Technology is not the thing most restaurant owners have devoted their lives to mastering. But, as smartphones become increasingly ubiquitous, managers are catching on fast.
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The talk at restaurant conferences and on dozens of training webinars in the past year revolves around how best to implement technology to make customers happier — and bring restaurant owners more sales.
Restaurant chains have been busy behind the scenes, exploring new tech solutions to help diners get in and out faster and keep them coming back.
How will new tech twists — and the growth of smartphone use — make it easier and more enjoyable to eat out this year? Here’s a look at the latest innovations:
1. Find a restaurant near you
At this point, it’s a snap to use restaurant-finding apps such as LocalEats or Foodspotting to locate restaurants near you while you’re on the road. If you’re obsessed with a particular brand, look for their location-finder app — more chains are releasing these by the minute.
2. Customize your order
McDonald’s and White Castle are both testing touchscreen kiosks that allow customers to hold the lettuce or otherwise alter their burger order, industry trade magazine QSR reports.
3. Place your order on the go
While some restaurant chains are just getting into this, others are already cooking on mobile orders. Trade publication Pizza Marketplace reports Pizza Hut gets half its orders online — and mobile devices are used for half those orders.
Pre-ordering means less hassle for both diners and restaurant chefs and servers, who deal with fewer annoyed customers standing around waiting for their order to come up.
4. Order and pay at your table
Forget the waiter: Chili’s, Applebee’s, and Uno Chicago Grill are among the brands adding tableside tablets that allow patrons to place their own order. Presto! No more delays if your server fails to appear.
Once restaurants have an order tablet on your table, the obvious next step is to have that same tablet pull up your bill and let you swipe your own card. Since taking a credit card into the back to run it is a common opportunity for card-number theft, solutions that don’t let the card out of your sight are understandably popular with diners.
5. Be entertained
Visit the food court of Toronto’s mammoth Eaton Centre mall, and you’ll find video walls that offer mini-movies about the 11 eateries featured in the court, games for kids to play, and more. Expect this sort of virtual “eatertainment” approach to spread.
Some of those games are on your phone, too — more chains are finding ways to “gamify” their brand with apps that let you play on your phone (and keep their name in your head). Sandwich chain Blimpie’s Blimpie Run game enters you in drawings to win free sub sandwiches for a year.
Chipotle created a stir last year with its Scarecrow game, which raises awareness about the company’s pro-sustainable farming philosophy. Some parents try to make restaurant times non-digital, but others delight in having a game the kids can play on the phone while they wait for their order. If the game comes with a social message, that just might swing some votes.
6. Share the love
Many diners are already sharing photos on phones. Restaurant chains including Taco Bell and Wendy’s have been busy building their social media audience. Now, restaurant apps will help us share our raves about our favorite eateries and photos of the meal we loved.
Sometimes, there are also rewards in it for diners. For instance, Rita’s Italian Ice offers an app that earns you bonus points toward free ices in return for shares and reviews on Facebook and other social-media platforms.
7. Pay with your phone
Some restaurant chains jumped on the pay-with-your-phone bandwagon early, but look for more to join in soon. New advances will help make the process easier, too.
For instance, Canadian doughnut chain Tim Horton’s recently upgraded its TimmyMe mobile-pay app to enable Blackberry users to tap-to-pay, QSR reports. Bringing that feature to Android phones is next in the chain’s sights.
8. Get discounts
The rise of virtual wallets such as Apple Passbook and Google Wallet, and rewards tools such as Punchcard, now allow you to take your loyalty cards virtual. No more wondering if you’ve eaten 10 tacos and can claim your free one now — and no more scrabbling around in your wallet for flimsy paper punchcards.
Besides discount-tracking apps, smartphone owners can look to get more discount deals than their digitally challenged friends. If the hot session topics at restaurant conferences are any indication, more and more restaurants are laying plans to text you local discount deals.
9. Eat and donate
If you feel fortunate to be able to enjoy a restaurant meal, Los Angeles-based LivnGiv wants to help you use your meal to benefit the less fortunate. When you use the company’s virtual restaurant gift cards, it generates a donation to the charity of your choice of 20 percent of tab. It’s only in L.A. for now, but this is an idea that’s sure to catch on with socially conscious diners.
10. Get food delivered
Too exhausted to go out? A few clicks on The Hunger App, and Eat24 will deliver food from over 25,000 restaurants in 1,000 cities. If they don’t have your favorite, there are plenty of other services to try, including DoorDash and GrubHub.
If you think the new-tech solutions you see at your local restaurant are exciting, you should see what’s going on in the back of the house. Menu analysis, scheduling, and even hiring of workers are all being revolutionized by new software as well.
These tech advances may not be obvious when you visit, but they’ll be helping restaurant owners deliver tastier menus and better service when you arrive.
What’s your favorite way to use technology for eating out? Leave a comment and tell us.
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