Restaurant 2.0 is here: Understanding the importance of new technologies in the restaurant industry

Restaurant 2.0 is here: Understanding the importance of new technologies in the restaurant industry

By Heather Donahoe, managing editor

We’ve been conditioned to glamorize the future. For those who are already technologically inclined, that future stretches into a  landscape where anything is possible. For those who may be a little skittish around emerging technology, embracing an increasingly automated culture might be a tall order.

And while we’re all wired differently, thus adopting technology at varying levels, restaurant industry professionals can benefit significantly by pushing themselves into that wide-open landscape of possibility. Perhaps it won’t be practical to integrate every single “greatest new advancement” into an operation as soon as it emerges from development; but what will be practical is a perpetual curiosity around how new technology can enhance the restaurant industry.

That’s why researchers at Wageningen University in Holland operate a camera-rigged, high-tech cafeteria dubbed “The Restaurant of the Future.” It is likely the most extreme example of how far science has gone to understand consumer dining patterns, food choice, effective design and layout, the influence of lighting on buying and eating behavior, presentation, traffic flow, taste, packaging, preparation and dozens of other components within the dining experience.

This future-driven eatery is open to the general public, provided all visitors register before eating. By doing so, the visitor consents to video observation, which is engineered to satisfy essentially any research requirement. On the back-end of this experiment is the sensory consumer research lab, which businesses can use to assess their products. The innovation lab allows companies to test food innovations, while the sensory lab and mood rooms give scientists the opportunity to take a closer look at how environmental factors affect the way consumers dine.

Over time, the findings of this ongoing experiment are analyzed and distilled into the type of information that ultimately is funneled into food, equipment and technology development throughout the foodservice industry. Businesses can contract with the Restaurant of the Future for prototype testing and assistance with the implementation of new techniques of food preparation, presentation and meal serving systems.

While Wageningen University has certainly deployed a means of extracting practical data for foodservice industry use, some restaurant operators may be a little more interested in better understanding how they can fully embrace the existing technologies of today—those innovations that were once heralded as “the future of the restaurant industry.” It may sound trite, but the future actually is today. So, while it may be fun to eagerly anticipate the next big advancement, restaurant operators should be careful not to miss out on what has already emerged from the research labs, software studios and product innovators.

According to the 2020 Study from The National Restaurant Association, 25 “likely developments” are projected to materialize by the year 2020. Building on the momentum of the past five years, technology will become more integrated into restaurant operations, including systems that improve efficiency, online and mobile training options and customer-facing innovations that enhance the restaurant experience.

Here are a few from the 2020 list that pertain to technology:

  • Restaurant operators will make better use of mobile technology
  • Turning POS date into actionable knowledge for operators will become easier
  • Online training programs will replace training manuals
  • Electronic pay-at-table and mobile payments will be commonplace
  • More training will be provided online and on smartphones
  • Technology will be more effectively used to control costs and enhance management efficiency
  • To-go containers will become more sophisticated
  • Product traceability will improve
  • Equipment used in restaurants will continue to become more energy efficient

Customers in the driver’s seat

Slowly but surely, American restaurants are adopting tablet-based POS systems—particularly in large cities such as Seattle. While roughly 50 percent of restaurant POS systems in Europe have made the switch, U.S. eateries have been a little slower to adopt this technology.

Shannon Arnold, director of marketing at Maitre’D by Posera, said that restaurant who have embraced tablet-based systems are able to establish more meaningful interactions with customers. By and large, full service restaurants—especially those with large floor plans or multi-level locations—are better suited to tablet POS systems than are quick service establishments.

“The value here is crystal clear,” Arnold said. “It frees up time, and it allows servers to focus more on establishing a connection with each customer.”

In a case study conducted by Posera, one restaurant was able to devote devoting at least 15% more staff time on the floor. Ultimately, servers delivered quality service to more tables—two more tables per hour—sometimes more.

With each server able to handle more tables, payroll went down almost immediately. And it did not affect anyone’s income: in fact, servers achieved their weekly income goals earlier, so they needed fewer hours, according to the study. Even better? The average customer order increased by $2.

For restaurant operators interested in venturing into the world of tablet-based POS systems, Arnold urges them to thoroughly explore the market. While it may be tempting to just buy up a bunch of the one tablet everybody is talking about (you know the one), Arnold suggests selecting a tablet that is a little more rugged and better equipped to stand up to the constant wear-and-tear that comes with the restaurant environment.

A good resource for restaurants looking to upgrade their customer-facing technologies is the National Restaurant Association’s upcoming Restaurant Innovation Summit, coming up October 23-24 in Denver. This event will give operators the chance to explore new tech options and determine which ones can best accommodate their needs. Be sure to visit the NRA’s website for more information and to get registered.

Reassessing the restaurant website

OK, OK. Mentioning websites in an article about the future of restaurants may seem horribly out of touch. After all, hasn’t the Internet been around for, oh, more than three decades? Nevertheless, plenty of businesses still haven’t managed to figure out how to secrets to a decent website.

While many restaurants have established a customer-centered social media strategy, individual restaurant websites can still serve as a portal to the operation’s brand. And it’s important to remember that these sites are still a restaurant’s entry point for a certain demographic of customers who may not necessarily check first on Facebook or Twitter.

Rory Martin, a Seattle-based web designer, emphasizes the importance of ease, interactivity and personality. First and foremost, Martin is very clear about the core purpose of a restaurant’s website. It is, he says, “to showcase your food and tell people how to get there.” The real key to showcasing a restaurant’s food? Enticing photography, of course! Don’t skimp on this one, Martin urges. Unless a restaurant operator has pro photo skills, hiring someone to capture images of menu items is a worthy investment.

At the end of the day, a restaurant’s website can be the beginning of a great customer relationship, or a lost opportunity. Don’t overlook its importance.

Looking forward to… the future, of course

In the coming years, technologists and researchers will seek to improve every facet of restaurant operation, and in many areas, they will succeed brilliantly. In embracing these advancements, it will be critical that restaurants learn to strike the balance of being technologically aware while remaining sensitive to the needs of customers.

A word of caution in the NRA’s 2020 Study makes this assessment: “Although technologies will offer great benefits, successful operators will retain a personal touch element.”

The restaurant of the future has a lot to look forward to—improved efficiencies through automation, bolstered profits, a more exciting customer experience. The key to successful implementation will lie somewhere in knowing when to embrace a new idea and when to maintain the time-tested fundamentals of good restaurant operation.

(Source: Washington Restaurant Magazine, August 2013)

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