From local favorites to national mega-chains, now more than ever, restaurants and the food service industry are truly essential. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic showed us how quickly consumer behavior changed and how quickly the restaurant industry had to adapt. From frontline workers needing to quickly grab a meal, to those of us that had to limit movement beyond our front yards, but still yearn for our favorite food, quick-service restaurants and employees are helping to feed and fuel us all through these unprecedented times. And while the changes may not be permanent, we have learned that being able to shift, adapt, and meet customers’ needs continues to be vital to all of our businesses.

COVID-19 is transforming everything. We are all faced with significant new challenges—recognizing that consumer behavior can change in a moment, adapting to that shift, while protecting our vital employees who deliver a service that the overall economy relies on during a tough period. Our solution—rely on innovative technology as the landscape shifts repeatedly so that consumers can order rapidly, everyone can stay safe, and we as an industry can remain prepared for what the future of the quick-service experience may look like.

Many of these technologies, originally driven by convenience and efficiency, help restaurant operators create customized experiences to feed their guests, but also keep them safe and healthy by allowing people to remain in the cars, abide by social distancing guidelines, and limit hand-to-hand interactions. The turning point, it seems, is that the promise of what technology can do, its realization and the need to find a competitive advantage have all reached a critical inflection point. We have never been more motivated and obligated to innovate to allow for both safety and for economic viability – every order is precious, every job is worth trying to save. Therefore technology has an even more pivotal role in today’s transactions, as well as those to come, to ensure that both safety and economic viability will be sustained.

Why? We already knew the quick-service restaurant industry would continue to be under immense pressure to drive sustained revenue growth and profitability as the increasing number of choices available threaten to erode brand loyalty and force brands to fight even harder for a smaller, yet more valuable share of the consumer’s wallet. For restaurant operators, this was driving a greater necessity to innovate regardless of customers dining in, taking out, ordering via a food delivery app or using drive-thru service.

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, we realized that years of transformative investments in technology could rapidly come to maturity, keeping pace with the seismic shifts we’ve seen in consumer behavior at the drive-thru, operations and delivery—from cloud-based software platforms that streamline ordering, payments and inventory, to curated, unattended experiences as soon as guests drive up. These technologies enabled the industry’s pivot to promoting social distancing and remote ordering and delivery, almost overnight.

While these transformative technologies are aiding the shift in how we dine, they’re also allowing us to rethink nearly every other aspect of restaurants. From outdoor dining, to curbside pickup, we are rethinking the real estate options for successful restaurants. We’re reimagining how customers navigate lines, with new and creative pickup options—reinventing the physical space to meet the needs of consumers that may want more touchless options and less face-to-face interactions. As we look to emerge from this health crisis and the resulting impacts on our economy, I believe three specific areas of focus provide the greatest potential for operators.

Smart menuboards and online/in-app ordering is one key area in which quick-service operators should focus immediately to add speed and value to transactions. Displaying for consumers the options they most frequently select, while introducing new menu items they may enjoy based on preferences of guests with similar tastes, creates the type of digital experiences that consumers want and expect. Greater customization and enhanced access allow guests to feel appreciated, heard and valued. These experiences are critical to maximize every moment the restaurant engages with its guests to help ensure prompt, efficient, and most importantly, quality service. They also create substantial opportunities to capture more of the consumer’s wallet through up-sell and average ticket enhancing properties.

Another area of focus for brands should be modernizing technology, including incorporating artificial technology (AI) when it comes to smart menu boards at the drive-thru. Embedding AI can create a smoother experience for the guest, including the ability to recognize cars, or mobile devices, helping to move guests through lines easier, faster, and more efficiently. If the majority of customers continue to prefer drive-thru in the post COVID-19 era, we know that the speed and convenience that comes with drive-thru service will be as important to increasing customer satisfaction as it is to maintaining a viable bottom line.

A final, critical focus area should be on the future of front-of-house dining that, at the end of this health crisis, will likely continue to feature social distancing, at least for a period of time. Kiosk ordering and great customer service should be a fundamental part of our considerations for the future of quick service. Incorporating AI technology, unattended kiosks offer the customer the opportunity to try new items, all while maintaining appropriate social distance from staff and other customers. Giving a consumer the freedom to live their true food selves, in a safe environment, is the real beauty and power in attendant-less ordering. Unattended ordering enables restaurant team members to devote more time and attention to creating the best front-of-house atmosphere for guests and delivering higher quality food, rather than punching in orders.

More than ever, we have learned that consumer behaviors can adapt and change in an instant. As we work through the challenges of 2020, one thing we know is that once we have overcome this pandemic, the restaurant business model, consumer habits, and our definition of ‘normal’ will have evolved. But we have seen the resiliency in our industry and the pride that comes from providing for people who need our services most. And, the only way for us in the industry to keep pace is to digitize, modernize and monetize the guest experience to make every second count.

Christopher Siefken serves as the head of technology for Xenial, a Global Payments company that provides software, analytics and apps to more than 135,000 restaurant and retail locations in the U.S. and Canada. 

Outside Insights, Story, Technology