In the hospitality world, service is held in a higher regard than just about any other aspect. The industry thrives on cultivating relationships with patrons and delivering exceptional experiences. Even in restaurants, where food is king, service is arguably emperor.
This is the crux of why restaurants have so long resisted technology integration—the fear being that it puts an unnecessary layer between staff members and guests.
“The full-service category has always prided itself on being such a high-touch business and an experiential business, and that has long been a differentiator. It’s not just about food; it’s about the experience,” says Zach Goldstein, founder and CEO of loyalty and guest engagement platform Thanx. “Technology was viewed as a barrier between the very well-trained and valuable staff at a full-service restaurant and the customers. I believe that was misguided, but it was long the challenge in the industry when it came to adopting technology.”
But then another barrier, one far more obtrusive than technology emerged: COVID-19. For the first time, restaurants were physically severed from their customer base. And like that, even the most staunch critics came to adopt solutions that could help see them through the difficult days ahead.
Now that the dust has (somewhat) settled and more guests are returning to their favorite restaurants, operators are left to ponder which pandemic-era adoptions should stay and what role technology plays in the dining experience.
“We were all forced, whether or not we wanted to, to embrace a couple of types of technology. Some were things that a lot of restaurant groups and retailers were already leaning into, and it just sort of sped that process up. For others in the more hospitality-driven, full-service concepts, we were forced into it by necessity,” says Adam Halberg, CEO of upscale NextGen Casual restaurant Barcelona Wine Bar. “Now that we’ve played with this stuff that we deliberately avoided in the past, do we believe that there’s a life for these tech relationships after the pandemic?”
The answer is as individual and varied as the restaurants themselves.
The early adopters
Even before 2020, casual-dining giant Applebee’s was exploring the potential of a more tech-savvy dining room. As far back as 2014, the brand began installing tablets on its tables, which brought not only an interactive component but also a streamlined experience. With these tablets, guests could play music and games or add drinks and other menu items to their existing order and also pay at the table. Later, its redesigned app extended payment options to mobile phones, too.
For Applebee’s, the intent behind these initiatives was to better serve customers by boosting convenience.
“Now that we’ve played with this stuff that we deliberately avoided in the past, do we believe that there’s a life for these tech relationships after the pandemic?” asks Adam Halberg, CEO of Barcelona Wine Bar.
“Tablets are used to make ordering a quicker and easier transaction so that servers can focus on providing guests an even better experience,” says Justin Skelton, chief information officer of Applebee’s parent company Dine Brands. “We’re focused on ensuring that the technology we adopt into our restaurants and daily operations helps create a seamless guest experience.”
Applebee’s was also ahead of the curve in exploring off-premises opportunities, whether by partnering with third-party delivery platforms or offering Curbside To-Go service. In December 2019, it even dipped its toes in the fast-casual world with Applebee’s Express, though the concept was among the brand’s store closures early in COVID.
In the age of dine-in restrictions, these off-site initiatives gave Applebee’s a leg-up because it already had a foundation from which to build.
“As a forward-thinking brand, Applebee’s was already leaning into technology and due to the pandemic, at an even more accelerated rate. We enhanced our online ordering, carryout, and to-go capabilities, and we launched our virtual-only brand, Cosmic Wings,” Skelton says. “It’s critical we’re able to provide unique and useful digital solutions that engage our guests where they are.”
This strategy is yielding positive results. Compared to 2019 numbers, same-store sales were up 10.5 percent in Q2 2021 and 12.5 percent in Q3. According to Black Box Intelligence, Applebee’s also outperformed the category average in the third quarter.
Fellow casual-dining brand Chili’s is also embracing tech and in a manner that could help curtail labor issues. After launching what was ultimately considered an unsuccessful pilot four years ago, Chili’s retooled its Team Service Evolution (TSE) model last year. The updated version, which has been rolled out in all locations as of December, comprises three components, two of which are tech-forward.
First, all servers now use iPad Minis to take orders and serve as the point of sale. The beverage and bar areas were also outfitted with kitchen display screens. The final part of TSE might not be a tool per se, but rather a new position that exists because of tech solutions. Thanks to the iPad Minis and display screens, runners can assist the waitstaff in various ways, such as by bringing beverages to the table as soon as those orders are entered.
“TSE allows our servers to spend more time in the dining room checking on guests at their tables and increasing their attention and focus on guest needs,” says Pankaj Patra, Chili’s senior vice president and chief information officer. “Our guests don’t notice the technology being used, but rather benefit from excellent service and attentive team members during their visits.”
The benefits also extend to employees since the model allows for a smaller staff with higher wages. This in turn translates to a stronger workforce; as Wyman Roberts, CEO of parent company Brinker International pointed out in an October earnings call, “That means we get to keep the best of them.”
For Chili’s, the goal of platforms like TSE isn’t to curb server-guest interactions but rather enhance them. With a streamlined process, waitstaff can spend more time with customers and less time running to and from the dining room.
“I think that again, it comes down to personalization and really caring about what the guest needs and wants and not just not just serving them up messages and hoping they resonate, but really doing the due diligence to know that something is going to resonate,” says Angela Zoiss of Bottleneck.
“We encourage all servers to spend at least 80 percent of their time with their guests while our runners execute food and beverage delivery to tables. Every team member has a specific role and focus to increase productivity and efficiency without compromising the quality of experience,” Patra says.
Personal touch, personal tech
Like many social media platforms, tech can also offer operators a means to interact with their guests beyond the restaurant’s four walls. Bottleneck Management, parent group of multiunit concepts like City Works, Old Town Pour House, and Secret Sauce, drives foot traffic using both on- and off-premises digital solutions.
Within the restaurants, the company deploys Adentro, a Wi-Fi marketing program, to collect customer data, glean insights, and measure the ROI of marketing efforts. Off-site, Bottleneck uses Thanx to communicate with members of its loyalty program.
“Between those two pieces of tech, we are able to evaluate who’s coming into our restaurants, how often, what they’re spending. And really, that’s all to provide a more personalized experience for the guest,” says Angela Zoiss, chief marketing officer for Bottleneck Management. “The ability to target a guest based on behaviors that are specific to them, I think, is of critical importance. … People are going to pay attention to something that resonates with them much more so than offers that are being blanketed to everybody.”
For example, through Thanx, Bottleneck can personalize messages based on the customer, whether that’s offering something special for their birthday or just checking in if they haven’t visited the restaurant lately.
Zoiss says that keeping these points of connection are especially important for growing brands.
“We were a group that went from one restaurant to now 15 across the country, and we know that gone are the days where we had the bandwidth and ability to recognize everybody who walked in the door,” she says. “We still want to provide that genuine hospitality and that level of personalization. So the challenge is how do we do that on a larger scale, and some of that tech helps us do that.”
Adentro and Thanx were already in place before COVID, which allowed Bottleneck to concentrate on launching online ordering. Customers can order through third-party services, though if they use the branded app—built through Thanx—the restaurant can track their reward points.
In 2021, Bottleneck also implemented pay-at-the-table capability through OneDine. The option saves guests from having to flag down servers at busy times; it also offers them the option to minimize interactions with staff, if they so choose, though Zoiss says this group is hardly the majority.
“One of the things we’re seeing great brands do in full service is really differentiate between a heavily tech-enabled experience and a completely non-tech experience,” says Thanx’s Zach Goldstein.
And therein lies another benefit of tech. When properly deployed, restaurants can tailor the guest experience.
“I think that, again, it comes down to personalization and really caring about what the guest needs and wants and not just serving them up messages and hoping they resonate, but really doing the due diligence to know that something is going to resonate,” Zoiss says.
But what constitutes guest care can be a fraught issue. At Barcelona, technology does not figure into the relationship-building equation. The 18-unit concept has incorporated some tech within its operation—“we’re not complete luddites,” Halberg says—but it does so in a very deliberate, measured way. The brand is currently exploring tech that can help with systems like F&B inventory. It also wants to update the POS system.
“There are really smart people creating some wonderful restaurant apps now. It’s sort of finally caught up to the restaurant industry. Overall, the challenge that we’ve always had and continue to have is what we want out of our technology; it tends to be something that we want to be able to customize,” Halberg says.
Even before the pandemic, Barcelona used Wisely (now powered by Olo) for online reservations because it allowed for customization. Unlike other platforms that direct users to alternative restaurants if a particular time slot is unavailable, Wisely prompts guests to call the restaurant and provides its phone number. Because on-the-ground employees have a better read on foot traffic, they may be able to take the reservation after all.
At the very least, it’s an opportunity to strengthen the relationship with guests—and that’s where Halberg sees potential. He’s in favor of technology that streamlines operations but has no interest in cutting opportunities for interaction, even if such solutions make things “easier.”
It’s a point Halberg regularly debates with Tim McLaughlin, CEO of GoTab. Barcelona uses the platform for takeout orders but has opted out of its pay-at-the-table functionality.
“He jokes about the fact that servers are great when you can find them. … From his perspective, this pay-from-the-phone and just get-up-and-go sort of a thing would be a real win,” Halberg says. He concedes that for venues like food halls or even diners, it’s a great idea—but not for restaurants like Barcelona. After all, the restaurant invests a great deal of time in training staff to keep their antennae up so they can quickly respond to guests’ needs.
“It’s not because we don’t want the convenience, but because we lose that last touch. If you came over to my house for dinner, and you left without us getting a chance to say good-bye to each other, something would be wrong with our relationship,” Halberg says. “There’s something that we really felt we would lose if we had to embrace that sort of payment system.”
But again, that’s not the case for all concepts. Zoiss also likens hosting guests at one of Bottleneck Management’s restaurants to inviting them into a home. For the brand, the best way to show hospitality is to make the experience as smooth as possible for the customer.
“No matter what tech we implement, we still want to consider what the guest needs and welcome them in warmly, whether they’re using technology in a restaurant or not,” Zoiss says. “We’re not fast casual; we are full service, and we intend to always be full service.”
Know your product
In recent years, the fast-casual segment has elevated both its offerings and its hospitality quotient, but even so the latter remains a hallmark of the full-service category. How restaurants interpret the application and efficacy of tech may vary widely, but the guiding principle remains the same: Any addition to a restaurant’s operation should enhance the guest experience.
Thanx’s Goldstein says one potential pitfall for operators is only half-heartedly committing to tech solutions.
“Brands that go only part of the way down the technology solution can annoy consumers. The reality is if I’m getting my phone out and scanning a QR code, why can’t I order a glass of wine right there? Why am I waiting for the server to come over?” he says. “One of the things we’re seeing great brands do in full service is really differentiate between a heavily tech-enabled experience and a completely non-tech experience.”
For example, when guests walk into a white tablecloth establishment, they expect a hardcopy menu and interaction with waitstaff, Goldstein says. However, if a guest saddles up to a casual bar that features a QR code menu, they’ll want the option to order and pay digitally.
Case in point: In the early days of COVID, Barcelona launched QR code menus, mostly as a sanitation measure. Once more was understood about how the coronavirus is transmitted (not through surfaces, generally), Halberg was eager to bring back the restaurant’s leather-bound menus.
That touch, he adds, helped guests feel like they were no longer stuck in a pandemic. The restaurant might not be a fine-dining concept, but the CEO wanted it to embody the same level of hospitality. Supply chain issues with paper have further delayed the rollback of QR code menus, but Halberg thinks it’s still on the horizon.
Because, at the end of the day, Barcelona wants to differentiate itself through the dine-in experience.
“The evaluation about whether or not we keep this technology going into 2022 and 2023 really depends on what you’re selling. If you’re selling a fried chicken sandwich, then absolutely, your goal should be to get people a fried chicken sandwich as quickly as possible, as hot as possible,” Halberg says. “If what you’re selling is an immersive experience then anything that removes you from that experience hurts the product. … A guest at Barcelona, scrolling through social media on their phones instead of chatting with the bartender, meeting new people, listening to the music—all those are the things that degrade the product. Our product is an experience.”