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Artwork @ finedininglovers.
Nearly two years into Covid-19, parts of pandemic life are starting to feel normal. Restaurants have implemented new strategies to keep customers and staff safe while dealing with real-life challenges: staffing shortages, changing public health guidance, vaccine hesitancy and new variant surges among them.
Plenty of those solutions come courtesy of the restaurant technology companies that build and implement them, giving restaurant tech companies a unique vantage point to observe and analyse modern restaurant operations.
For example: now that so many of us are working from home, we’re looking for places to go. Recent data from online review platform Yelp shows searches for cafes with wifi to work from were up 444 percent this year. Those QR code menus that are suddenly all over the place? They’re clearly sticking around: According to data from payments and point of sale company Square, 45 percent of restaurants plan to offer QR code menus even after COVID subsides, whenever that is.
So where are things headed in 2022? While much is uncertain — our future living with the coronavirus and its variants among them — recent data shows where the restaurant industry might be headed. Here are four predictions for the future based on what’s happening now.
According to new data from Yelp, consumers are making plans to dine out, but want the added certainty of an available table. Searches for restaurant reservations are up 134% and searches for online waitlists are up 82% this year. Searches for ‘open now’ were up 50% this year.
Meanwhile, Yelp searches for outdoor dining are up 500% in November of this year as compared to November 2019, before the pandemic hit. Searches for takeout options are also up — 55% higher in November of this year as compared to pre-pandemic November 2019.
People want to go to restaurants and order food to-go, but they’re expecting some level of certainty from the experience.
Restaurant operators agree that technology can help free up staff to work on the more important things. Automating time-consuming processes using software — and, less frequently, actual robots — can help an understaffed operation continue to serve guests well.
Survey data from the future of restaurants report by Square, a payments and point of sale provider, found that 90% of restaurants agree that increased automation for back-of-house operations would allow staff to focus on more important tasks. 62% of restaurants said that automation would fill critical gaps in managing orders placed online — whether directly or through delivery apps. And 46% of restaurants agreed that automating communication with customers would help fill critical gaps in staffing.
“We are hearing from restaurant owners almost every day about how challenging it is to hire and retain employees. In fact, our future of restaurants report found that nearly 75% of restaurants are having trouble staying fully staffed,” said Bryan Solar, general manager of Square for restaurants.
Restaurants surveyed by Square were also interested in automation that could help manage real-time restaurant capacity, assist guests with reservations, and real-time inventory tracking. “A key value prop of automation is that it gives restaurants the flexibility to run their business in the way that works best for them and their staff,” Solar added.
During the worst days of the pandemic, online ordering became some restaurants’ only source of revenue as they scrambled to stay afloat. Now, it’s a modern convenience that consumers expect. Data from BentoBox, a company that provides websites and online ordering for restaurants, shows a 54% increase in direct online order volume this year.
The popularity of online ordering has also led to a shift in ordering behaviour. While Fridays and Saturdays remain the most popular days for online orders, the gap between weekends and weekdays shrunk considerably over the course of this year. Mondays and Thursdays got especially more popular. Online ordering has become a routine part of people’s lives, not just reserved for special occasions. Direct ordering also benefits restaurants, since they capture valuable customer data.
“The reality for restaurants is that customer experience does not exist in a physical or digital storefront – it spans both across multiple touch-points to better understand what drives return visits,” said Krystle Mobayeni, BentoBox’s co-founder and CEO.
The popularity of digital ordering could also have an effect on physical restaurant spaces. “We see the time of the dine-in only or takeout only as largely done forever,” said Square’s Solar.” In the future, we expect restaurants’ physical footprints to evolve as they see an increase in the percentage of their revenue that comes from off-premise sales. Kitchen sizes could potentially take up more of the overall space and online ordering would become critical to a restaurant’s bottom line.”
Concepts and brands created specifically for online ordering will likely continue to grow in 2022, thanks to the popularity of online ordering channels and diners’ everyday interest in takeout. They can also be helpful to a restaurant’s bottom line.
“Hiring crises, supply chain complications, and an ever-evolving reopening process have restaurants taking steps to become more efficient in their operations,” said BentoBox’s Mobayeni. “They’ve responded by increasing prices and streamlining menu items, but also adopting low-overhead ghost kitchens. The past year has proven that ghost kitchens are an impactful concept when an established brand is paired with a high-quality digital storefront.”
It’s true: a recent report in the Wall Street Journal noted that restaurant menus are getting smaller, in large part thanks to operational challenges like staffing. At the same time, ghost kitchens and virtual brands are proliferating — BentoBox reported a 100 percent increase in the number of ghost kitchens using its platform this year. On Yelp, 5,000 businesses have self-identified as virtual restaurants, and searches for ghost kitchens on the platform are up 325% this year.
This data suggests that more restaurants are adopting virtual brands or expanding to ghost kitchen facilities that prepare to-go orders to supplement their traditional operations. This could also lead to big changes in the way restaurants use their kitchen space.
“I think the probability of having multiple concepts playing out in the same kitchen is rapidly increasing. The idea of ‘many-in-one’ kitchens is something that we already see overseas and I anticipate the trend to catch on quickly in the United States in the near future,” said Solar. “While this definitely means more ghost kitchens, it also means higher utilisation of existing kitchens with brick and mortar storefronts.”
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