Self-Serve Restaurant Ordering in a Post-Covid World

Covid-19’s impact on local commerce has been polarizing. There are Covid-advantaged businesses and Covid-disadvantaged businesses. The former consists of gaming, remote-work enablement, and all-things e-commerce. The latter consists of brick-and-mortar retail as well as bars and restaurants.

We’ve applied this principle to picking which technologies could inflect in the new normal and in the hybrid “next normal” of the post-Covid era. For example, we expect to see a continued rise in touchless retail shopping and contactless transactions à la Amazon Go Stores.

But one of the less-discussed technologies in the Covid-advantaged bucket is self-serve mobile restaurant ordering. The idea is that ordering and paying from your table can reduce server interaction — which has Covid and non-Covid benefits considering it can save diners’ lives and their time.

As we wrote in June:

One of my least favorite parts about dining out (besides irrational spending on food markups) is being chained to a restaurant table. This pain is mostly felt in the song and dance of getting the server’s attention, then several steps to generate the check, approve, and transact.

Why can’t we experience the same “walk-away” benefits mentioned earlier in light of Uber? Paying through your phone and eschewing the physical check process is one of those mobile payments use cases that actually solves a real pain point. Time is money and all that.

Taking that a step further, the entire ordering process could be done from your device. There are various flavors of in-table ordering hardware at some chain restaurants, but that’s a touchscreen biohazard. Mobile options could rise to the occasion as restaurants reopen.

Distanced Dining

Square last week became the latest company to push this vision forward. Its new program lets diners view menus, order, and pay from a smartphone. Activated by QR codes on table placards, the feature is meant to support social distancing and to give diners more confidence to eat at participating restaurants.

By scanning QR codes, users are taken to a customized landing page where they can fully execute and pay for their order. On the back end, orders are tied into a given restaurant’s point-of-sale system, run by Square. Restaurants can print out their branded QR code and place it throughout their space.

There’s also flexibility for variable QR codes associated with specific tables — thus indicating where an order is supposed to go. Simpler operations, like a coffee shop, can print out a single QR code so that orders are placed to a central queue … then identified by calling out customer names.

Either way, Square offers advantages in its deep integration with restaurants’ POS systems. That compares with point solutions that aren’t pre-populated with restaurants’ menus, pricing, and table layout. Square’s deeper POS integrations will also mean better analytics on a per-item basis.

One draw for restaurants to adopt this feature is, again, boosting customer confidence, which can make or break restaurant visits these days. In that sense, it could be impactful for restaurants to offset upcoming declines due to colder weather in some areas of the country (read: no outside dining).

As for how Square benefits, it could gain mindshare among consumers and restaurant partners. For the latter, it can also deepen relationships, given menu integration and other data. All of these factors could lock Square in on deeper operational levels with restaurants, thus increasing retention.

Touchless Trend

Stepping back, Square’s move is similar to touchless retail. Just like that parallel area of consumer activity, touchless protocols could rule restaurants. Even as things return to normal — or the hybrid “next normal” — a post-Covid world will involve precautionary measures around human and object interaction.

It’s also important to note that these technologies have advantages that transcend Covid-era dynamics. For example, mobile restaurant ordering means faster table “turn times,” which can maximize revenues. This happens by reducing server-diner interactions such as ordering and paying.

But in fairness — like many technologies getting a greater chance to shine these days — self-serve restaurant ordering isn’t new. The technology has existed for a while but is now in greater demand. Through that, it could inflect and gain exposure in ways that create permanent new habits.

And that’s where the true impact could be felt. We continue to hear about local businesses that evolve six years within six months, and could come out better and stronger on the other side. Self-serve ordering could be another example of this, transforming the ways that tech-forward restaurants feed you.

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Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at www.mikebo.land