There’s a lot for operators to consider in today’s socially distanced environment. From sanitization practices to table layout to serving and payment processes, there seems to be a limitless list of touchpoints that could be sources of transmission.
Minimizing the touch factor in foodservice is key to breaking the chain of transmission, says Jim Gauthier, senior clinical advisor, Infection Protection for Mississauga-based Diversey Canada Inc. “If orders, for example, can be made directly to the kitchen from a [customer’s or server’s] device, or online reservation systems used to [decrease congestion], you have reduced potential contact.”
Foodservice operations are discovering that, with the right tweaks and enhancements, technology can play a key role in eliminating touchpoints that can potentially transmit Coronavirus. From expanding POS and reservation-system functions to simple software upgrades, there are plenty of options for operators to explore that don’t always require a huge investment.
“There are a lot of interesting innovations happening – from very simple things like QR codes and mobile apps to more complex optical character-recognition systems, such as license-plate readers for customers picking up takeout orders – that are now very attainable,” says Jeff Dodge, national director of Digital Innovation Solutions for Insight Enterprises in New York. “Much of what can be done doesn’t need new technology.”
Streamlining the process trail
Integration is an important underlying strategy that should not be overlooked. Chris Knight, senior consultant with The Fifteen Group in Toronto, points out a number of existing functions that can be integrated and/or upgraded to reduce physical contact, from the customer’s pre-visit to payment and departure.
QR codes at tables, for example, are becoming an increasingly popular option for eliminating the handling of physical menus. “Scaddabush [in Toronto] is doing interesting things with QR codes on mason jars at tables that link to the menu,” Knight explains.
Tap payment has also been a boon in protecting staff and customers, he says. “Most restaurants already have that capability in their payment systems. In many cases, restaurateurs are dropping off the machine pre-loaded with the amount and tip and leaving it at the table for payment.”
Some establishments are providing staff members with dedicated tablets that perform multiple functions, reducing the need for standalone terminals, he adds. “There’s a lot of talk around finding ways to order directly from the table or pre-order using mobile devices. Handheld tablets, like the Clover POS system from SilverWare for example, can allow servers to place orders, print checks and process payments.” Tools such as styluses prevent staff from touching screens with their fingers.
There’s also a push towards leveraging scheduling tools to communicate with staff daily without the need to bring them together in a room, Knight says. “Typically restaurants will meet with staff to talk about what is being featured and other updates. Now, scheduling tools can be used to disseminate the same information to their phones.”
Building out cloud-based offerings
Reservation systems are expanding their services to act as valuable communications tools, Knight says. “Restaurants can use the systems to communicate to consumers what the policies are around reservations times, time limits for seating and mask wearing. They can also allow guests to preview menus online and capture customer information for contact tracing, should anything happen.”
San Francisco-based OpenTable has expanded its reservation service to bars, wineries, grocery stores, retailers, pop-up restaurants and colleges to help manage capacity and adjust floor plans to meet new safety requirements. It’s also been expanded to takeout, so users can order and conduct contactless payment.
TouchBistro has been integrating a number of enhancements with its POS platform. “Extensions to our service, such as reservation capabilities, QR codes that don’t require an app download and loyalty solutions, are very, very topical and timely right now,” says Alex Barrotti, founder and CEO of the Toronto-based company.
A significant addition for its customers has been online ordering. “When restaurants were first ordered to close, we pivoted and worked hard to launch a free online-ordering solution to allow restaurants to conduct business and process payments, either at pickup or online, without the commission fees.”
Queen’s Pasta Café in Toronto had never considered online ordering before the pandemic, says James Craik, front manager. “We had such a small restaurant kitchen, we didn’t think we could handle it while the restaurant was open.”
They rolled out TouchBristro’s online feature for customers on Father’s Day weekend. “The response was phenomenal. We were shocked by how many orders we received by Friday mid-afternoon. Even though we hadn’t done any advertising or introduction, we were slammed with orders. We went from zero to 100 in no time.”
Now they’ve re-stored patio service, but the online portion of the business continues. “Everyone is thrilled. We get a lot of comments from customers who are too afraid to come to the patio, but want to support us.”
Dodge says the hands-off approach is also driving a rise in add-ons for kiosks and other customer-facing equipment, without the expense of having to replace them. Innovations such as voice activation can easily be added to kiosk ordering systems. “These can be very robust and good, but it may not work as well in a loud restaurant,” Dodge notes.
Where voice activation may not work, gesture-based sensors, such as Ultraleap, can be integrated with compatible kiosks through a simple USB connection. “It simulates touches without you having to actually make contact with the surface,” says Dodge.
Even existing kitchen equipment can benefit from a simple technology boost, Dodge adds. “Microsoft offers add-ons like the guardian module that lets you take older brownfield devices and attach some Internet connectivity to make them smart. Introducing smart devices allows you to get ahead with predictive maintenance, which reduces the number of technicians having to travel to your site to do emergency work.”
Operations such as Firehouse Subs, Five Guys and Wendy’s have been testing contactless pouring apps for Coca-Cola Freestyle systems. With this simple software upgrade, guests simply place their glass under the dispenser, scan the QR code and pour their drink order using their smartphone camera.
Chris Hellmann, Coca-Cola Freestyle vice-president and general manager in Atlanta, predicts all Freestyle dispensers in North America will be contactless-compatible by the end of 2020. “In Canada specifically, contactless pouring will begin deployment in early November and will be complete before the end of the year. There are 3,202 Coca-Cola Freestyle dispensers in Canada.”
Even in the washrooms and prep areas, upgrades to self-flushing toilets and urinals; knee or foot pedals or touchless faucets for sinks; and automatic soap dispensers can help the hands-free cause.
Dodge says larger establishments can be in an advantageous position, as they typically have many of the technology resources in place. That said, “not all have figured out what to do with them.”
As for smaller operations, he has the following advice. “Look for solutions that are all-in-one and be sure to find out everything they can do. You want to come into the conversation knowing how you want your processes to flow and how a system can help you reduce staff and work at maximum efficiency, while minimizing contact in your space.”
By Denise Deveau