The COVID-19 pandemic forced restaurants, like many businesses now, to drastically change how they operated. With dine-in service not available in many states for an extended period, restaurant owners had to pivot to offering outdoor dining, as well as delivery and pickup, to survive.
While indoor dining is operating again across the country, a large percentage of restaurants have kept many of the operational practices they put in place during the height of the pandemic. Technology has fueled the success of these new ways of operating. For your restaurant to succeed in today's climate, it is important to ensure you have the right technology in place.
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Restaurant technology trends for 2021
Here are 11 tech trends that will last through to 2021 that can help your restaurant save on costs, deliver a great experience to diners and ensure strong results on your marketing efforts.
- Predictive order management software: With predictive order management software, restaurants can anticipate customer demand and reduce waste, thus saving money and improving their profit margins. Another benefit of automating inventory management is that restaurant owners can eliminate the burdensome task of manually maintaining complex spreadsheets (and the inevitable inaccuracies that occur with tracking your inventory manually).
- Customer loyalty programs: If your customers are close to receiving a loyalty reward, they are more likely to spend more. The latest technology integrates with the best POS systems and customer smartphones so that customers who've signed up for your loyalty program can check their account status anytime, anywhere. Toast has a loyalty management application integrated with its restaurant POS solution. Learn more in our review of Toast.
- Guest data collection: Quick access to accurate guest data makes it easier to tailor service to diners' known preferences, and keep those customers satisfied and coming back for more. Delight your regulars by offering such perks as their preferred seating or offering their most frequently purchased beverage or menu item.
- Delivery apps: Customers want to be able to order quickly and easily, and they want to know how long it will take for their food to be delivered. Reduce frustration with technology that allows customers to see the status of their order in real time. One great online ordering and tracking system for small restaurant operators is Trackin.
- Contactless payments: Giving guests the ability to view, split, and pay their bills at the table using their smartphones saves them time (as well as your staff) and improves table turns and productivity.
- Online ordering system: According to Holden Bale, global vice president of commerce at Huge, restaurants that succeed in driving compelling experiences through digital will find unique ways to help consumers "touch, feel and taste" the menu. With consumers taking more consideration and care in where they eat, creating rich descriptions is key.
- Air purification: When they dine out at a restaurant, customers expect thorough steps to have been taken to sanitize the restaurant. One technology in particular that could be valuable is bipolar ionization. Rather than relying on a filter to trap pollutants, charged ions actively seek, attack, and neutralize contaminants in the air and on surfaces, according to Tony Abate, vice president and chief technical officer at indoor air-quality technology company AtmosAir Solutions.
- QR codes: QR code technology isn't going away anytime soon. Tablet-based temperature readers, mobile-tailored websites, and pay-at-the-table options are all available through the use of QR codes. Bale noted that QR codes have been a staple in Asia and other purely mobile-first societies, but have rarely been used in the United States until now. In fact, the number of QR code interactions increased by 94% between 2018 and 2020.
- Inventory tracking software: Scheduling orders and anticipating restaurant supply can be a headache for any restaurant and its staff. Now, artificial intelligence is being used to remedy potential inventory missteps for restaurants of all kinds. Winnow offers AI-powered software that analyzes restaurant supply data then presents solutions that cut costs and food waste across the business.
- Kitchen display system (KDS): A KDS aims to reduce the hubbub that arises from panicked waiters, bussers and cooks desperately trying to meet their customers' needs. Using a single screen display that tracks meal delivery times, monitors inventory, and links directly to a restaurant's point-of-sale system, restaurant staff is bound to reduce time spent processing meal orders and meal prep so as to serve their hungry customers more quickly.
- Restaurant tablets and kiosks: Self-ordering tablets and kiosks are rising in popularity across the U.S. Not only do they help the customer, they can also benefit restaurants greatly. Need to add or remove an item from the menu? No problem. The digital format makes editing the menu easier than ever. Did the server forget to write down an item a customer ordered? No problem. The digital menu connects directly to the kitchen so that no orders are forgotten. While this tech isn’t meant to replace servers completely, it can serve as an effective partner for servers to ensure their customers have an enjoyable meal.
How technology affects restaurants
Now more than ever, technology is greatly impacting restaurants. Consumers are using self-checkout, auto-checkout, and contactless payment methods, and if your restaurant isn't offering diners those options, you are falling behind.
Bale said that while restaurants in North America have typically been more conservative in adopting mobile and contactless payments, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly changed that.
"If you go beyond touchless, we're finding consumers want greater flexibility to order on their terms – whether it's delivery, pickup or dine-in," he said. "It can be challenging to try to serve so many different patterns as a restaurant, but technology can make the lift easier."
Dwight Zahringer, president of hospitality and tourism service Pure Cabo, said that technology such as cloud-based systems has significantly streamlined restaurant operations since the pandemic, boosting efficiency and profit margins.
"Think of improved inventory systems allowing restaurant managers and chefs to reduce food waste, or kitchen display screens managing kitchen service work," Zahringer said. "It's time- and money-saving, which is a winning combo in any industry."
Bass Zongo, corporate technology manager for Nobu Restaurants, affirmed the benefits in efficiency and savings for restaurants that look for ways to implement new tech, rather than shying away from it.
"Keeping up with the trends puts us on par – if not at an advantage – with the competition," he said. "It helps streamline processes and make [restaurants] efficient. Some of our restaurants have even improved their payroll numbers with the adoption of new technologies."
How new restaurant technology improves customer service
Besides helping restaurants improve their operations and margins, technology can help restaurants provide a better dining experience to patrons.
"Consumers are increasingly expecting digital ways to engage with the physical world, especially post-COVID-19," Bale said. "In major metropolitan areas, QR codes are becoming a staple to view menus and specials, [to] be taken to online payment at the table and [to] have the opportunity to connect with a restaurant digitally." [In need of a POS system for your restaurant? Check out our recommendations for the best iPad restaurant POS systems.]
Further, reservation systems integrate with POS systems, which is a huge bonus for restaurants and customers.
"The restaurant now has a complete picture of their patron profile and is now in a better position to provide a consistent and tailored experience to any repeat guest, whether they visited Nobu Miami, Nobu 57, or Nobu Malibu," Zongo said.
Jennifer Post and Pamela Oldham contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for previous versions of this story.