Technology is no longer a novelty in the food-service industry. It’s the key to survival and success. According to the recently released National Restaurant Association report “Restaurant Industry 2020: A Snapshot of the Future,” industry competition will continue to intensify in the years ahead, and operators will to have focus on offering elevated levels of food and service in tandem with technological enhancements. As new technology slowly creeps into the restaurant world, a picture of the future is emerging. No part of the dining experience will be untouched, from the way hungry diners choose their destination to the way they pay their bill.

Connecting Hungry Diners with Open Tables

Technology is all about empowering better choices: both for restaurants and their patrons. We’ve seen restaurants begin to offer online reservations and online advance ordering. Soon, guests may be able to search local restaurants based on current wait times and even purchase special offers sent via text, email and social media to entice visits during non-peak hours. During peak hours, guests will have the choice of a traditional pager or receiving a text to their cell phone, both managed seamlessly by a host with a centralized check-in system.

Customized, Dynamic Menus

According to the NRA, nearly four in 10 consumers say they’d be likely to use an electronic ordering system and menus on tablet computers. That number increases dramatically in the coveted 18 to 29 age demographic. Indeed, some restaurants have started using tablets at the table for ordering, and that’s just the beginning of what the technology can do.

Tablets allow restaurants to customize menus based on time of day, or they can emphasize highlighted specials and items with excess inventory. They can even tailor the menu to guest preferences for vegetarian, gluten-free or low-calorie selections. Digital menus also can help with upselling by suggesting additional menu items to go with a guest’s selection.

When a Menu is More Than a Menu

Tablets make great menus, but why stop there? More restaurants are choosing—or required—to provide detailed nutritional information. Tablet menus can allow guests to drill down on everything from calorie counts to ingredients. Tablets also can feature informative and entertaining games and videos, allowing restaurants to share content and promotions with adults while acting as a high-tech replacement to the coloring placemat and crayons for kids.

Putting a Bow on the Guest Experience

We’ve all had the experience of a great meal ruined by a 10-minute wait for the check or credit card slip. Tablets now enable tabletop checkout at the guest’s leisure. It's been reported that tablet-based checkout shaves seven minutes off the average diner’s stay. Furthermore, tablet-based checkout can be another point for gathering a customer’s email or cell phone information with an offer of digital coupons, something that 58 percent of restaurant-goers use on a regular basis, according to a recent survey by Technomic.

Fix It Before They Yelp It

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Thanks to Yelp, UrbanSpoon, Facebook and Twitter, too many restaurant managers today are finding out about negative guest experiences as they are broadcast to the rest of the online world. Digital survey solutions give customers an easy way to offer feedback (and receive offers) before leaving the table. Managers also can be immediately notified of negative responses via text alerts, giving them the chance to rectify a situation before the guest leaves. Management also gets early insights into systematic problems with operations or specific staff members, allowing issues to be addressed early and accurately. 

Furthermore, guests are 10 times more likely to fill out a digital survey on site than they are a traditional print or online survey. Tucanos Brazilian Grill, with eight locations across the country, reports that its digital survey solution has a whopping 80-percent response rate. Surveys can be yet another opportunity to build your customer database as well by offering a digital reward (i.e. discount) to be emailed to the guest as a thank you for completing the survey.

The Value of Data and Automation

In today’s world, you’re only as smart as your data. Technology that helps manage guest flow, seating configurations, service delivery times and inventory give restaurateurs the information to make smart reforms. Some systems using GPS-like technology are helping fast-casual establishments improve efficiency both short and long term by providing real-time information:

• Where is the guest sitting? (No more wasted time looking for the table tent number.)

• How long has the guest been waiting for food delivery? (Which order should the kitchen/expediter prioritize?)

• What tables are the most in-demand? (Does the restaurant need more four-tops and fewer two-tops?)

Quick-service restaurants have been on the forefront of automating inventory tracking, something that is likely to expand to food service at large. By integrating data points (i.e. what a guest ordered with his survey satisfaction score), restaurants will be able to see in real time how their menu items are performing and make adjustments as needed.

The restaurant of the future truly revolves around the guest experience. For the first time, owners and managers will have the tools they need to both understand and cater to the guest’s every need. 

Skip Cass is chief executive officer of Long Range Systems (LRS), a leading global provider of on-site paging, guest management and marketing research/surveying tools. LRS owns over 20 patents and markets over 30 hardware and software solutions designed to enhance customer service, retention and acquisition-based efforts.