Digital Tech Offers More Options for Diners

    Convenience remains a driving factor for consumers.

    People hold mobile phones.
    istockphoto / wutwhanfoto
    If done right, off-premises dining will become an additional revenue stream

    There's change afoot. Over the past decade, the majority of us have willingly become a part of the "bowed-head tribe," avoiding face-to-face encounters to communicate via our smartphones. Many of us now order ahead or takeout using our thumbs rather than our voices. Consequently, this personal communication preference is hitting the restaurant industry hard, as mobile food ordering traffic competes with in-person traffic, creating challenges for any restaurant operator.

    The National Restaurant Association's 2019 State of the Industry Report, indicated that 27 percent of millennials would choose one restaurant over another based on the availability of an online food ordering app, while 22 percent consider convenience to be the driving factor in their dining decisions. To remain ahead, many restaurant operators have acted quickly. Some of the larger, more widespread food chains have introduced their own branded apps. Smaller operators and the rising number of restaurants that don't maintain storefronts (known as ghost or virtual kitchens) have partnered with third-party delivery apps like Olo, GrubHub, UberEats, DoorDash and Postmates (to name a few in a very crowded marketplace!). Other restaurants have opted to keep their deliveries in-house, ensuring complete control over their food quality while serving a new stream of customers.

    The market research company, eMarketer, predicts that by 2023, food delivery app usage will reach 60 million. To bring these huge numbers home, consider this: current delivery numbers indicate that more people are spending money on food delivery than on groceries!

    Get Your Digital House in Order

    When a restaurant operator can create great in-store dining experiences with outstanding food and exceptional service, it doesn't automatically ensure that they can also duplicate that success with off-premise dining. If done right, off-premises dining will become an additional revenue stream. Get it wrong, and wafer-thin industry margins will get thinner.

    Creating a mobile food ordering space isn't for the squeamish. For kitchens juggling both in-house and off-premise orders, it can often feel like running two businesses simultaneously. Operators must proceed with deliberate focus, or risk diluting their brand between the two. Beyond choosing a development company to create a branded app or making wagers on one of the many third-party delivery services, there are so many variables to consider. However, the end goal remains the same: Provide the most optimal food experience, in-house, and off-premises. To do that, an operator must keep several critical aspects in mind.

    Quality Control

    While quality control is essential in any hospitality environment, the stakes get higher with off-premises dining. Let's compare two different customer outcomes. If the wait staff makes a mistake for an in-house guest and delivers the wrong food item, they can quickly rectify the error with some TLC and a quick replacement. However, when the staff flubs a mobile order bagged for pickup or delivery, and that end customer wages a complaint to the third-party delivery driver about receiving the wrong order, the restaurant staff won't find out right away. In this instance operators will need to comp the meal and then reach out to make things right with the customer. Remember, if staff bags and pushes delivery orders out too quickly, it's likely profits will go out the window as well.

    To avoid the losses that damage revenue and brand reputation, restaurant operators must consider the right kitchen automation technology to ensure every order is entered correctly. Technology that enables printing of sticky labels for every order helps maintain accuracy and quality. Operators that create optimal delivery experiences know that being able to match a specific order with the customer's name, versus simply an order number is key, especially during peak rush times. Likewise, the ability to add other identifying information for delivery drivers will only increase to-go accuracy. Get it right, and everyone is happy; get it wrong, and the losses are permanent.

    Internal Communication

    Through the years, restaurant operators have continued to request technologies that more tightly integrate front and back-of-house operations. Streamlining operations by creating more efficiencies not only helps staff communication but can ensure that food is delivered with the speed consumers now expect. Nowhere else is this more critical than with off-premises dining. Hosts and other FOH staff must juggle expectations for dine-in guests while still meeting the needs of customers who order ahead, for those picking up take-out meals, or one of the many third-party delivery companies with whom they partner.

    When a restaurant operator chooses a kitchen automation system that can seamlessly integrate with a guest management system, FOH staff will have better insight into the kitchen operations and capabilities. Without this type of integration, a restaurant’s technology can't throttle orders during high-demand periods, which creates backups in the kitchen, and delays for all guests anxiously awaiting their meals. With a fully integrated front and back-of-house, operations can easily handle both streams of restaurant traffic.

    External Communication

    In today's culture, customers expect to be notified throughout the buying process. In-house guests might ask a server for the status of their meal, but guests outside our four walls must rely on mobile or web communication to know when their food is ready.

    To do this effectively, we must ensure that the kitchen display system, point-of-sale system, as well as ordering and delivery partners are all integrated and able to share data. This enables accurate order tracking and real-time updates from the kitchen. A KDS that's POS agnostic is a vital measure, too. This feature protects investments so that if another POS provider is ever chosen, there’s no need to overhaul the original setup.

    Another beneficial feature that relates to digital orders is capacity management. This measure delivers accurate quote times to customers based upon the current speed-of-service in the restaurant, and not an arbitrary algorithm predicated on volume. If dine-in orders increase, the quoted time provided to online orders, delivery drivers, and third-party delivery services will reflect this and vice versa.

    What do these Features Mean for Customers?

    The millennial demographic is not only embracing delivery but demanding that restaurants provide it. Other generations are also quickly following suit. By choosing the best technology to meet this growing need, operators can address the current demand for off-premises dining while still providing top quality service for those in our brick and mortar operations.

    When we get off-premises dining right, our customers—many who are engaging with our brands for the first time through mobile online ordering—will develop more affinity for the food and services. Many Mexican food customers say they judge a Mexican restaurant by three things: chips, salsa, and margaritas. Off-premises diners are likely using their own set of quick criteria to judge their experience. To guarantee this new side of the business is thriving, here's what customers expect:

    • To-go food is prepared correctly and heated to satisfaction.
    • The mobile order is expertly packaged with their identifying information and order details securely adhered to the package.
    • They have received initial confirmation of the order and when to expect delivery or to pick it up.
    • The order is ready when expected or arrives on time, every time.

    Leaving them waiting for an order and asking, "where is it?" is not an option! These snafu's ding reputations and dampen a willingness to give our restaurant a second look. So, knowing what customers expect means operators can create an off-premises strategy that flourishes with minimal disruptions. However, we would be remiss if not also addressing another growing trend in the space between dining in and dining out.

    The Rise in "Order Ahead" Dining

    Two decades ago, we liked to take breaks from the workday with "power lunches." These abbreviated meals gave the movers and shakers of business a chance to hobnob with clients, write off their meals, and conduct some business outside of the office. Today, all that has changed. The plug on the power lunch has been pulled and can now be declared officially dead.

    Today, lunch is all about speed-eating and how fast we can gobble food and return to our work desk. According to Tork, a workplace hygiene company, only 37 percent of millennials take a lunch break. For those who do, 54% say they eat in 30 minutes or less. While millennials would much prefer to take longer lunches, enjoy healthy food, and take that midday break for a recharge, most feel doing so would be negatively judged by their employers and bosses.

    New need equals new opportunity.

    Enter the "order ahead" capability for restaurant guests in a rush. With the right technology in place, the ability to order ahead has arrived. Now, workers eyeing the lunch clock can jump online to a restaurant website or its branded app, choose the meal and menu items they want to order, then plug in the time they or their party will arrive. Once at the restaurant, the guest(s) give their name to the host, and immediately their food order is entered and sent to the kitchen—no waiting for menus, no delayed decisions about what to order. Lunch diners can cut to the chase, get their food earlier, and be back at their desks in record time. It's the best of both worlds—getting out for lunch, while still returning to work on time.

    Order ahead is the next phase of this convenience dining shift. When we choose the right technology to execute on off-premises and order ahead dining successfully, our operations can more easily capitalize on these additional revenue streams. And who isn't ready for that?

    Lee Leet is the CEO of QSR Automations and founded the company in 1996. QSR Automations has become an industry leader in technology stack integrations, after developing industry solutions that advance restaurant innovations and empowerment. ConnectSmart Kitchen, a kitchen automation solution, and DineTime, a guest management platform, help restaurants efficiently manage resources, time, staff and the dining experience—all have been created by QSR Automations.