"Smart dining" is the latest buzzword to hit the restaurant tech scene. While this term typically describes the hardware inside restaurants, it may also apply to various software and apps that are transforming the modern restaurant experience.
What is smart dining?
Smart dining is the evolution of modern dining in the digital age. With technological advances and programs tailored to restaurants, fast food chains and other dining establishments, smart dining is changing how the world views going out to eat.
An example of smart dining includes customers having the ability to order meals directly at their table when they're ready instead of waiting for a wait staff member to come and take their order. Another way to introduce smart dining is through mobile point-of-sale systems. With mobile POS systems, diners can utilize their phones for a customizable experience that allows them to pay their tab, redeem reward points and offer feedback via guest surveys. Both Touchbistro and Toast, two of our choices as the best POS systems, are designed specifically to provide restaurants with the tools they need to provide this type of service. You can learn more in our review of Touchbistro and our Toast review.
These new advances take pressure off of wait staff and bring a more customizable and personalized experience to diners. It’s important for restaurant owners to find solutions for their consumers that create better convenience, ease of use and speed in their dining establishments instead of encumbering their dining experience.
What are examples of smart restaurant software?
mPOS systems and mobile payment
When POS systems first hit the restaurant scene, they were massive (often running on a giant desktop computer) and prohibitively expensive, but they changed everything. Now, mPOS systems, or mobile point-of-sale systems, are starting to make their mark in chain restaurants and major cities.
Rather than use a centralized POS system to key in each order, possibly behind an already crowded counter, the waitstaff is equipped with tablets that run fully functioning POS software and communicate instantly with the kitchen. This effectively streamlines the ordering process without removing the human element of customer service. In many cases, a card swipe system can be integrated as well, which means customers aren't waiting for the bill, waiters aren't clustered around the POS waiting for their turn, and tables turn faster. These systems eliminate the need for pen and paper entirely and remove a major step from the order-placing process, which may even cut down on errors.
mPOS systems allow for a greater level of accountability between owners and employees as well as between the front and back of the house, which means servers can focus on connecting with customers and delivering a memorable experience.
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Restaurant table management systems
Many large chain restaurants – like Applebee's, Famous Dave's and TGI Fridays – have been using restaurant table management systems for years, but small business owners should pay attention to these types of POS systems. Comprehensive solutions (such as NexTable, DineTime and Squirrel Systems) are loaded with features but expensive. Other options (like Yelp Waitlist and Waitlist Me) offer users the ability to manage reservations and waitlists exclusively, but for a much lower price tag. Either way, nearly all the solutions (at the very least) allow users to efficiently handle some of the most hated tasks in any restaurant: dealing with reservations, waitlists and bookings.
The ability to accept restaurant bookings and reservations online is a huge boon for business owners and employees, and customers increasingly expect this functionality, even from local restaurants. People would rather place a reservation online than call a stressed-out host who is clearly in the weeds.
Some restaurant management software also lets users create custom table maps to edit floor plans and delineate sections, and there are even packages that include full POS functionality as well as robust analytics and reporting capabilities.
Waitlist management software
Waitlist management software allows employees to add customers to a digital waitlist and automatically alert them when their table is ready. Many companies claim this feature reduces walkaways, as consumers don't have to wait inside the restaurant for their table. Some software even allows digital waitlists to sync across every device in your restaurant so managers and owners always know what capacity and guest flow looks like.
Restaurants can utilize mobile apps to feature their promotions or loyalty rewards, including communicating about a newly launched venue or food item. These apps can store birthday information for special deals as well. Mobile apps can push notifications to users to alert them of a new promotion or remind them to leave their feedback on their last dining visit. Mobile apps also provide customers with a higher level of customization, with some apps having the ability to keep track of their order so customers only have to use their phones to indicate they'd like their “usual.”. Mobile apps can also house rewards programs such as offering a user free dessert after they’ve dined at a restaurant a certain number of times.
What are the benefits of smart dining?
Smart dining offers a number of valuable benefits.
Gather valuable data
Tools like mobile payment tablets provide restaurant owners and managers access to important analytics that can then be used to make critical front-of-house and operational decisions.
Improves the dining experience
Owners can help staff serve guests better by allowing them to be in touch right from their tables. Instead of the waitstaff randomly checking on guests to ask about refills, customers could order them right from the table. With productivity increasing, owners may find staffing needs to be reduced. [Read related article: How Modern POS Software Can Help Your Restaurant Thrive]
Increase your revenue
Increased revenue is another possible benefit of smart dining. With billing done directly on a payment device, there is less room for error. Check sizes are also likely to be more since food and drinks can be ordered consistently throughout the meal without the need for waitstaff to be present.
Build customer loyalty
Customer loyalty is also built with the use of smart dining technology. Smartphone apps allow guests to reserve tables or put their names on your restaurant waiting list. Also, the app could send out an alert when the table is ready. Customer rewards programs can also be managed through the app. For instance, the app could track purchases and award points that could be exchanged for free food and drinks.
Improve speed of service
Consumers are constantly looking for more convenient ways to receive what they want faster. Smart dining gives restaurant goers the chance to pay for their meal on a tablet at their table instead of relying on busy wait staff. These features allow for more table turnover, increasing the number of guests being served each night and by extension, profits.
The current and future landscape of smart dining
Most of the push for smart dining centers on improving the ordering process for customers and lowering the cost of operation for restaurant owners. Of course, the increased automation smart dining provides will result in job losses across the most disadvantaged population currently employed in the service industry – those in minimum-wage or low-paying chain establishments.
Automation has already started in major chains and fast-food restaurants and will likely continue to evolve to the logical endpoint, wherein most of the ordering is done by the customer interacting with a device, and a small number of staff is retained to assemble food. However, it's important to resist alarmist tendencies, because there are positive aspects of smart dining, and the total automation of customer service may not trickle down to neighborhood bistros and independent steakhouses. After all, the experience a customer seeks from a fast-food chain (get food as quickly and cheaply as possible) is not what they expect from their favorite sit-down restaurant (food, service and atmosphere).
There are ways smart dining technology can be implemented with a human touch, and some of the tech out there actually makes things better for business owners, customers and employees. This is the start of the smart dining revolution.
There are essentially two types of restaurant patrons: those who are there just because they are hungry and those who want to have a meal out. For restaurateurs who focus on the latter clientele, smart dining needn't be equated to total automation. For those who focus on high turnover rather than the service experience, eliminating staff in favor of self-serve tablets may be inevitable once the prices of such systems drop and the public becomes more comfortable with the concept.