By Ziv Schierau
Discussing the intersection of technology and dining lends itself easily to extremes. For example, you might imagine ‘The Restaurant of the Future’ — a Jetsons-like scenario — where automation has completely taken over every aspect of the dining experience, where meals are served using 3D-printers and each meal comes out perfect, every time. While specific applications of this kind of automation may be helpful in some situations, it’s not completely realistic.
Today, restaurants are still heavily focused on person-to-person interaction and building relationships between diners and staff. Restaurants rely on maintaining those strong relationships, and creating unforgettable experiences for their guests in order to turn one-time diners into regular customers. Technology cannot replace the interactions diners have with staff, but it can dramatically enhance hospitality and guest experiences beginning well before someone even gets seated at a table.
The integration of technology in the restaurant industry should, in most cases, not be seen as an attempt to replace those all-important person-to-person interactions. Using it in subtle ways can enhance and elevate a restaurant’s ability to make every diner feel special.
To some detractors, the idea of integrating technology with their business can sound daunting. Even having a website with a current menu and online reservation system may be enough to discourage them from fully embracing technology in a way that can truly help their business. Nevertheless, technology has become a game-changer in the foodservice industry, and those who choose not to adopt new innovations risk getting left behind.
Technology now affects nearly every aspect of a restaurant business, from the dining room to the kitchen, both before a guest arrives and after they leave. Restaurants looking to make the most of the tools available to them can touch any part of the diner’s experience. The reality is, enhancing an area of a restaurant’s business through the use of technology — for example, adopting a social media promotion strategy — can be the difference between success and failure.
Technology in the restaurant and foodservice industry should be seen as an enabler, letting staff from the front-of-house to the kitchen focus on what they do best.
Social media rules
There may be no technology that has shaped the restaurant industry more profoundly in recent years than social media. From Instagram to Twitter, Snapchat to Facebook and everything in between, social media users are sharing their dining photos, restaurant reviews and recommendations online in a public space. It has never been easier for customers and potential diners to get information on the type of restaurants in their local area and learn what other people have to say about their experiences. Depending on your point-of-view, the prevalence of social media can be a positive or a negative.
Those who squirm at the idea of a social media strategy are denying themselves and their business access to a tremendous pool of potential patrons, while those who embrace it stand to gain tremendously, and not only in attracting new diners, but engaging with returning customers when they post messages about their experiences. Whether or not you like it, diners are having a discussion about your business online — sharing positive and sometimes negative comments about their meal — so it is important for your business to be listening for all types of feedback on social media.
In an industry as competitive as the restaurant and foodservice industry, no business can afford to ignore feedback from customers, no matter where it comes from. Social media has become so integral to how restaurants operate, some have dedicated social media community managers so they can be constantly in tune with what their customers and fans are saying about them online.
Social media is not only about reviews. It allows businesses better access to customers’ feedback, and it’s giving diners more access to the inner workings of the favourite restaurants, with some kitchens using platforms like Instagram to give their fans behind-the-scenes access to how meals are prepared, how food is sourced and how the kitchen works. In this way, social media has the power to positively affect any restaurant. It doesn’t have to come down to how many fans, followers or likes your business has (although, more never hurts!) — it’s about showcasing your restaurant as an active and engaged member of the community and building a unique voice and brand.
We’re living in the big data era. Companies large and small are using the data they’ve accumulated over years of being in business to be more attentive to their customers’ needs and also to be more savvy marketers. For example, a recent survey by OpenTable uncovered that 25 per cent of restaurant bookings through OpenTable in Canada were for special occasions such as birthdays, while 13 per cent were for date nights. Astute restaurants can use that information to craft special promotions, menus and events that specifically target those diners.
Changing menus and creating targeted promotions only begins to scratch the surface of where data can help a restaurant. In fact, leveraging data is about creating a more efficient business, and restaurant groups that track data meticulously are reaping the benefits. They’re able to discern with incredible accuracy times of the day, week, month and year they are not only the busiest, but most profitable, and plan accordingly. Increasing reliability and predictability around everyday tasks such as placing orders or scheduling staff members helps these businesses stand out in a highly competitive industry. Whereas traditionally, knowledge about customers’ tastes, favourite dishes, and where they prefer to sit is retained on an individual level, using tools such as restaurant management software means the data you and your staff collect about customers can be shared with the entire team, and be as detailed as it needs to be. For example, making note that a regular patron may have a specific table she enjoys and usually orders her favourite burger without tomatoes — this kind of attention to detail can not only help retain existing customers but also turn new diners into regulars.
Customer data can be an extremely powerful ally but as restaurants begin to use that data in creative new ways, it’s important to conduct trials, set goals and review their progress to see how their changes are coming and make adjustments if necessary. The extreme competition in the foodservice industry means that even the smallest advantage can be a difference-maker.
Likewise, using technology such as restaurant management software to handle reservations, keep waitlists and help staff seat guests is also about improving restaurant efficiency. There is a two-fold effect when restaurant management systems are used: Customers gain increased flexibility and choice, through a convenient way to book their table online using a web browser or mobile app; and restaurants gain increased insight into their guests, their habits and how each service will play out.
Restaurant management software offers a new level of awareness to front-of-house staff, allowing them to share details with one another about each table such as special occasions like anniversaries or important notes, including dietary preferences or that patron’s favourite bottle of wine. The ability to easily share information with staff without the worry it will be lost or miscommunicated means tighter shifts with fewer mistakes, and more satisfied diners than ever before.
Technology’s benefits are not only reserved for patrons. By coupling restaurant management software with a mobile device such as a tablet, staff can gain increased mobility, flexibility and knowledge. Table management is no longer about messy dry erase boards or confusing reservation books — instead tables are filled quickly and easily on a visual interface, decreasing errors and stress. Waitlists can be entered digitally with automatic notifications to guests when their tables are ready, reducing the anxiety of missing your place in line and also reducing interruptions at the host stand. Overall, it can serve to improve the quality of the guest experiences.
It can be easier to see the benefits of technology used by customer-facing staff but improvements to back-of-house operations can be just as important to the overall efficiency of a restaurant. Tools like scheduling software can easily integrate with payroll and provide restaurant managers and owners increased visibility, predictability and control over tasks like managing inventory for their businesses.
Automating certain processes is not about taking tasks away from staff, but creating more streamlined workflows so staff have more time to interact with customers in positive ways or creating memorable dishes and experiences that turn first-time diners into regulars.
Just as staff have more information about their regulars, customers are now coming to restaurants equipped with more than their appetites. Diners research menus before they even make a reservation — browsing online reviews to read what others are saying about popular dishes. It highlights the importance of small things like having an up-to-date, mobile-ready website, with an easy-to-change menu section so customers are not surprised (or worse, disappointed) when they are greeted with a different menu when they arrive for their reservation. It also helps to have current social media, contact and location information available online and linked to a map so guests can easily get the proper directions and so fast web searches can turn up the information diners look for most.
The future of technology and the restaurant industry
The pace of consumer technology, in part, drives how quickly the foodservice industry must adopt new systems. An example of this is the trend towards wearable technology such as smartwatches, which can easily send diners reminders about reservations, notifications when their tables are ready, or even provide customized directions to the restaurant.
Other examples of recent technology changing how diners pick and choose restaurants are voice-activated personal assistants such as Siri and Cortana. These tools give recommendations based on numerous factors including current location, the type of cuisine a user is searching for and whether the restaurant has a website or online presence. Some of these services also go a step further, giving diners the ability to book tables at the restaurants they have been recommended.
With online reservation systems and apps, users can browse local restaurants by cuisine, by popularity and newness, and even by the type of meal they’re requesting, such as a business lunch or for restaurants that offer gluten-free and vegan meals. It’s not difficult to see that consumers are using all the means at their disposal to make more informed decisions about their dining choices. In turn, restaurants must adjust their tactics to meet customers on new platforms, online and in social media.
Luckily, restaurants are now better able to compile and act on the droves of customer data they’ve been collecting to create exceptional experiences for guests and run their businesses more efficiently.
In an industry that is so heavily focused on personal connections and relationships, technology must not be seen as an intruder but an enabler. Those able to use it to its fullest are already reaping the rewards.
About the author:
Ziv Schierau is Head of National Accounts for OpenTable Canada. For more information, visit www.opentable.com.