Technology has proliferated in the restaurant industry over the past five years, as eateries look to improve both efficiency and the customer experience.
Fast food aficionados have already become accustomed to one new form of service: Ordering from kiosks instead of cashiers. These kiosks have assumed most of the restaurant tech spotlight, cutting labor costs, increasing efficiency, and reducing human error. While kiosks may be successful for fast food chains or to-go based stores, that method isn't as functional for traditional, sit-down restaurants.
In a sit-down restaurant, technology is geared more towards improving the guest experience, rather than getting as many customers in and out of the door as possible, according to Steve Fredette, president and co-founder of Toast. A widely-used point of sale system for restaurants, Toast is a cloud-based platform designed to improve efficiency for both customers and employees.
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Toast and similar products allow waiters to take orders, payments, and customer signatures on handheld devices, and can also read digital gift card QR codes and send texts alerting customers that their food is ready. These tools are now commonplace in many restaurants.
A focus on the customer and employee experience above all is key for success in the restaurant tech business, Fredette said.
"Most restaurant owners didn't get into the business because they were business people, or because they love managing lots of staff. You usually get into business because you love food, or you love hospitality," said Fredette. "We want to get restaurateurs to not have to be CIOs or CFOs. We want them to be able to just do what they love."
No matter the technology being implemented, restaurateurs need to ensure that they do not eliminate social interaction, said Gartner vice president and analyst Whit Andrews.
"Restaurants need to give servers, chefs, supply managers and customers a sense that they can work with artificial intelligence (AI) to achieve a more efficient and a more fun experience, without losing the community interactions that are key to restaurant appeal," said Gartner VP analyst Whit Andrews. "The world doesn't want only more Automats; it also wants servers to be able demonstrate warmth and kindness, to let managers demonstrate their care to workers and customers, and to let customers enjoy each other."
Technology platforms have the potential to increase a restaurant's profits and a waiter's tips. An Austin restaurant called Odd Duck implemented the Toast platform on handheld devices, and increased sales by $500,000 in one year, with servers making $7,000 more in tips a year, said Fredette.
"The running back and forth to punch the order in, punch the drinks in, to punch the next round of food in. To go print the receipt, drop that back off at the table, then go back to the table, pick up the cards, bring those to the terminal, bring back the other receipts back to the table—that whole back and forth can be completely eliminated," said Fredette. The handheld tech let employees see more customers and use the time to wait on them and make an impact, rather than running around, he added.
Additionally, the information recorded by technology can provide valuable insights to restaurants. For example, breweries can track the purchases of certain beers to know how many batches to order for the next cycle, said Fredette. And restaurants that often add a lot of new menu items can see how various menus are performing.
"Restaurant industry participants would benefit particularly from implementing AI in conjunction with digital twins for their supply chains, their onsite operations, and their marketing and promotional strategies," Andrews said. "The vast numbers of transactions to which they have access, along with strong customer data, will allow them to optimize interactions to deliver the best promotions to their users in a way that does not waste."
Technology has transformed the traditional idea of hospitality in the restaurant industry, Fredette said.
"New hospitality is guest first, and data-driven," Fredette said. "You've got to talk to you customers, and you figure out what they want. Let that guide how you think about whether technology is appropriate and which technology is appropriate for you. What most restaurateurs will find is that when they take that approach, when they put the guest first, they'll find that guests want more technology."
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Macy Bayern has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Macy Bayern is an Associate Staff Writer for TechRepublic. A recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin's Liberal Arts Honors Program, Macy covers tech news and trends.