Over the past few months, restaurants have searched for ways to protect guests and employees from the spread of COVID-19 and have turned to strategies that reduce the number of face-to-face touchpoints. While many have embraced mobile orders, other brands believe that’s only part of the puzzle. As a result, some chains are turning to kiosks as a platform that can help restaurants reduce points of contact while streamlining store operations.

While kiosks have already been widely used for years in other industries, such as in supermarkets and air travel, they have only recently been embraced by restaurants. But now the COVID-19 pandemic has many brands rethinking their importance as a tool for reducing face-to-face contact between staff and guests.

Take, for example, Pure Green, a growing New York–based juice and smoothie chain with seven locations across New York, Chicago, and Florida. Three new stores slated to open in the Big Apple in the coming months will feature kiosks as part of the brand’s phased roll out of high-tech ordering technology.

In the first phase, which launched in May, Pure Green rolled out the ability for guests to place orders through their mobile devices via QR codes and then pick up completed orders, reducing face-to-face contact and improving in-store efficiency. In the next phase, kiosks will build on the mobile infrastructure already in place as the brand hopes to further improve on that efficiency.

Michael Cecchini, director of operations for Pure Green, notes that this efficiency was initially the goal behind the move toward kiosks, as decisions to go with this technology happened prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he says the need for social distancing has created more demand for kiosks, which bumped up the brand’s timeline for rollout.

“We’re instituting kiosks now because we want guests to have a comfortable, safe environment to place orders that reduces time in front of a team member,” Cecchini says. “They also make service as quick and friendly as possible, because it gives team members time to have a conversation and educate people about products. Additionally, guests can make decisions on their own instead of worrying about the line behind them.”

Similarly, Moe’s Southwest Grill was already considering kiosks prior to COVID-19. The Franchise Advisory Board had already discussed what a kiosk rollout might look like and tested them in a few locations. So when Mike Geiger, a multiunit franchisee, found a unique location for a store in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, he immediately gravitated toward a kiosk-only store.

“All the spaces I’d looked at were too big or too small, until I found a great location that was 5,200 square feet,” he says. “I didn’t need that room, so I worked with a bank that was also looking at the space, and we decided they would take 3,500 square feet, and I would take the rest.”

Working with the leftover space meant there wasn’t much room for the Moe’s traditional line of ingredients where guests can customize burritos. Kiosks, however, were a natural fit. Not only did they allow Geiger to remove the line, but they fit the clientele. Because the location was near a hospital and university, Geiger knew there would be enough tech-savvy guests to adapt to the kiosk-only model. Other restaurants in the neighborhood had long lines with empty dining rooms, so Geiger also knew that time-strapped customers in the neighborhood would embrace a limited-seating model. And, like the Pure Green team, Geiger was interested in the operational efficiencies that kiosks could bring.

“We need people on staff to make the food,” he says, “but if you have a person simply creating orders instead of answering questions, the time it takes to make a burrito is cut way down. Plus, we can do consistent suggestive selling through the kiosk.”

While it wasn’t planned as a result of the pandemic, the kiosk-only location opened in mid-June—right in the middle of the nation’s health crisis. Though Geiger says the pandemic has been challenging, the timing of his small-footprint store was fortuitous.
“In mid-February, I was standing in the space as it was being built, and I was thinking about how the location would only have 16 seats,” he says. “Just a few weeks later, I thought I must have had a crystal ball, because now no one wants to sit inside a restaurant.”

Yet some in the industry are skeptical of how much impact kiosks can have on the restaurant industry, even during the pandemic. Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of the New England Consulting Group, argues that the technology, while somewhat novel in quick service, is already dated in other industries.

“We told restaurants years ago to look at ATMs and kiosks when airlines were installing them,” Stibel says. “They aren’t new. Restaurants abroad have had them for more than a decade. Restaurants in the U.S. shouldn’t be trying to keep up with the times, they should be getting ahead and creating the times.”

By that, Stibel means restaurants should lean into other models that minimize contact points while reducing expenses. For example, he suggests more quick-service brands adopt food trucks to move their product closer to peoples’ homes while keeping overhead low. While he thinks customers will adopt kiosks, mobile is still the most promising restaurant technology.

“Everyone has a mobile device and most people are comfortable using them, since they never leave your hand and you know other people aren’t touching them,” he says.

Stibel says it’s important to realize that convincing guests that kiosks are safe is challenging during the pandemic, when contactless operations are critical. But kiosks can be made safer by installing plastic barriers between them, wiping down surfaces between uses, and installing more kiosks or pushing people toward mobile to help combat long lines.

Brands that have already invested in kiosks are taking these concerns seriously, and guests notice their efforts. At Pure Green, Cecchini says that in addition to crowd control within stores and protective gear for employees, kiosks will be sanitized between each use. At Moe’s, Geiger says plexiglass now hangs between kiosks, and an employee cleans surfaces between uses and points out sanitizer to guests.

“We’re consistently receiving recognition from our guests that the Moe’s experience feels different than it did before the pandemic in a positive way,” Geiger says. “You can see what we’re doing, and people are thanking us for making our efforts so visible.”

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