The pandemic served a harsh blow to the restaurant industry, forcing countless establishments to permanently shut down, leaving many Canadians out of work and, ultimately, cutting people off from the local watering holes that, for many, served as critical community hubs. The realization that the only way out of this is through it, had restaurant owners across the country quickly finding ways to adapt to the new normal, implementing technology to enhance safety for staff and guests and pivoting their services and operations to meet evolving customer demands. After a year of innovative technology adoption and re-imagining the restaurant experience, the profound resilience of this tenacious industry has catapulted restaurants far into the future, accelerating the modernization of operations and launching them into a new reality.
Out with the Old, In with the New Normal
COVID-19 came in like a wrecking ball, devastating restaurants across the country and leaving the survivors grappling with how to. While many fast-food restaurants were able to maintain drive-thru operations and some restaurants were able to switch to a take-out model, dining establishments that relied primarily on dine-in service lacked the technology and infrastructure to keep running — a reality that forced immediate and sweeping closures. Since the beginning of the pandemic, at least 10,000 restaurants have closed across Canada, according to Restaurants Canada, which reported industry layoffs totalling approximately 800,000 at the height of COVID-19. Turning to technology was the only way for many establishments to survive.
Social restrictions and lockdowns resulted in a surge in delivery and takeout as Canadians continued to support local businesses from the comfort of their homes, requiring restaurants to establish digital systems to accommodate the influx of orders. Many businesses utilized third-party-delivery apps to reach new customers, capitalizing on the easy set up and access to drivers. Others opted to develop in-house ordering systems, which allowed them complete control over customer service and the ability to drive customer loyalty without the costly fees of third-party apps. User-friendly online solutions were critical in streamlining ordering to
maintain restaurants’ revenue.
Adopting in-house technology to streamline orders has also been critical in reducing costs and maintaining efficiency. Implementing kitchen display systems (KDS) allows restaurants to streamline orders for the back-of-house by replacing the traditional paper-chit system with digital tools. In kitchens known for their fast-paced and chaotic environments, KDS streamline food preparation by automatically calculating cooking times and queuing up orders, negating the need to shout across the kitchen and preventing food waste and other costly errors caused by the manual organization of paper chits at the risk of misplacing or mis-ordering them.
Restaurants have also widely adopted technology for the front of house to improve efficiency and reduce high-touch points in a dedicated effort to enhance safety for both staff and guests. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there’s been a notable spike in tableside QR codes to direct guests to digital menus accessible from smartphones, as restaurants quickly worked to reduce touch points by replacing physical menus with online-ordering tools. QR codes also served to direct guests to restaurants’ social-media channels and website.
Many restaurants replaced shared point-of-sales (POS) systems with personal, handheld tablets for servers. This not only limits contact by preventing servers from lining up for their turn at a shared POS system, but reduces the risk of costly errors by allowing servers to ring through an order directly at the table placing it. Additionally, contactless payment options have become the new normal, with touchless technology such as tap payments more often expected than considered a luxury.
The demand for gift cards also grew, offering customers a means of supporting local businesses at the start of the pandemic, and hitting new records during the holiday season as e-gift cards provided a safe solution to gift-giving. Ongoing safety concerns meant that gift cards became an ideal form of payment to reduce the use of cash.
Leveraging Futuristic Technology
The re-imagining of restaurant operations has catapulted the industry into the otherwise distant future, expediting restaurant innovation to levels well beyond where we expected to be at this point in time.
In many ways, the restaurant experience is being re-designed to meet evolving customer demands and expectations of heightened safety protocols, especially as customers continue to opt for convenience and at-home dining. If the future of restaurants relies on automation, then Toronto’s Box’d has a vision we can expect to see more of. Box’d operates on a new model whereby a digital-ordering system and contactless pick-up has removed any need for front-of-house staff. Robots may have seemed like an unattainable futuristic idea, but 2020 has evidently launched us into the future.
Similarly, quick-service restaurants are implementing new concepts to re-define the drive-thru experience. The launch of Taco Bell’s new “Go-Mobile” concept is a sign of the shift in drive-thrus as they begin to offer digital ordering through mobile apps to create a frictionless ordering experience.
While previously, loyal bar patrons may have been missing their favourite bartenders, convenience and health concerns have customers avoiding in-store experiences, meaning the date nights and trips to the grocery store are increasingly replaced by delivery services — and restaurants are taking note. Through in-house ordering platforms, many restaurants have pivoted their services to offer grocery delivery and meal kits, capitalizing on the stay-at-home trend and meeting customers where they are — at home.
Trends to Look Out For
Last year saw rapid digitization and the rise of the country’s most tech-savvy restaurants, catapulting 2021 into an evolved state, light-years ahead of previous forecasts, and giving restaurants the tools to re-boot once restrictions are lifted. As vaccines roll out, the weather improves and restaurant patrons slowly begin to re-introduce dining out into their weekly routines, the restaurant industry will continue to evolve to meet the ever-changing demands of its beloved and loyal customers.
While foodservice has already shifted to require reduced contact between servers and guests, we anticipate the increased reliance on support-staff to cater to guests’ needs. As many longtime hospitality workers have left the industry in search of stable employment during the pandemic, advanced technology that streamlines ordering and service operations will support an increase in entry-level positions and support staff roles. New positions will likely be created for delivery and sanitation management, to ensure all customer needs are met and safety is the utmost concern. For restaurants operating with servers, we expect to see more widely adopted personal tablets for front-of-house staff to reduce shared touchpoints and streamline orders. Tableside QR codes with ordering capabilities could also blossom as a means of frictionless ordering and payment for an automated tableside experience.
Now that restaurateurs have had time to settle into the digital world, this will be an opportunity to re-claim ownership of the customer experience from third-party apps. We’ll likely see widespread adoption of in-house integrated-ordering apps, which will allow restaurants to have complete control over customer satisfaction and food-delivery quality, reservations and loyalty programs that will encourage returning customers.
The restaurant industry has undergone a dynamic transformation, evolving rapidly to meet the ever-changing needs of customers and ensuring safety is always the top priority. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t predict the future. But the widespread adoption of innovative restaurant technology and savvy restaurateurs will ensure that the industry is not just well-prepared to weather any storm, it’s created a new reality ahead of schedule. We’ve imagined what the future could look like — we’re already living in it.
By Brittain Brown