How Technology is Changing the Restaurant Industry

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Technology touches every facet of our lives – as it always has – but with the emergence of mobile devices and cloud computing making more of an impact than ever, you’d be hard-pressed to go anywhere and not find a high-tech piece of hardware or software around. These advances have made an impact everywhere, and one of the places we’re seeing more and more technology is in the food and restaurant industry.

Between the arrival of mobile devices on the table, online reservations, social media, and new payment methods, technology has infiltrated the food and restaurant industry like never before. Some of the advances will serve to improve the experience — both for the industry and for the patron.

High-tech help

There have been a variety of iPad mounts for the kitchen available for our homes for some time, but now we’re seeing them invade the kitchens and dining areas of restaurants. According to a recent article in the USA Today, restaurants in other parts of the United States are starting to allow patrons to use iPads to place their orders. While this may be a welcome sign for the industry as a whole (which, according to the piece, has been flat due to the economic downturn since 2007), it might not work out so well for the servers who are displaced by a tablet. Payroll is one of the largest controllable expenses in the industry, and keeping it as low as possible can have a huge impact on a restaurant’s bottom line.

Using a device to act in place of a real person in this manner isn’t necessarily the best option. When people are going to to eat, they are looking for a human experience. They like that someone is taking the time to cater to their needs.

While using iPads as menus may be passable in some of the “middle of the road” restaurants, they just aren’t suitable for those that specialize in fine dining. Human interaction is very important.  A machine can’t replace that. A good waiter brings what a machine can’t.

Besides replacing menus (and possibly those who take your order from them), tablets have the potential to help hosts deal with incoming patrons who may have reservations. This can be accomplished through connecting the restaurant’s website to some form of online reservation system and then simply using the tablet as a means of checking out who is scheduled when. This allows the restaurant to maintain their computerized system on their main computers while the tablet is used for secondary tasks.

But the use of mobile devices isn’t limited to the serving side of things. They can be used to track inventory, regular checklists, and can go so far as to be used in a similar way we use in our own home kitchens – as a way to help out new kitchen workers get a handle on the restaurant’s menu items.

Still, with all of these potential benefits come the possibility of pitfalls.  Some believe that there are certain aspects of the business that technology can’t do all that well – and can actually harm an establishment when it does fail. For example, bringing mobile tablets into her restaurant would be an exercise in futility — or failure.  Some buildings have a lot dead spots since they may be housed in an older building, where it’d be tough to adopt technology easily.

Having a server is part of the experience. You can’t take that away.  Again, mobile devices (and the Internet for that matter) come into play in a variety of ways, and what happens with them while in the customer’s hands both inside and outside the walls of a restaurant can have a huge impact on an establishment’s success.
The power of the crowd

Social networking sites have played a huge role in shaping the views of society on a myriad of issues, and they are also playing a role in shaping people’s opinions of dining establishments. With Foursquare, customers can leave their thoughts on a restaurant – good or bad – when they check-in. In fact, they can simply be in the area of the restaurant and do that. If a patron has an experience they want to share on Facebook or Twitter (again, good or bad), they can influence a lot of users with just one update. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Yelp is perhaps the worst for a restaurant’s business.  Forty percent of restaurant owners polled said that Yelp, the restaurant review site was a problem because it basically gives customers carte blanche to say whatever they want about a restaurant and a lot of the reviews can be very damaging.

Some are fans of sites like Yelp — saying that it “drives business” to their door.

(It) sends a powerful message and creates a huge awareness.  It assists management in ensuring that everyone is treated well because everyone is equal. These kind of sites are a huge tool for restaurants and they really democratize the landscape.

Groupon has seen its share of troubles lately, but electronic “couponing” isn’t going away. If anything, it’s gaining traction. With Apple joining the fray by including Passbook in iOS 6, the practice of scannable coupons is on the cusp of going mainstream. And that means more technology is coming to the food and restaurant industry because those establishments that don’t adopt it run the risk of being left behind by competitors that do.

Yet with the inclusion of more technology into the restaurant environment, there comes the challenge of training employees to use it.

Serving it right

It could be a little costly, especially when it doesn’t work.  You could be opening up a can of worms.

Some are not so sure that servers need another option to deal with either, but can see it is inevitable.

Just desserts

Technology has never been more intuitive than it is today, and it’s only getting better. It allows restaurant patrons to find restaurants, rate them, and decide where they want to spend their hard-earned money when they go out to eat. It allows restaurant owners to be more efficient and effective in the areas they feel can be streamlined by hardware and software. But if used in the wrong place and at the wrong time, it can do a restaurant great harm – as it can with any industry.

With a better understanding of the technology, the industry has better chance of thriving. And in tough times, those restaurants who are on the right side of the equation have a better chance of surviving.


Image Credit: Eric Feferberg/Getty Images