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Technology

The hottest restaurant tech of 2020

The industry underwent years’ worth of tech adoption in a matter of months.
Illustration: Restaurant Business staff

2020 was a landmark year for restaurant technology. The pandemic forced the industry to rapidly innovate, resulting in years’ worth of tech adoption in a matter of months. Here are some highlights.

QR codes

The quirky bar codes made a big comeback in 2020 as easy-to-implement portals to contactless dining. Restaurants of all kinds slapped them on windows or table tents, allowing customers to quickly pull up the menu, start a tab or pay the bill without having to interact with anyone. They’re now a standard offering from e-commerce suppliers and will likely become a permanent feature of restaurant dining across segments.

Ghost kitchens

The buzz around delivery-only kitchens rose from a low rumble to a roar in 2020, abetted in part by the rise of delivery during the pandemic. Chains and indies alike began setting up shop in remote kitchens, touting staffing efficiencies, larger ticket sizes and the ability to enter new markets at a lower cost. Meanwhile, ghost kitchen providers such as Reef Kitchens raked in funding and plotted aggressive expansion. 

The future of the model will depend largely upon consumers’ continued appetite for delivery. But for some, that was a risk worth taking in the high-stakes pandemic environment. 

“Strange times call for strange measures, and I really think it’s kind of adapt or die right now,” said Eric Silverstein, founder of The Peached Tortilla in Austin, of his decision to open a ghost kitchen this fall.

Third-party delivery companies

Speaking of delivery… third-party providers had banner years, even as the industry they serve struggled. As customers and restaurants quickly turned to the service, Grubhub, Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates grew by leaps and bounds in just about every metric besides profitability—though they all stressed that was right around the corner. 

Most in the industry believe demand for delivery will be permanently elevated. That bullishness was on display earlier this month, when investors drove DoorDash’s market cap to more than $59 billion—valuing it higher than most restaurant chains.

Digital order integration 

2020 was a technological awakening for many restaurants, and as they began to take a closer look at their tech stacks, they quickly realized the benefits of digital integration, or the ability of one platform to share data with another. It has become a key consideration for chains like P.F. Chang’s, which at times prioritized a product’s ability to integrate above all else. And in September, Arby’s parent Inspire Brands underscored the importance of integration when it invested in software company ItsaCheckmate and implemented the service in all of its restaurants, allowing it to route third-party delivery orders directly to the POS in thousands of locations.

Geolocation

As takeout and curbside pickup flourished, so did the technology that helps it run. That included geofencing that allows restaurants to know precisely when a customer has arrived to pick up their food. It was on the wish list of a number of chains including Applebee’s, IHOP and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit. Meanwhile, Burger King used it to power a creative promotion: It used geolocation to give free Whoppers to customers who checked in at the site of a closed competitor. 

UV light 

With safety and hygiene a top priority amid the pandemic, many restaurants turned to ultraviolet light technology to help purify the air and sanitize surfaces in their restaurants. For some, it was a major investment, but one they felt was worth it as winter approached and the virus showed no signs of stopping.

“$25,000 [per restaurant] is a lot of money. But what is $25,000 for the safety of a person, for the safety of an associate, for the safety of a manager?” said Ype Von Hengst, co-founder of the Silver Diner chain, which added UV systems across its restaurants over the summer.

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