Restaurants Are Using Technology to Bring Back Customers Post-Pandemic

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Municipalities around the country are giving local businesses the go-ahead to reopen, but getting back to business in the restaurant industry will take more than setting the tables and unlocking the doors.

Many of the regulations being set up to keep customers safe are difficult for restaurants to comply with. Without clear answers on how to implement those safeguards, restaurant owners are left to fend for themselves and source their own solutions.

A recent survey by VIPinsiders, a platform run by restaurateur Philipp Sitter, found that masks, gloves, and disposable menus are all important to diners as they consider when to return to indoor dining. More than half (58%) of people surveyed said disposable, single-use menus are important to them, and 46% said they believe restaurants should check all guests and staff temperatures before dining.

In a separate study, this one by Datassential, 81% of consumers said they want fellow diners to sanitize their hands upon entering, and 65% want no physical menus whatsoever.

How do local restaurants implement these changes, and what role will technology play in helping those businesses reemerge from lockdown status?

Statewide regulations, like sanitizing protocols and spacing between tables, are in many ways easier for restaurants to implement because they are clear-cut. Certain diner expectations are harder for restaurants to gauge, and that has presented a new opportunity for technology providers catering to the restaurant market.

In working with restaurant owners across the country, Jack Serfass has come to understand many of the industry’s biggest pain points. His company, Uptown Network, provides iPad wine lists and drink menus, along with product inventory and kitchen management hospitality software, for restaurants.

In the time since coronavirus lockdowns went into effect this spring, Serfass says he’s seen a shift in motivation among restaurant owners wanting to use technology. Despite the clear economic burden that coronavirus has had on the industry, he says it’s not costs that are driving adoption of digital platforms right now.

“Their main focus for BYOM [Uptown’s digital menu product] was to give their guests confidence to come back,” Serfass says. “By giving an option for menus on a guest’s personal device, it takes away a messy touchpoint, a menu, and gives [customers the] confidence to come back.”

Menus have become a sticking point for full-service restaurants looking to re-open post-pandemic. Many customers say they prefer disposable or single-use menus, but paper options are costly for high-volume businesses, and menu boards are challenging for restaurants with large menus or wine lists.

The touchless menu system that Uptown Networks developed relies on QR codes to provide diners with responsive, interactive menus that they can use on their personal devices. Serfass says it was important that menus be available without the requirement to download an app because it’s not reasonable to expect customers to download a separate app at each restaurant they visit.

Although Uptown’s touchless menu product was available before the pandemic, Serfass believes the pandemic, and subsequent concerns about safety and cleanliness, have accelerated the trend toward mobile menus by a “couple of years.”

Restaurants are finding that by sending menus to customers at the time when they make their reservations, they can actually speed up table turn times. That’s a game changer any time, but especially right now, with restaurants operating at limited capacity.

In interviews, restaurant owners across the country have talked about cutting back on inventory and creating more menu items that cross-utilize ingredients as a way to streamline operations. Restaurants are also relying more on data and keeping tabs on what customers are ordering to cut down on SKUs.

Vendors like Uptown Networks and others are working to make products that will make it easier for restaurants to implement those strategies. Dozens of companies are coming out with solutions designed specifically for this moment. Others are adapting existing technology based on the feedback they’re hearing from restaurant clients.

TouchBistro, the restaurant POS system provider, quickly pulled together a range of products that would help restaurants adjust their operations post-pandemic. The company is offering certain products, like its online ordering tool and online reservation system, free of charge for a limited time.

Other technology vendors are finding ways to adapt their solutions to meet the unique demands restaurants are facing right now.

“When Covid reared its head, we began expanding [our] product line and started research on touchless menu options that were already in market,” says Lori Alba, vice president of marketing at BrandMuscle, a company that specializes in integrated local and channel marketing.

Alba says her team found issues with privacy and existing solutions that were too limited in functionality. For example, some of the most popular products being used by restaurants were only displaying a single menu. Restaurants weren’t being given the option to schedule a time for different menus to display, and they weren’t being offered ways to control their branding.

Based on feedback, BrandMuscle quickly came up with its own location-based digital menu platform. The platform, dubbed SpotMenus, was rolled out in May. It’s optimized for food and beverage distributors and designed to help restaurants, bars, and other on-premise establishments adhere to state guidelines.

“Demand has been incredibly high, and we’re in the process of launching an enhancement that will further automate the subscription process online,” says Alba.

BrandMuscle was in a unique position to be able to build and launch its solution in a short time. In addition to already having a team of developers at the ready, BrandMuscle also has existing partnerships with wine and spirits distributors. That means the company was able to quickly sign agreements with those organizations to make its new menu product available to over 250,000 establishments.

“We are able to support sponsored menus in a way that enables the distributors and suppliers to work within the state legal frameworks to provide digital versions of certain menus,” says BrandMuscle Chief Strategy Officer Rich Mendis.

“We have invested in a comprehensive enterprise data warehouse and analytics solution, that ties together menu impressions, brands, pricing, and third-party data, that will give suppliers and distributors insights into how their brands are displayed, and give restaurants and bars insights into their foot traffic versus others in the same local area.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.