Technology has fueled the disruption of nearly every sector, and the restaurant industry is no exception. Established companies and startups alike have used technology to offer customers unprecedented convenience and highly personalized experiences, and consumer expectations have evolved to reflect this shift. Unfortunately, most restaurants aren’t quite keeping up.
Some food companies have adapted accordingly, but the industry as a whole still lags behind others in terms of technological adoption—and it shows. A 2018 survey conducted by Boston Retail Partners and Windstream Enterprise found that restaurant owners and operators were meeting customer expectations in just two areas related to technology: mobile payments and Wi-Fi availability.
Despite those shortcomings, there has been some progress. According to a 2017 report from the National Restaurant Association, one-third of customers said they used more restaurant technology in 2017 than in 2015—and that number is likely even higher today.
It’s common to see servers taking orders on tablets, cashiers accepting mobile payments, and customers helping themselves via self-serve monitors. And so far, fears that an increased reliance on technology would lead to widespread unemployment in the industry seem overblown; in most cases, technology has enhanced employee-customer interactions rather than eliminated them.
Digitally driven experiences are still the exception in this space, however. Apprehension about learning new tools—or the misconception that technology implementations involve a big upfront investment—is a common barrier for restaurateurs who have chosen not to change.
With that said, here are three easy steps that any restaurant owner or operator can take to deliver a better dining experience in the digital age:
Restaurant owners or managers have a million things to consider—and most of them probably don’t even involve food. As such, they’re likely not going to have much time to spend working on their websites.
Luckily, there are plenty of services available that make designing and hosting a clean, functional website affordable and relatively easy. For individuals who aren't comfortable building a website using tools like WordPress or Squarespace, it pays to find someone who is. A website is often the first introduction to a restaurant, and it’s a great opportunity to introduce customers to its unique menu and loyalty programs.
The primary goal of a website should be driving conversions, so it should be easy for customers to make reservations online. Likewise, restaurateurs should keep their address and phone number prominently displayed on all pages. Above all, these websites should offer customers the option to place orders online—either for delivery or pickup.
According to the recent “Digital Evolution of Foodservice” report released by NPD Group, not all customers prefer a digital restaurant experience. There will always be customers who would rather place orders over the phone. Staff members should remind callers that the restaurant offers an online ordering option in case they’re interested, explaining that it's a faster and more accurate way to place an order.
Some customers want to get in and out of a restaurant as quickly as possible, and tablets can drastically speed up the dining experience. For example, tableside devices that allow guests to pay by credit card at their table cut down on the amount of time customers spend waiting—it also liberates waitstaff to handle other tasks. Tablets that are held and operated by waiters allow staff to input orders immediately, speeding up the time it takes for guests to receive their food and drinks.
Some people may worry that older patrons won't be as accepting of this type of technology. Although members of an older generation typically don't mind spending a few extra minutes inside a restaurant (in contrast to their Millennial counterparts), they expect an experience that’s worth their time. As these older customers grow more accustomed to using smartphones and other devices, they’ll increasingly equate a worthwhile experience with one that is digitally enhanced.
In every consumer-focused industry, customer experience is becoming just as critical as products or services. The restaurant industry is no different. Restaurant owners and operators that invest in technology will be able to offer a better guest experience than those that don’t. A strong technological foundation combined with great food is the recipe for long-term success in the digital age.
Seth Steinman is the SEO manager at Upserve, an organization that helps independent full-service restaurants run and manage their entire business through a restaurant management platform.