off-premise options. Delivery is certainly rapidly growing, but so too is the desire for an upgraded carryout and drive-thru experience. In fact, “off-premise and delivery are changing the calculus of the business,” said Joe Pawlak, Technomic’s managing principal, at the FSTEC conference.

So what does all of that mean? Consumers aren’t looking to spend as much time in the actual establishments, so operators should think about ways to make their restaurants more functional. And they need to have more options that are quick for the on-the-go consumer to grab, including ones that can travel and hold well.

At the same time, consumers want value. And that doesn’t always mean price. [In fact, many are willing to pay more for options they consider to be better for them, whether that means something that is high protein, veg-forward or low calorie, depending on that specific person’s dietary needs.]

So how can operators provide this as costs are going up? The answer I keep hearing: turn to technology.

I know I said this wasn’t about robots, but maybe it is, at least a little. We’re not that far off from a back-of-house operation that leverages artificial intelligence, robots and other technology to deliver a consistent product. Consumers want everything on a whim—and they want operators to anticipate that whim and be able to serve them when and how they want. That means advanced data strategies.

And while it may seem a little creepy, consumers are being primed to be ready for these advances. Many brands are already using bots to answer customer service inquiries. Others are mining data to create one-to-one marketing messages, targeting specific guests’ interests. And some are taking it even further. Domino’s Pizza, for example, recently ran a test, asking customers if they wanted their meal delivered by an autonomous vehicle to judge peoples’ interest.

So, as we get ready to embark on the new year, we should also get ready to see a new, even more tech- and data-savvy industry. Growing traffic in a meaningful way is very difficult. And it starts with understanding and, in a way, catering to the evolving consumer.

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