Tech is enhancing the restaurant experience for consumers … or is it?

The pandemic has accelerated customer-facing technology to make dining out safer. Is that compromising hospitality?
Illustration: Nikki Ernst
Illustration: Nikki Ernst

Editor's note: This story is part of a week-long examination on the impact of the coronavirus on restaurant technology.

In the pre-COVID world, operators were focused primarily on in-house technology to streamline inventory, track sales, set up loyalty programs and integrate POS systems with off-premise orders. But the surge in takeout and delivery during the pandemic, coupled with mandatory safety regulations for in-restaurant visits, has accelerated customer-facing technology.

Data from Technomic Ignite consumer brand metrics indicates that for the most part, even full-service customers welcome the digital platforms that facilitate delivery and pickup. Of those surveyed, 49% are in favor of using technology to improve the overall off-premise experience, up 14% since 2019. And 51% feel it’s important to use technology to help provide good value, a 10% increase over last year.

But technology also is a more essential part of dining at a restaurant—both inside and outdoors. Smartphones can now handle reservations, wait list management, menu selection—both ahead of and during a visit—contactless order and payment and several other functions. Does that mean consumers are missing that personal touch?

Not necessarily, especially during a pandemic. Technomic reports that 46% of consumers want restaurants to provide online/mobile or kiosk/tabletop ordering capabilities, and 43% prefer that method of payment.

“The biggest pain point for diners is waiting for the server to come around and present the check,” says Robert Byrne, director of consumer and industry insights for Technomic. “And consumers are not demanding the hippest, coolest, sleekest tech to accomplish this. They are looking for ease, and QR codes are the easiest way to improve this experience.”

While delivery apps and online platforms facilitate off-premise ordering, customers visiting a restaurant seem to prefer QR codes that allow them to order and pay via credit card or Apple Pay. Consumers do not want to overload their phones with apps, says Byrne.

“Ease of ordering” also ranks high with consumers in a survey by Toast, the Boston-based restaurant management software company. Thirty-nine percent of respondents prioritize ease when ordering takeout, and 50% care most about this attribute for delivery. For on-premise dining, Toast found that 38% of consumers want contactless pay or pay at the table capabilities.

The absence of contactless order and pay may turn customers away from visiting a restaurant entirely. SevenRooms, a New York City-based data-driven guest experience platform, reports that 13% of Americans will only dine out at restaurants with contactless dining options. When guests book a reservation through this platform, they get a reservation text and a link to the menu, so they can even order ahead and pay through that link for a completely contactless experience.

But while guests are seeking the safety and convenience of these tech enhancements, don’t they still want a high level of hospitality?

Joel Montaniel, CEO and co-founder of SevenRooms, believes it’s possible to deliver both. At the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, guests get a welcome video from the chef when they check in—either by scanning a QR code or reserving and ordering ahead. “The chef explains the concept and makes recommendations to make the experience more personal,” says Montaniel. Servers still come to the table to deliver the food and add on food and drink choices.

And technology makes it possible to track consumers’ preferences, once they put their name in a reservation or delivery platform. If a customer ordered food to go from a restaurant that they then visited in person, the manager can put that item on the table as a gesture of hospitality, Montaniel says.

The coronavirus may have changed the definition of hospitality, but operators are finding new ways to deliver the experience in a tech-centric world.


Technology in the age of coronavirus

Restaurant Business is publishing a five-part series examining the way the industry has used technology to adapt to consumer changes during the coronavirus, and whether these changes are permanent. The package also features additional pieces, including a video and a podcast.

Part 1: Can ghost kitchens bring restaurants back to life?

Part 2: Virtual brands emerge from the shadows

Part 3: Curbside service shifts into the fast lane

Part 4: Mobile ordering takes off, thanks to COVID

Part 5: With health a top priority, restaurants race to innovate

Also see:

Video: A look at ghost kitchen provider Kitchen United

Tech is enhancing the restaurant experience for consumers … or is it?

Podcast: How Reef Kitchens is riding the wave of delivery demand

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