The coronavirus pandemic inspired widespread technology changes across the restaurant industry, many of which improved efficiency, the customer experience, or both, but it remains to be seen which of these will survive the test of time. As restaurants begin to return to “normal,” will it be the old normal or a new normal?
Pre-pandemic, included menus, takeout and paying the bill. But now we’ve gotten used to QR codes, curbside and touchless payment, just to name a few.
But the long-term effect of technology on the eating-out experience looks to be least impactful on the full-service eating-in part of the business and more transformative when it comes to pickup and delivery or eating out at locations with multiple vendor or that are quick-service.
Eliminating reusable menus was one of the most widespread restaurant practices during the pandemic, which meant replacing them with disposable paper ones or eliminating physical versions altogether by using QR codes scanned with customers' phones. But despite the ubiquity of smartphones in our society, many restaurateurs think this tech will not stick – and few lament the idea of less screen time at the tables.
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Widespread QR code menus may be a thing of the past
“It’s already obsolete for most places," Chef William Emery of New York’s Tannat Market & Tavern says. "QR codes and curbside apps were always a bit awkward for most restaurants, and almost all of them have abandoned them. Consumer habits are already returning to pre-pandemic norms.”
Jin Ahn is director of operations for both the two-Michelin-starred Jungsik, famed for its “New Korean” cuisine, and Noreetuh, a modern Hawaiian restaurant, also in New York. He sees two different sides to the issue.
“We started off with QR codes on every table for menus and wine lists. We still offer these technologies for guests’ convenience, but we are finding people like something more tangible," Ahn said. "As fast as people adapted to a new habit, they were quick enough to abandon it as it was something they were forced to do.”
But the use of this technology gives the restaurant flexibility that would otherwise be hard to replicate. “With our wine list changing every day, it has certainly been a blessing to use a QR code rather than a paper list. Even if people want the list back, I don't think I'm going to give that option to them.”
In some cases, digital codes did not just replace menus, but rather, created entirely new dining experiences. While traditional restaurants may quickly go back to physical menus, new uses of technology are more likely to survive when they offer customers enhanced options, such as combining multiple eateries into a single order.
In San Antonio the former industrial site of the Pearl Brewery has been redeveloped into a shopping, dining and hotel destination that has become one of the most popular spots in the city in recent years and includes a large food hall. When indoor dining was shuttered, Pearl turned its main outdoor park space into a virtual restaurant by adding tables and QR codes that allowed guests to view menus, order and pay, all in one seamless transaction, then have the food delivered tableside. Best of all, it allowed diners to combine orders from multiple food hall vendors into a single order. The technology proved so popular that even during the height of the pandemic, four new restaurants were successfully launched at Pearl, and the flexible combined ordering will remain in use going forward.
The platform was developed by technology company Bbot, which now advertises its site development for food halls and multi-vendor markets specifically to allow customers to shop in this all-in-one fashion as if it were a single giant menu. At Pearl they even added the capability for “tableside” delivery of food hall restaurants to nearby apartment complexes.
In a similar vein, large national chain restaurant and ghost kitchen operator C3 (Creating Culinary Communities) launched an app called GO by Citizens as an alternative to third-party delivery platforms such as Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub. C3’s network includes over 200 virtual food halls, brick-and-mortar restaurants and airport dining options, as well as its own quick-service brands, chains Umami Burger, Sam’s Crispy Chicken and Krispy Rice. The app lets customers combine dishes from multiple restaurants in a single delivery order.
Is outdoor touchless curbside pickup out and indoor takeout back in?
While many restaurant owners feel that the popularity of touchless curbside pickup will wane and shift back toward basic pre-pandemic indoor takeout, the technologies behind ordering are likely to remain and offer customers a few advantages in addition to not having to go inside.
Many eateries enhanced online ordering to make options and special requests much easier, and most importantly, to pick a precise time for pickup, ensuring food is fresher. Almost all ordering sites now also allow secure payment in advance rather than in person or verbally providing credit card information over the phone.
Technology helps alleviate restaurant wait times
But other uses of technology go beyond ordering and payment, and one especially useful feature is the growing popularity of virtual “waiting lists” at places that don’t take reservations.
MGM Resorts operates hundreds of restaurants of every style and price point across more than a dozen Las Vegas resort properties, many of which routinely feature waits.
The switch from standing around a doorway to waiting elsewhere via technology was originally done for social distancing reasons, to eliminate crowds at entrances, but this a customer-friendly approach born of necessity has been popular enough to become permanent.
“The pandemic did force us to expedite some of our plans around technology and introduce some innovations that will stay with us,” said spokeswoman Jenn Michaels, noting MGM will continue to use QR codes for menus. “Guests can put their names on waitlists at restaurants and receive a text when their table is ready rather than having to queue around the venue waiting. ... Technology was introduced to eliminate touchpoints and/or crowds but also served to enhance the guest experience and will become part of our DNA.”
Snooze, an A.M. Eatery is a breakfast chain found in eight states that also often requires a wait. It launched a mobile app that allows diners to join the waitlist online and upon arrival simply check in with the host to be seated. Snooze also added QR code menus and pay-at-the-table technologies to allow a largely touchless experience for guests who want that.
Stalk & Spade is a new plant-based quick-service franchise chain concept just launched in a Minneapolis suburb, with national expansion plans. In a similar approach to eliminating the crowds waiting for a table, the brand built its model with technology that allows customers to order and then go get a table and be notified via text message when their food is ready, rather than the more typical experience of standing around the counter waiting for a number or name to be called.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Restaurant innovations: Is curbside takeout, more here to stay?