The restaurant industry is notoriously slow to take up new technology, but it was also one of the sectors that was profoundly affected by the coronavirus. According to Restaurant Business, a tech transformation that would ordinarily have taken years has occurred in just five months.

As restaurants implemented the new social distancing and health regulations to ensure the safety of patrons and staff alike, they looked at tech innovations to help them try and recoup their income by serving their customers in new ways. Embattled restaurants took up smart technology to boost their profitability during lockdown.

What is smart technology?

According to internet dictionary Netlingo, the term “smart” originally comes from the acronym “Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology” but became widely known as “smart” because of the notion of allowing previously inanimate objects – from cars to basketballs to clothes – to talk back to us and even guide our behaviour.

Everyone has a smart device

Everyone already has a smart device that can be leveraged for use in the restaurant industry – the smartphone. The lockdown gave many people who might have been reluctant to try out smart technology a push because for a while, it became the only way they could eat restaurant food.

For example, older age groups quickly learnt how to use their smartphone functionality to order food. And even after the strictest lockdown phases, restaurant patrons continue to use technology in this way because it’s perceived as safer. Customers are also likely to prefer using their own phones instead of touchscreen devices or kiosks in restaurants during the pandemic to ensure they are safe from contamination.

Food delivery is here to stay

Food delivery became a preferred option for customers who had to stay home during the pandemic to avoid being exposed to the virus. Many restaurant patrons who couldn’t dine in at their favourite eateries started using smart technology to place their orders. The trend of ordering food on smartphone apps took off during the pandemic with the restrictions spearheading the shift to online.

Mr D Food and Uber Eats own 80%-90% of the food-hailing market in South Africa. However, these platforms have received some criticism for being expensive and not sharing customer information with restaurants. More cost-effective, smaller and nimble players like Mr Yum and Quench are starting to make inroads in the market.

Restaurant Business reports that US companies have experienced substantial increases in digital sales, including mobile app use, during the pandemic. Three-quarters of Domino’s Pizza sales are now digital, Wendy’s saw digital sales double to 5% of sales in the second quarter of 2020, and Burger King and Canadian multinational fast food chain Tim Hortons achieved 8% digital sales.

Kerbside pickup a sleeper hit

While food delivery was a clear winner during the pandemic, kerbside pickup also gained traction. Customers who would have previously used the dine-in option found an alternative in kerbside pickup, which was seen as safer than entering a restaurant because of less contact with people. It’s also more convenient because it could work off smartphone technology. It also means less waiting time for customers who can indicate when they arrive via text message and collect their order at a window or have it delivered to them by a staff member to a designated parking bay. Kerbside pickups also represent a win for restaurants because they spend less than they would for drive-thru services.

Ghost kitchens in our future

Ghost kitchens, also known as dark kitchens, are defined in a Restaurant Dive article as “delivery-only restaurant facilities with no storefront or seating areas”. Even in the uncertain times before the pandemic, this concept was gaining a foothold because of the popularity of the food delivery industry.

The ghost kitchen model optimises restaurant kitchen space for delivery. Experts predict that ghost kitchens will multiply in the coming years because consumers are more tech-savvy and have a desire for convenience. Read more about the ghost kitchen concept in our recent blog.

How much do you know about the digital revolution in the restaurant industry? Find out more about the tools that restaurant owners can adopt in the digital revolution, including online ordering, Point of Sale, digital menus, mobile payments and loyalty programmes.

Author : Rudi Badenhorst