By Mo Chaar
As restaurants grapple with ongoing closures throughout the pandemic, it’s clear that dining as we know it might never be the same.
Bans on indoor dining in provinces like British Columbia have been detrimental as businesses watch Ontario’s restaurant industry with bated breath, which has already been set back more than $100 million from reopening and closing costs alone.
With evolving regulations serving as an unpredictable reality for the hospitality industry, restaurants must stay ahead of government demands by adopting the necessary technology to allow for pivoting services at a moment’s notice.
Technology as the saving grace
Since the pandemic’s onset, innovative restaurant technology has served as a lifeline for struggling restaurants. Even those who may have resisted in the beginning have been forced to acknowledge that digital services aren’t simply nice to have but, rather, the next step of the industry’s evolution. The initial onset brought with it tableside QR codes to replace physical menus, online ordering when restaurants were operating at reduced capacity (if at all), and contactless payment options to reduce high touchpoints.
Fast-casual and quick-service restaurants (QSR) implemented digital menu boards and kiosks to automate the ordering process and elevate safety measures for customers and employees alike. Many businesses refused to provide change on cash payments or stopped accepting cash altogether. Mobile payment and credit cards have seen such a massive surge in usage throughout the pandemic that the contactless payment market size is anticipated to surpass $4.60 trillion USD by 2027.
As the longevity of the situation set in, however, restaurants invested in integrating online ordering platforms with point of sale (POS) and kitchen display systems (KDS) to streamline ordering and food preparation, while enhancing employee safety. When restaurants were hit with surprise indoor or outdoor dining restrictions, many quickly leaned into third-party delivery apps to maintain sales without the need to hire in-house delivery drivers.
However, what third-party delivery apps offered in expanding restaurants’ customer bases, they lacked in allowing ownership over the customer experience and the ability to retain their full revenue — certainly not ideal for those struggling to keep the lights on. With no end in sight to the rising case counts or the lockdowns that transpired, restaurants began pivoting their technology once again to combat their abysmal profit margins and outlast the pandemic.
With the adoption of advanced technology came in-house online ordering tools that could be integrated with third-party delivery apps, giving restaurants a greater ability to quickly adjust menu offerings and own their customer service. For those with the ability to coordinate their own delivery services, the development of advanced in-house restaurant technology suites has been monumental in giving dining establishments autonomy over their online ordering platform and customer service. Through these types of in-house digital tools, restaurants are developing loyalty programs to attract and retain customers and drive sales, all while retaining 100 per cent of their revenue.
Restaurants are typically designed to be community hubs, providing a safe space for friends to gather or serving as a venue for new interactions. The quickly spreading virus has, however, resulted in a significant loss of social interaction as people maintain distance from each other. For the safety-conscious or socially anxious, the rise of restaurant technology to reduce social interaction and high touchpoints can be a reason to breathe a sigh of relief — through a mask, of course. A weight lifted for the restaurant-loving introvert, QR-code menus, coupled with enhanced online ordering and payments, are the digital tools we didn’t know we needed, elevating the dining experience to create a more inclusive environment.
As the need for integrated and contactless restaurant technology has gained momentum, it has also expedited innovation, advancing the capabilities of these digital tools. Restaurants are increasingly adopting technology to support and automate operations, while offering detailed analytics to help restaurateurs make informed decisions regarding inventory, staffing, and menu optimization. Detailed POS reporting has enabled restaurants to thoroughly analyze the popularity of menu items, assess where revenue is gained or lost, and identify solutions to reduce costs. Through automated analytics, managers can pivot menu offerings or adjust pricing to optimize inventory management and reduce food waste.
The future of restaurants
With the rapid implementation of advanced restaurant technology as establishments across the country do whatever they can to keep the lights on, the future of hospitality operations has begun to set in. While the dining experience as we know it isn’t going to haunt us as the Ghost of Christmas Past, it has inarguably been forever transformed.
Going forward, ghost kitchens are going to continue increasing in popularity. The rising cost of commercial rent coupled with the uncertainty of the industry as a whole is making way for shared kitchen spaces and a newfound sense of community.
Regular bar patrons may miss their favourite bartenders but they are growing accustomed to picnics while legal public alcohol consumption in parks and outdoor spaces gains momentum. To keep up with evolving dining habits, restaurants will continue to offer enhanced takeout options and picnic boxes to elevate the dine-anywhere experience.
The switch to online ordering is making it more important than ever for restaurants to actively engage with customers to receive feedback and generate customer loyalty. With the reduction in face-to-face communication between employees and guests, utilizing integrated in-house technology will help owners share personalized offers with customers through social media, email marketing, and SMS marketing. Through the collection and analysis of customer data, managers have the ability to make informed, data-backed decisions to influence pricing and promotions.
Finally, restaurants, whether they like it or not, will have to become tech-savvy in order to outlast the pandemic. Customers have become quite accustomed to the convenience of online ordering, contactless payments, and delivery services, as well as the safety measures that QR codes and digital apps provide. The restaurant experience has already undergone a massive digital transformation, but with technology in a constant state of evolution, this is only the beginning.
Mo Chaar is the Chief Commercial Officer of Givex, where he oversees commercial strategy and development worldwide as well as managing sales teams within North America. His experience in gift card, loyalty, and POS has played a pivotal role in the success of some of Givex’s largest partners.