People love going to restaurants. And for many it’s not just for the food, it’s for the experience. The ambiance, the decor, the people-watching, and the opportunity to not eat leftovers.
When the pandemic started and restaurants closed their doors, both restaurant owners and their customers were at a loss. Friday nights out and Sunday brunch were suddenly gone. And even takeout — which was once a luxury on its own — seemed like a risk.
In these pandemic times, many aspects of dining out have had to change for both customers and restaurant owners to feel safe. The person-to-person contact that used to be an integral part of a dining experience is now one of the key modifications that restaurants need to work around.
But these modifications that started as a necessity are starting to shape a new experience. Many person-to-person touchpoints in the full-service dining experience — such as flagging a server over to take a fresh drink order, or asking for the check at the end of a meal — have always created delays and drawbacks for customers and waitstaff. The pandemic has accelerated the evaluation of these practices as restaurateurs look for ways to improve in-person dining.
COVID-19 restrictions have also tasked restaurants with new responsibilities, such as maintaining contact tracing lists, meeting reduced capacity requirements, and engaging in drastically enhanced cleaning measures that affect their bottom line.
Before COVID, many restaurants were hesitant to implement new technology and became content with offering a traditional restaurant experience. The “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” mentality worked for a long time, until the pandemic came and broke it.
New technology, like self-serve ordering and QR codes, has now taken center stage during the pandemic to mitigate these challenges and help maintain the full-service dining experience that restaurant patrons want, while prioritizing health and safety.
As restaurants look to survive and thrive, they have the opportunity to reimagine the full-service dining experience for the better.
That starts with taking an end-to-end look at customers’ experiences at their establishments. Most often, diners check in at a host or hostess stand, wait to be shown to their table and seated with paper menus, and then wait for a server to arrive and take their orders. After a runner brings out their food, payment takes place at the end of the meal. This leaves diners waiting at their tables until a server brings over the check. Once payment is processed at the register, the waitstaff returns with their receipt.
It all adds up to a slow process that’s less than ideal in even the best of circumstances, given how busy restaurants tend to be.
“The thing about restaurants is they’re already a high-volume, low-margin business. So it’s not like they have employees around just twiddling their thumbs,” said David Rusenko, General Manager of eCommerce at Square. “And when you add that up with reduced capacity requirements and the need to put these other things in place for COVID, it puts a tremendous strain on restaurants.”
Those “other things” — like increased cleaning, contact tracing lists, and temperature checks — add costs onto restaurants and squeeze employees’ time more than usual.
Those considerations, along with changing customer expectations, have inspired restaurants to look for new solutions. This has often come in the form of new technology to help manage their business and create a new customer experience.
But solutions that minimize customer-employee contact and speed up dining service aren’t the only criteria. Restaurant owners want to maintain a positive experience for customers and help remind them why they enjoy dining out.
Solutions for all customers
Restaurants have had to let go of the idea of a “normal” dining experience, because the reality is that customers have different levels of comfort with dining, and there are now many ideas of what is normal.
Creating a dining experience that accommodates all of your customers is paramount to a high-touch customer experience today. What customers think of when dining with you is no longer limited to their wait time, customer service, and food quality. Now a customer’s expectations include accommodations being made for how they choose to interact with your restaurant.
Some customers are ready to enjoy a restaurant meal but still want to dine in the comfort of their own home. Delivery apps and services aren’t exactly new, but now, instead of a luxury, they’re an essential part of a restaurant’s strategy. A customer can choose to order ahead, peruse a restaurant menu online, and choose if they want to pick up their food curbside or have it delivered to their door.
By providing these options, you’re showing customers that you have a solution for whatever their needs are.
While these tools limit server interaction, they are still interactive. And right now, when guidelines are telling everyone to put space between themselves and strangers, they make customers feel safer dining in your establishment.
Experiences that build loyalty
Providing customers with high-quality service is essential to keep them coming back. Building stronger customer relationships is important to the future of restaurants, too, and not just because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Customers, after all, have a lot of options in the reopened dining environment: Delivery and takeout options are still incredibly popular, and full-service and quick-service restaurants compete side by side for business on on-demand marketplaces.
The marketplaces win repeat business from customers through a combination of convenience and high-value deals marketed through digital channels. In the traditional dining experience, restaurants have no digital way to build on the in-person dining experience, putting them at a disadvantage for building a longer-lasting relationship with each customer.
“With self-serve ordering, the restaurant is actually collecting the diner’s email address and phone number,” says Rusenko. “When you pair that with Square Marketing, you can all of a sudden know who your customers are and can start to offer them whatever form of marketing makes sense for you. It could be loyalty programs, 10th meal free, coupons or discounts, special incentives or opportunities, special menu items — whatever it is, you can start to engage directly with them.”
The restaurant of the future
Right now it might be hard to predict what the future looks like for the restaurant industry. But with adaptability, innovation, and technology, we’re shaping that future right now.
The dining experience might not look like it did at the beginning of 2020, but customer values haven’t changed. Adapting to move more quickly and seamlessly for both staff and customers can help restaurants drive up engagement, improve the all-around experience, and minimize contact in this hard-to-navigate time for businesses across the industry.