The Restaurant Customer Experience: Can We Learn from Bologna?


“Still working on that appetizer?”

Said no Italian waiter, ever.

In Italy, where dining is as much of an art form as frescoes on the ceilings of Renaissance chapels, the concept of table turnover is a foreign one. Even in busy trattorias during peak hours, diners linger over empty plates. You won’t see waitstaff hovering over tables, looking for a chance to clear space for new arrivals. Indeed, many restaurants consider it rude to present a check until a guest asks for it.

Bologna, arguably the country’s culinary capital, has relatively few tourists, so restaurants must cater to local tastes. As a result, the tradition of leisurely meals is especially entrenched. Competition is fierce – sit-down eateries proliferate on every block, and prices are reasonable. Still, the risk of alienating patrons seems to outweigh the temptation of pursuing higher profits by speeding things up.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for the U.S. restaurant industry. (Sadly, it’s not that we should take two hours for lunch and have really good pasta and a glass of wine.) Rather, the lesson is that the customer comes first. No one would argue with that, of course, but a reminder of that truism might be in order when deploying technology in restaurants.

Innovations aimed at integrating point of sale data with back office systems and optimizing order fulfillment and management of perishable supplies can certainly enhance back office operational efficiency. However, larger questions around how such initiatives impact the customer remain.

As I discuss in a recent blog post in QSRWeb, addressing those questions involves finding the right balance between a traditional dining experience and one driven by technology. Today, we have the capability to automate, digitize and robotize pretty much all of the processes and functions involved in ordering, preparing and paying for a meal. Some restaurants are successfully taking this approach, and many people seem to love it. But it’s not for everyone. Trattoria patrons in Bologna, for example, would likely find automated dining an affront to what the experience of eating out should be.

Finding the right technology/tradition balance therefore involves tradeoffs – tradeoffs that require deciding exactly who your customers should be. In other words, if you decide to build your brand around hip millennials, that could mean losing mindshare among families with young kids.

These difficult choices underscore the growing importance of IT/marketing collaboration. Technology teams developing innovative new capabilities need to be aligned with broader business strategies, and with marketing insights into what customers truly want. Marketers, meanwhile, need to expand their understanding of technology, as well as refine their ability to articulate their requirements to their technology counterparts.

Based on that collaborative foundation, restaurants can define a target audience with specific attributes, and then implement technology solutions that deliver a dining experience that resonates with that segment.