The Dining Experience – Aligning the Physical with the Digital

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Restaurants today are racing to deploy the latest technology tools to make the dining experience easier, faster, more engaging and memorable.  Mobile phones, increasingly ubiquitous in dining establishments of all types, are being used to streamline order-taking, as point-of-sale devices and as delivery vehicles for discounts and individualized offers. Chains are leveraging in-store Wi-Fi for joint promotions and to offer patrons a home-office-away-from-home environment. Automation technology is being deployed to speed take-out and delivery orders and to reduce staffing requirements. And data analytics gains increasing traction as personalizing the dining experience becomes a competitive imperative.

Clearly, technology is transforming the dining experience from the customer’s perspective – but it’s also redefining basic functions and roles within the restaurant. In developing and executing their strategies, restaurants therefore need to consider how technology will impact the relationship between diners, employees and the restaurant space, as well as how to redefine internal processes, performance metrics and requirements around skills, training and compensation.

Consider interactive tabletop systems that innovative casual dining chains are deploying. These devices can allow diners to review a menu, place orders, track the preparation of their dish, play online games while they wait for their meal and then pay their bill. The role of waitstaff is confined to bringing food and drinks to the table. In some instances, the devices allow patrons to only order appetizers, drinks and desserts; waistaff, meanwhile, focus on taking entrée orders (and potentially steering guests to more profitable options).

Beyond the obvious impact of driving cost savings through reduced waitstaff requirements, tabletop systems can generate revenue by charging a fee to access kid-friendly video games – and what parent wouldn’t gladly pay a few dollars to preclude a pre-dessert meltdown? This interactive technology in the restaurant has also been shown to be an effective vehicle for collecting customer input, comments and complaints – much more so than paper-based forms or email follow-ups.

Underscoring these potential opportunities, however, is the broader question of what a restaurant wants the dining experience to look like, and how the transformed dining experience will align with the brand’s vision for its customers.  While technology can certainly lower costs and increase volume by essentially driving waitstaff and preparers out of the picture, is that a good thing in terms of the dining experience? For some, the answer is a definitive yes. At a recently opened San Francisco-based fast food restaurant featuring healthy, vegetarian options, patrons use an in-store kiosk or their mobile phones to place their (customizable) order, swipe a card for payment (no cash accepted) and pick up their food from a cubby hole compartment. Behind-the-scenes cooks prepare the food.

While a fully automated restaurant environment quick-serving fresh vegetarian meals might be just the thing for health-conscious and tech-savvy millennials in the Bay Area, things become more complicated for an established chain that built its brand promise on a warm environment and friendly banter between patrons and staff. In this context, leveraging technology becomes much more than effective implementation and optimal utilization of capabilities. One example of this is offering staff constant training and relationship abilities through the use of digital devices.

As mobility, automation interactive capabilities and data analytics services increasingly inform the competitive environment, savvy restaurants need to stay attuned to the big picture of the dining experience and, more specifically, ensure that technology initiatives stay aligned with demographic targets and marketing strategies. Brand management, in turn, needs to stay apprised of emerging technology capabilities and rapidly changing consumer tastes and expectations, so they’re not left out of the picture of an ever-changing, ultra-competitive industry.