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How Smart Dining Is Changing the Restaurant Industry

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff

It's not just about automation – smart dining means a better experience for customers.

  • Restaurants are embracing technology to capture more clients and offer convenience to the customer.
  • Smart dining provides customers the convenience of placing orders at their table and ease of payments.
  • While smart dining is convenient to both the business and the customer, it has resulted in significant job losses.

"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.

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.

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, 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 systems. Comprehensive solutions (such as NexTableDineTime 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.

Waitlist management, another standout feature of this type of product, allows employees to add customers to a digital waitlist, and even automatically text them when their table is ready, which many companies claim reduces walkaways. Plus, digital waitlists can sync across every device in your restaurant, so managers and owners always know what's going on and details don't get lost through the staff grapevine.

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.

Benefits of smart dining

According to Presto, tools like mobile payment tablets allow restaurant owners access to big data that's useful for making front-of-house and operational decisions. 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 reduced.

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. Also, with checks paid instantly at the table, turnaround is much faster.

Customer loyalty is also built with the use of smart dining technology. Smartphone apps allow guests to reserve tables or put their name 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.   

Bottom line

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.

Image Credit: Prostock-Studio / Getty Images
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