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What's Next for Restaurants
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By now, it’s clear that restaurants, and how guests experience them, will be far different for the foreseeable future.

Ordering and Payment Habits Here to Stay

When dining rooms were forced to close, operators that stayed open focused on the other ordering, payment, and order fulfillment channels available to them. Whether guests ordered in-person, over the phone, online, or in-app, they typically accessed their food via drive-thru, curbside, takeout, or delivery. The food habits we adopted during COVID to order, pay for, and access our food may become long-standing habits, according to industry research. Surveys conducted by Datassential in May 2020, for example, revealed that guests are likely to keep on using these same channels in large numbers, even after dining rooms reopen:

  • 71% of guests that ordered food delivery during the pandemic will keep doing so after restrictions are lifted.
  • 63% of consumers that ordered alcoholic beverages for pickup / delivery from a restaurant will continue this practice after the pandemic has passed.
  • Guests indicated that they want counter service restaurants to keep offering curbside service (42% of respondents), order-ahead options (39% of respondents), and “drive-in” (where crew take the guest’s order and deliver food through the car window) (32%).

Xenial Customer Research

In early May 2020, Xenial conducted our own survey of restaurant guests. We asked consumers  about their ordering habits before and during COVID-19. Among other ordering channels, Curbside and Third-party Delivery saw the biggest uptick in usage during the pandemic, with guests ordering Curbside pickup 10% more often and using delivery 7% more during COVID than before.

COVID-19, it would seem, solidified the off-premises channel and helped establish digital ordering and off-premises as less of a convenience and more of a habit. What does this bode for restaurants? They need to offer and encourage the use of digital ordering/payment and non-traditional order fulfillment channels.

A Socially Safe Restaurant Experience

Guests returning to their favorite restaurants from very lengthy home-stays could be craving a sense of normalcy and the comfort that comes with enjoying their favorite food in familiar surroundings. Brands are asking themselves how they can address guest concerns (and government regulations) related to personal space and contact with surfaces, while offering experiences that are as normal and familiar as possible. As they return to restaurants, guests may have these concerns, among others:

  • More awareness of their surroundings. For example, they may have a greater desire to avoid lines and crowds and maintain adequate safe personal space.
  • Desire for visible demonstrations of cleanliness practices.
  • Preference for ordering / payment options that minimize the need to touch surfaces. 

Operators face new challenges such as limits on dining room occupancy, the need to create foot traffic flows and social distancing queues, and instituting safeguards and guidelines for employees, to help guests and crew alike retain a sense of safety and comfort. 

Let’s take a look at these issues and how changing practices and the implementation of technologies can help solve guests’ need for a socially safe experience.

Personal Space Inside the Restaurant

We’ve all experienced the hum and buzz of a ‘crunch time’ inside our local Quick Serve or Fast Casual restaurant. Traditional meal times typically bring lines of people waiting to order and pay or pick up, in-store, as well as outside at the drive-thru. 

With regulations dictating dining room occupancy, operators may need to ‘gate’ entry to the dining room. This is a completely new challenge for QSR and Fast Casual restaurants. How do you balance the flow of guests with table availability, while keeping occupancy within the acceptable range? More importantly, how do you do this smoothly and efficiently, and give customers a good experience?

A solution may already exist. For years, sit-down restaurants have used waitlist software that typically manages reservations, table requests, and guest seating.

Here’s how it might look for a QSR or Fast Casual. A customer planning a family dinner outing accesses the brand’s app or visits their website before leaving home. They submit their table request, with party size. In the case of an impromptu visit, the customer might scan a QR code displayed on a sign placed in the parking lot. They then access a link in their phone’s browser to enter the table waiting queue.

A table host just inside the restaurant accesses the host view of the waitlist application. A graphical map of the restaurant layout, including all types of seating, indicates which tables are in use, which have been vacated and are waiting to be cleaned, and which tables have been cleaned and sanitized, ready for seating.

The guest receives an automated notification via text or phone call when a table is available. The same waitlist software that’s used to match guests with seating can be used to track table cleaning and sanitizing. 

Because the software automates processes and notifications, it can reduce table turn times significantly.

Avoiding Contact When Paying for Food

In the past, paying with a card required touching, tapping, or signing a payment device, or handing your payment card to a crew member. 

Touchless payments offer another way to reassure guests and give them ordering and payment options they feel safe with. Here in North America, we’ve been slower to adopt the contactless payment methods that let consumers tap and go. Xenial has developed our own touchless payments technology that uses the guest’s smartphone. Because it uses the customer’s smartphone, operators can offer a touchless experience without the need to replace payment devices.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Scan a QR code at the point of order (on the drive-thru confirmation screen or on the printed receipt at the table or at the counter)
  2. Access check details via a mobile website
  3. Pay using the preferred method including Apple Pay, Google Wallet, and gift card

Xenial Touchless Payments truly are touchless: the guest only needs to use their phone to pay. There is no need to hand a crew member a payment card, or swipe, dip, tap, or sign using an in-store payment device.

Bringing it All Together: The No-Touch, Smartphone-Only Restaurant Visit

Hungry? Let’s experience a socially safe, no-touch Fast Casual restaurant dine-in visit.

You pull into the parking lot and notice a sign posted in each stall. It asks you to scan the QR code using your camera’s phone to request a table. You receive a table request confirmation along with a link to the online menu, which you browse while waiting in your car. You receive your table ready notice via SMS and proceed inside, where a host welcomes you and offers you a seat. A server welcomes you and prompts you to place your order using your phone and the online menu so you never have to touch a printed menu. Your order gets sent to the kitchen. A server brings your food and beverages to your table. If you haven’t already paid online when you ordered, your server brings a hardcopy receipt with your food. You scan the receipt with your phone’s camera and tap the link to pay using your payment method of choice.

This end-to-end socially safe restaurant visit can happen because the restaurant offers an integrated app that consolidates table request / waitlist, online ordering, and touchless payments in a single app.

Contact with Surfaces Like Payment Devices and Self-order Kiosks

Guests have heard a lot about what lives on the keypads and screens of payment devices and on the touchscreens of self-service kiosks. In recent years, many brands have begun to offer touchscreen kiosks to enable guests to browse the menu, order and pay at their leisure.

When customers return to restaurants, they will want the interior to be clean, but more than that, they will want to see the brand’s cleaning regimen obviously in practice. Is someone standing by to sanitize the kiosk screen after each use, for example? Technology is available to help in ways you may not have imagined. 

Advanced UV lights adopted from the healthcare industry are now being used to clean high-touch areas such as kiosk touch screens, automatically, and without staff intervention. The UV-C spectrum light continuously monitors the surface, and works only when the kiosk is not in use. It has been shown to be more than 99% effective against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. It’s a highly visible—and effective—way to reassure guests of your commitment to dining room cleanliness.

Voice assistant ordering in the drive-thru or at self-order kiosks is yet one more no-contact way for guests to order and pay. This technology was already gaining traction, with brands like Chipotle Mexican Grill using an Artificial Intelligence-powered voice assistant to fully automate its phone ordering process.

Xenial has a prototype voice ordering system that is in pilot in drive-thrus at a major nationwide brand. The same technology could be added to kiosks, giving guests the sanitary self-service convenience they crave, speaking their order rather than touching a screen.

Personal Space and Germ Abatement in Employee Work Areas

In the past, food prep stations were closely spaced to save time and help with speed of service. Now, guidelines for social distancing will prompt brands to reconfigure or stagger staffing at make lines/work stations (avoiding crew members working directly across from one another, for example). The National Restaurant Association has shared a plethora of great resources during the pandemic. Among the more recent: a set of restaurant reopening guidelines. These guidelines include the recommendation that where six feet of separation between crew members is not possible, consider other options (e.g., face coverings) and increase the frequency of surface cleaning and sanitizing.

The UV lights mentioned above could be installed in the kitchen to disinfect bump bars and kitchen touch screens, for example.

In Summary

We now know that business-as-usual will be anything but as the industry recovers from COVID-19 and operators re-negotiate expectations with restaurant customers.

They will be much more wary and demanding customers, not necessarily related to price or selection, but with regard to their perception of safety, cleanliness, and overall quality. Modifying operational practices and bringing in new technologies will help everyone adapt to new restaurant realities and guest expectations. 

Want to Serve up What’s Next?

Xenial solutions are designed to serve your business and meet guest expectations for socially safe experiences, supporting innovations like touchless payments, online ordering, delivery, and more, all available in one connected platform. Visit our Socially Safe Restaurants page or contact us to learn more.

Top photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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