The good news for the restaurant industry is that unemployment levels remain at historically low levels. Why is low unemployment good for the restaurant industry? The National Restaurant Association’s Hudson Riehle always reminds me low unemployment helps keep consumers busy and they subsequently crave the convenience that foodservice operators from all segments often provide.
To help make their businesses even more convenient for consumers, though, operators continue to take a variety of steps. One is moving to smaller locations, often in older buildings that bring foodservice operators closer to their customers. The second step is the continued adoption of customer-facing technologies such as kiosk and app ordering, and even contracting with third-party delivery providers to bring food to consumers too busy to visit restaurants.
No doubt digital has been the darling of the restaurant industry in recent years. For the past 10 quarters, customer traffic in restaurants has been either flat or down, according to data from The NPD Group. At the same time, digital ordering from restaurants continues to grow.
Operators like technology because it helps them provide value on customers’ terms, do more with existing labor and, in many instances, increase check averages. From the consumer perspective, technology allows them to order and receive their food in a way they deem convenient and get on with their lives. It’s all very transactional in nature.
In some instances, boiling everything down to a simple transaction can be quite helpful for both parties. But it generates a set of different and very important questions. “If we replace a face-to-face opportunity with a touchscreen, how do we convey the restaurant’s brand experience?” asks Steve Starr, president of starrdesign, a South Carolina restaurant design firm. “Even seemingly minor touch points enable hospitality.”
And that speaks to a larger issue. The restaurant industry earned its place on Main Street U.S.A. not by serving great food — although, that never hurts — but by providing hospitality and facilitating a sense of community among its patrons. And pledging blind allegiance to all things technology can impede the progress of specific restaurants that offer more of an experience than a transaction. “In this quest to answer the call for convenience are we missing out on why restaurants became such an important part of society?” Starr asked the crowd at the 2018 Foodservice Equipment & Design Global Thought Leadership Summit in September. It’s a point worth pondering for all restaurant operators.
The real restaurant industry visionaries will focus on what the customer needs and use technology to enable hospitality and help people connect. As Starr says: “We can choose connection and convenience.”