Editor’s note: Rajat Suri is the founder and CEO of E la Carte.
The restaurant industry has been around for a long time – since the dawn of Western civilization itself. Starting in Ancient Rome, some of the earliest known public restaurants, called thermopolia, were local hot-spots where the citizenry would go to socialize, be waited on, and fill their stomachs after a hard day’s work.
Although our way of life has undergone a complete metamorphosis into today’s modern society, restaurants themselves have changed very little. The basic guest experience today is fundamentally the same as it was so many centuries ago in Rome’s thermopolia.
Software is changing all of that. Just as the rapid evolution of software is transforming how we live at home (think Nest), how we drive in cars (think Google) and how we travel in airplane cabins (think Virgin America), software is also dramatically transforming how we eat at restaurants. In restaurants, there is an entirely new consumer-facing software layer of apps and services being deployed as we speak.
For example, tablets with sophisticated software for guest ordering and payment, are being placed on every table at major brands like Applebee’s, the largest casual dining concept in the country. Waitlists are being automated by NoWait and NoshList, online ordering being made ubiquitous by OLO and mobile payment is now finding its way into fine-dining restaurants by OpenTable.
Big data and sophisticated algorithms can now be leveraged in real time to optimize operational processes like waiter steps of service, improve guest experience and drive superior returns. Restaurants themselves will start to differentiate based on the software-enabled experiences they offer to guests.
The new era of what I call “smart dining” has begun. What changed? PCs have been around for over 30 years and the Internet has been around for 20. But the real tipping point was the 2007 mass commercialization of the iPhone, which made the use of rich software applications trivially easy for consumers on mobile devices, through simple touch gestures. Finally we could experience the magic of great software on a plethora of modern consumer interfaces like Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
It was only a matter of time before this explosion of technology would find its way into the restaurant industry. In fact, the National Restaurant Association found as much as 63 percent of restaurant guests have relied on tech to do things such as place orders, make reservations, look up restaurant locations, and view menus and nutritional information. This number only seems likely to increase as millennials, the first generation of true digital natives, enter the working world and start to expand their purchasing power and market influence.
Restaurants in the smart dining era will function very differently from the classical restaurant we have become ingrained to. Guests will not simply interact with their favorite joint through human engagement and physical interfaces like paper menus, but also through virtual interfaces like tablet software and mobile phone apps.
While some may lament a perceived decline in human interaction, the truth is that in the smart-dining era waitstaff will be unshackled from rote functional tasks like having to remember toppings on a burger and will be able to focus on interactions with the guest that are more memorable and authentically personal. Restaurant operators will also make data-driven decisions that not only account for their back-of-house but a myriad of factors such as individual employee performance and guest demands. And the guest will enjoy the fact that they have more control and convenience than ever before, with powerful tools like diet and nutrition recommendations at their fingertips.
Restaurants will need to wholeheartedly embrace smart dining or risk their brands quickly becoming stale. Consumers today expect speed, convenience and modernity. For example, in the iPhone era, consumers are quick to abandon experiences that are even milliseconds slower than the alternatives. How will they react when some restaurants make them wait for several minutes longer than the competition?
And whereas operators may switch out their POS systems once a decade, consumers are more accustomed to tech experiences like phone and tablets that are upgraded every year. How will they react when some restaurants offer experiences that are obviously more obsolete than others?
It seems certain that smart dining will fundamentally change the lives of both restaurant workers and patrons worldwide. It is an exciting time to be involved in food hospitality; future generations will look back and see the advent of this smart dining era as a pivotal turning point in the restaurant industry’s long and storied history.