The COVID-19 pandemic hit the foodservice industry hard, with lockdowns and restrictions contributing to the permanent closure of almost 10 percent of all restaurants across the U.S. This impact was felt across the entire industry, from food trucks to fine dining. One sector, however, was uniquely positioned to weather the pandemic, and that was quick-service restaurants.

The importance of new technology in this context can’t be overstated. COVID-19 accelerated digital adoption in almost every industry, and foodservice is no exception. Technology allowed restaurants to quickly react to the changing landscape and move their footprint from on premise to off premise. Restaurants that invested in technology pre-pandemic (i.e. much of the quick-service restaurant industry) were able to shift their footprint online, manage their workforce remotely and keep supply chains running. This allowed the business owners to be agile and helped them take share in a challenging environment.

With the potential of the pandemic being behind us, the industry is now at a crossroads to either continue to shift investment spend to digital channels or prepare for an equilibrium and pull back on IT spend. While there is no doubt there will be a large shift back to in room dining, it’s my belief that the “cat’s out of the bag” and consumers of restaurant food will continue to demand the experience we received during the pandemic. We believe it’s akin to the long term shift we saw from retail to online. Once commerce hit mainstream adoption, it never stopped.

Nothing will replace the meals and moments we share together, yet today, consumers are demanding that their restaurants provide them the same access and convenience that they receive from Amazon. They expect online ordering, mobile, loyalty, seamless payment, fast delivery and everything else that we associate with the modern world. They want all that, in addition to the amazing in store experience our industry has built its reputation on. As an industry, we need to learn from what’s happened in retail and realize that our digital footprint is as important as our physical footprints. Digital sales, while still the minority of transactions, require the same intense focus, and in some case the same capital, to be relevant to today’s consumers.

This dynamic though leaves the restaurant operator vulnerable. These consumer expectations have opened the door for Silicon Valley to come in and serve, while turning our stores into fulfilment centers. They’ve obfuscated the relation of the guest from the concept to their own platforms, leaving the restaurant vulnerable. In many ways the move to digital has benefited the restaurant technology industry, far more than restaurants. It’s created the fear that restaurants are being relegated into airlines in a search—it’s removing the core tenant of the foodservice industry, relationships.

But we are early … very early and there is plenty of time to jump ahead. Restaurants are special, they provide not a good or service, but an experience. This experience is both nutritious and emotional. These are things that we believe technology can bring forward, not push back. To strengthen that connection between the guest, meals and moments they love.

Where might all this new technology lead us as we transition to a post-pandemic world? Imagine a fast-food outlet that operates like an Amazon Go store. Your customer comes in and the menu automatically adjusts itself because it knows she’s gluten-free and one of her kids is a vegetarian. The technology is ambient and unobtrusive, creating that all-important seamless experience, one in which the customer never has to pull out her wallet because payment is automated—loyalty points, coupons, and all.

Your millennial and Gen Z customers will be the drivers of this next evolutionary leap; as digital natives, they already expect to be able to ask Alexa to order a pizza for them. Next they’ll probably want to be able to order a burger on Snapchat or sushi on TikTok, or donuts and coffee through Instagram.

The quick-service restsaurant sector isn’t there yet, but it’s coming. Will these developments disrupt the industry in a major way? Sure, but that’s okay. After all, if the past 15 months have taught us anything about doing business, it’s that you can never really predict what’s coming, and you can never fully future-proof any venture. COVID-19 has been a disruption on a global scale, but by embracing the full potential of technology and cloud-based solutions, you can set yourself up to adapt and to thrive.

Savneet Singh, president & CEO of PAR Technology Corp an organization that provides an open-platform solution to its restaurant customers, offering a unique set of hardware, software and services that help restaurants maintain their brand differentiation, inspire growth and succeed at improving their guest relationships.

Outside Insights, Story, Technology