Customization allows guests to feel appreciated and valued.

We’re living in unprecedented times—as everyone keeps saying. COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives, and the economy as a whole. For many, restaurants and the food service industry have become truly essential, but also, have been one of the industries hit the hardest. At the same time, restaurants have been the only joy in many consumers’ lives—the only thing keeping people thriving. This creates a tremendous opportunity to succeed in this new world.

The pandemic showed us how quickly consumer behavior changed and how quickly the restaurant industry had to adapt. From healthcare and essential workers needing to quickly grab food on the go, to consumers who were forced to shelter at home and order delivery, fast-service restaurants have helped all of us through these critical times. Restaurant owners and marketers have learned how to quickly shift, adapt, and meet customers’ needs, creating experiences dominated by technology and an enhanced focus on the digital experience and engagement.

While none of us could have predicted the toll the pandemic would have on the industry, there are some vital takeaways that all restaurateurs and marketers need to know and incorporate.

Technology Meets the Customer Experience

With COVID-19 came an acceleration to digital. The food service industry, traditionally an in-person experience, had to transform and shift online, seemingly overnight. With consumers forced to quarantine at home, food delivery services experienced an uptick as traditional dining was forced to close down. During a March 2020 survey from Statista, 41.7 percent of U.S consumers stated that if confined to their homes during the coronavirus, they were likely to purchase restaurant food delivery online.

Enter the need for technology, combined with creating personalized experiences for consumers. Smart menus and in-app ordering have taken off, with many choosing to scan QR codes to access menus, in select geographical areas. Not only does this enforce social distancing protocols, it also makes it easier for marketers to create personalized digital experiences for their customers.

As part of the acceleration to digital, Taco Bell implemented AI-powered, in-app customer personalization to cater to guest’s individual needs. The company served app users relevant menu items, promotions, and other content based on order history and dietary preferences, amongst other details.

With online experiences, guests will often create an account to order, or use a mobile app, as similar to Taco Bell. This is where technology and personalization comes in. Display their frequent items, but also introduce new menu items they may enjoy based on preferences of guests with similar tastes. This creates a digital experience that consumers want and expect.

Customization allows guests to feel appreciated and valued, especially during these unprecedented times. Going the extra step to understand the guest maximizes every touchpoint between restaurant and consumer, ensuring efficient and quality service. It also provides the added benefit of creating a potential opportunity to capture more of the consumer’s wallet through additional purchases, creating a more loyal and happy customer base.

Data is Crucial

Pre-pandemic, consumers were able to walk into a restaurant, browse a paper menu and interact with servers. Gone are those days, and no one knows when they will come back. With social distancing protocols in place, and contact-less interactions, marketers have to work harder to recreate the customer experience. Whether through branded promotions or post-meal engagement surveys, letting the customer know that you care about their experience is critical.

Look at your data to see which items are selling from your menu. Identify the loyal consumers who are quick to reorder, and segment those from the ones who browse your menu but have not purchased. Customize and amplify your promotions and marketing accordingly. While it might not have made sense to offer the same discounts to all your customers, a price reduction can open your brand up to new and prospective consumers.

For restaurants who are struggling during COVID-19, the answer to being successful lies within one of the fundamental reasons for success—understanding its customers’ needs.  Consumers are still ordering food—in fact, more than ever—but in different ways than before.

The Lessons Learned

When restaurants are allowed to reopen, pending each location, being able to keep customers safe will still be critical. One chain doing this extremely well is Sweetgreen. The company’s “Outpost” program focused on making it easier for contact-less delivery, placing pickup shelves in offices and apartment buildings, with free delivery to all Sweetgreen’s Outposts locations.

These transformative technologies, including QR codes, streamlined ordering and online payments, are transforming the restaurant industry, and how consumers dine. It’s also forcing marketers and owners to rethink nearly every other aspect of restaurants. From dining options, to curbside pickup, restaurants must rethink the available real estate options. Or new and creative pickup methods, with touchless options and less face-to-face interactions. And most importantly, reevaluating the customer experience. Focusing heavily on utilizing data as a driving force to target consumers, and cater to each guest’s needs.

Today, more than ever, consumers have shown their behaviors can adapt and change in an instant. As we continue to work through the challenges from COVID-19, the restaurant business model, consumer habits, and our definition of ‘normal’ will continue to evolve. The right technology will help restaurant owners and marketers digitize, modernize and monetize the guest experience. I foresee the year ahead as one filled with innovation, excitement and opportunity.

Andrew Furman serves as Senior Vice President of Sales at Outbrain overseeing North America. Outbrain is a digital native advertising company at the center of the feed discovery innovation. In his current and past roles, Andrew consults brands, agencies, and publishes on how to successfully execute digital content marketing strategies and initiatives. Andrew has over 20 years of advertising sales and sales management experience, which includes over six years at FOX in both NY and Chicago. Andrew graduated from Indiana University School of Business with a BA in Marketing/International Business and received an MBA from Baruch Zicklin School of Business in NY. Andrew resides in Chicago with his wife and twin children and is an avid skier.

Expert Takes, Feature, Technology