Cutting the cord: Upgrading the customer experience

The pandemic has made clear the importance of internet connectivity for restaurants

By Jason Falovo

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the restaurant industry is well-documented, with the closure of about 12,000 Canadian restaurants since the pandemic started. While online food delivery has grown, full-service visits to restaurants have declined significantly and were down four per cent in 2021 compared to the previous year, and 31 per cent compared to 2019.

As the relaxation of public health protections in many provinces changes the landscape yet again, owners must look for ways to strengthen dine-in business and support the off-premises activities that have become important for many restaurants.

Doing so depends on reliable, fast internet connections ­­­­— even for operators who didn’t consider this a priority in the past.

Internet connectivity has become fundamental both to customers and restaurants themselves. It not only supports behind-the-scenes operations but also enables operators to offer more engaging customer experiences to entice them back through the door when it is safe to do so.

From making sure wireless payment terminals work quickly and reliably in the farthest reaches of a patio to enabling pop-up restaurants, connectivity matters to the industry much more than it used to.

To support these new operational needs and customer expectations, Wireless Wide Area Networks (WWANs) are supplementing, or often replacing, wired networks, and Wi-Fi.

WWAN uses cellular modems and management systems to deliver connectivity wherever a business needs it and with growing delivery of 5G, at speeds and reliability that are much faster to implement than traditional wired networks.

Upgrading the customer experience

Put simply, seamless connectivity allows restaurants to deliver more engaging and touchless experiences, enabling them to provide COVID-safe environments at the same time.

For example, restaurants can implement interactive online menus that automatically update and allow customers to order from their tables. Handheld payment systems and technology-dependent contactless delivery have become an essential part of a safe and convenient customer experience. Contactless ordering and payment solutions can reduce average table turns by an average of 15 minutes, according to Toronto start-up OrderUp.

Solutions like these and changes to operations are important for restaurants as they look to navigate the new needs of customers, and they appear to be popular with owners. Sixty per cent plan to provide contactless payment once emergency measures are lifted, while over half say they will likely or very likely make contactless delivery permanent.

However, technologies and services such as those from OrderUp rely on always-available connectivity. These can be supported by secured wireless that can ensure smooth operations throughout premises and beyond. Not having cellular as a secondary connection could spell disaster when the inevitable internet outage hits.

Wireless connectivity can also facilitate a more personalized experience for diners, using data to offer customized offers and deals to repeat customers and allowing physical restaurants to compete with discounts offered by online delivery services.

About 88 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 own a smartphone, and 45 per cent check theirs at least every 30 minutes. Customers now expect accessible, free Wi-Fi in public places, including restaurants. This does, however, increase the load on traditional wired broadband services or Wi-Fi routers — often undermining the premium experience that customers demand.

As well as this, for security reasons, many restaurants based in shopping centres or markets will often require their own dedicated network that is independent of the wired one being offered by their landlord. WWAN solutions can help handle these issues, providing restaurants with their own portable network, distinct and secure from the local connection and able to handle the extra load by backing up the primary network, or acting as the primary network itself to ensure seamless connectivity.

Flexible operations from wherever you are

In the last two years, businesses have been tasked with reaching beyond their brick-and-mortar sites to connect with customers who were not able to or not interested in a return to indoor dining. Non-traditional restaurant experiences like pop-up stores and food trucks have provided one way to do that. Opportunities like festivals and markets, when and where they are safe to continue, allow restaurants to build on their customer base and cater to a wider range of the public.

Mobile food services traditionally have to depend on wired broadband installed at the location. And even then, they often need to rely on less-than-optimal Wi-Fi access to the network — if even available at all. In these situations, WWANs can enable businesses to be instantly connected wherever they decide to try selling. Instant and remote connectivity provides flexibility and stability, and a more well-rounded service for the customer.

Cellular connectivity can help restaurants provide a premium experience where the customer is based, rather than relying on them visiting a fixed location, offering some of the flexibility offered by online delivery services.

Supporting IoT devices

Internet of Things (IoT) devices can monitor operational functions such as temperature and energy usage of the restaurant and systems including refrigeration and inventory management.

All these add up to cost savings as operations are managed more efficiently. The data they provide needs to be shared reliably for benefits to be realized, making a robust network a must. Indeed, if the network carrying the data fails, it could have a wide-ranging impact on how the business operates. This again is where it can make sense for a WWAN to act as a backup network, or even as the primary network for this data, ensuring continual uptime.

Meeting expectations

Across the Canadian foodservice industry, 0.8 per cent of spending is on office and computer-related expenses, and 0.3 per cent on telephone, internet, and other telecommunications. These are some of the smallest items on the ledger, but they can have an outsize effect on operations.

Neglecting a business’s connectivity needs can mean an awkward delay for patio patrons as they wait for a payment to go through — especially if they split the bill! Businesses might have seen that as tolerable in the past — why would a restaurant need a fast internet connection? But needs and expectations have changed. Customers will expect a premium dining experience if they are to ditch online delivery services in favour of the real thing. And restaurants must find ways to be more flexible in serving customers where they congregate and improve operational efficiencies.

Digital technologies that are transforming how restaurants extend services, improve customer experiences, and drive new strategies require infrastructure that is agile and supports dynamic and rapid growth. Network connectivity is an integral component of enabling swift change, and Wireless WAN is one of today’s most efficient infrastructures for ensuring reliable, agile connectivity anywhere.

Jason Falovo is Vice President and General Manager, Canada, at Cradlepoint, a global leader in cloud-delivered LTE and 5G wireless network edge solutions.