The restaurant industry has traditionally been slow to adopt technology and innovative digital solutions. But in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed that and forced food and beverage outlets to look beyond the traditional. Many restaurants have recently turned to tech, even if reluctantly, to adapt to a new reality. One which includes less dine-in guests, more off-premise and al fresco dining, or plexiglass screens and table dividers, masks and gloves, and lots of sanitizing.
Technology and innovation are what have helped, even saved, restaurants as they transform how they operate to not just survive, but thrive, in this new connected and contactless era. From online ordering, self-checkouts and touchless payments to delivery and pick-up, the F&B industry can no longer afford to ignore the trends that are helping businesses reinvent themselves to remain relevant and competitive.
As it’s predicted that growth in the restaurant industry will be entirely driven by off-premise consumption, using technology is not just about improving operations and service delivery, but also reimagining restaurants.
So, what digital trends and tools should be top of mind in 2021 to stay up-to-date, and even ahead of the competition?
1. Online ordering systems and delivery apps
As restaurants remain vulnerable to imposed restrictions, strict sanitary regulations and even closure, online food orders and contactless home-deliveries have come to the rescue. And this service is here to stay as diners grow accustomed to getting the food they want when, where and how they want it.
Third-party food delivery apps like UberEats, Foodpanda, or Door Dash will continue to be an important solution for those not able to offer in-house ordering and delivery services. But as many diners report a preference for ordering directly from restaurants, we can expect to see restaurants following the lead of larger fast-food chains and investing in developing their own integrated online platforms and apps. Despite the ‘distance’, this digital proximity enables the restaurant industry to stay closely connected with their customers.
2. Contactless payment
Contactless technology is going mainstream, and it’s not just about placing an order online, but also about paying with a smartphone, smartwatch or smartcard via an app or touchless device. New payment technologies have been slowly gaining momentum within the global restaurant industry, but this trend has accelerated with the pandemic. It’s estimated that contactless payments will triple from $2 trillion to $6 trillion worldwide by 2024, and having such options are reportedly extremely important for 34% of customers. With no cash hand, no human contact is required – more hygienic and safer – and it’s quick, instant and convenient. From a cash flow point of view, it’s also more efficient. If restaurants don’t want to be left behind in the coming year, those who haven’t yet done so better invest and plan for mobile and digital payment strategy.
3. Online table reservation system
Booking a table via a phone call is becoming a thing of the past as online table reservation technology takes on new importance. Providers like Eat App, Tablein or OpenTable give customers the freedom to see available slots and make their own booking on-the-go. In turn, by using technology-enabled reservation systems, restaurants can manage seating, waitlists, customer loyalty and dining preferences as well as collect vital client data be it for contact tracing or market insights.
The concept has even been taken a step further. Via its initiative Experiences, OpenTable is offering restaurants the opportunity to propose unique culinary events and dining experiences, beyond standard reservations. Whether it’s Ramen Nights in celebrity chef Hugh Acheson’s dining room, a ‘side-dish’ of line dancing lessons or a fixed-price tasting menu, guests can book their next special dining experience easily, directly and according to what tickles their taste buds. Time to get creative!
4. Digital kitchen ‘boards’
No need to grab paper and pen, worry about smudged printed tickets or run back-and-forth between the kitchen and front-of-house anymore. Kitchen Display Systems (KDS) are a digital menu board for kitchen staff helping restaurants streamline back-of-house operations. Directly linked to the restaurant’s point-of-sale (POS) system, the screen displays orders automatically according to priority and flagging any special dietary requests. Tracking meal delivery times and monitoring inventory to signal when a product is out of stock, this technological solution ultimately ensures better communication, accuracy, clearer workflows and – being 100% digital – promises a more sustainable kitchen operation.
5. Automated inventory management software
Automating your inventory management means tracking food and beverage stocks, anticipating quantities and even scheduling reorders no longer need to be time-consuming tedious tasks. Very importantly, the implementation of such software in your working process can also reduce food wastage, which is reportedly costing the hospitality industry $100 billion annually. Through cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) technology, companies like Winnow are helping restaurant owners and managers cut food waste and costs and run their businesses more efficiently and sustainably. Partnerships with innovative platforms like Too Good to Go also save restaurants from wasting their food surplus, instead of making it available to users looking for a meal-deal. Saving time and money all while helping the planet – sounds like a no-brainer with sustainability being at the forefront of the global agenda.
6. QR codes
Already a staple in mobile-first societies like China, QR codes are going global and popping up at restaurants around the world. In this ‘no-touch’ era, auto-scanning barcodes with smartphone cameras on posters, tables, coasters, doors or websites allow customers to access online menus, order and pay – without contact – keeping diners and employees safe. This technology, which doesn’t require downloading an app, has also played an essential role in helping restaurants with contact tracing now mandatory in many parts of the world for their reopening during this pandemic. Offering a number of convenient benefits at relatively low costs for restaurants, QR code technology is going to be a ‘must’ in 2021.
7. Air purification technology
As diners return to restaurants, it’s going to be critical to make them feel safe and comfortable. Upgrading sanitization systems through various air purification technologies to promote ‘clean air’ is a growing focal point for the restaurant industry.
Harmless-to-human technology like bipolar ionization, which purifies the air and surfaces in indoor spaces by neutralizing contaminants, is already showing promising results and finding a market for itself. As are systems which make use of ultraviolet light known as effective methods of both air and surface sanitization. While these concepts and products may not yet be mainstream yet, they are fast-becoming the most important restaurant technology of all in in a virus-wary world.