So, Where’s the Opportunity? 


Welcome to Expedite, a (mostly) weekly newsletter by Kristen Hawley covering what’s important in restaurant technology. 

It’s been over two months since the coronavirus upended the restaurant industry and my eyes are (finally) on the future. Honestly, I found it hugely challenging to think about what might be on the other side of what still feels like a giant question mark. 

A few weeks ago, I talked to Sevenrooms co-founder and CEO, Joel Montaniel about new product features and… the future, broadly. The company, which offers a host of customer relationship management tools, released contactless order-and-pay earlier this month. It launched direct ordering for delivery in mid-March, shortly after most restaurants were forced to close dining rooms in the U.S. Both features were on the company’s roadmap, Montaniel said, but the pandemic expedited their release —direct ordering for delivery and contactless order-and-pay aren’t just of-the-moment tech solutions; they’re ways of integrating and implementing new options now that will continue to help later. 

“Some of the conversations that I’ve been having involve what’s going to happen toward the negative,” he said, referencing masked and gloved servers who previously may have looked more appropriate in a hospital than a dining room. “I think it's interesting to think about the other side: what’s going to happen that’s going to be amazing for the customer? A fortunate byproduct of this is that restaurants can reimagine how they do business, and in some cases we might get something better or something new. It’s hard to say that, but we think there will be some things that will be amazing and great despite all the changes.” 

Per our conversation, here’s how Montaniel sees the new, digitally-enhanced, restaurant consumer experience (I’ve edited this for length and clarity):

You are a regular of a local restaurant and order takeout directly from them twice a month. Because you’ve recently ordered food from a restaurant directly, you’re now in its guest database. If you haven’t ordered in a week and a half or two weeks, that restaurant can automatically reach out to you and say, ‘Hey, we miss you, next time you order here’s a complimentary dish because you’re such a great regular,’ or if they want to, ‘Hey here’s 20 percent off your order.’  

So now let’s say we’re three or four weeks away from restaurants reopening. They now have a database they can reach out to and say, ‘Hey y’all, we’re a week away from opening our doors, here’s a link to make a reservation or add your name to the waitlist, directly.’ They can send that note out to their most loyal delivery customers first. 

So let’s say you get the email, you click the link to make a reservation. Now the restaurant can share new policies and safety information. In the email that you get with your confirmation, you can pre-order your meal. Maybe  you know exactly what you want. Maybe there’s a new prix-fixe meal package. You get a text message 30 minutes before your reservation reminding you to check in at a certain time to be seated immediately. You come in. You check in with the host — or maybe a contactless host stand. You get seated at the table. The server — if you choose to have one — knows that you’re a delivery regular. You can click a link to look at the menu on your device. You can pay from the menu.

You place the order you get your food, you walk out of the restaurant, leave a review. You say, ‘That was awesome, this restaurant is doing a great job making me feel safe, I would definitely go back.’ Sevenrooms pulls that in for the restaurant to help them understand guest sentiment around cleanliness so they don't have to work to pull in all those reviews. Two weeks later, you haven’t ordered delivery or visited the restaurant. We give the restaurant one view of you across delivery pickup reservations and waitlist, and they can now market off of that. The restaurant sends another email to say, ‘Hey, we haven't seen you in a while, here’s a deal for delivery, and by the way we can put you on the waitlist or help you book a reservation for this weekend, if you want to come in.’ 

Montaniel says that this flow sets the stage for more new technology, like personalized menus. But it’s also a way for the restaurant to constantly share its own messaging around safety protocols, and connect directly with its customers. There’s no question that safety is of the highest importance at any restaurant. Every expert, every chef, every restaurateur, every tech entrepreneur I’ve talked to has, in the last few weeks, referenced the need for customers to not only be safe while dining — remember, restaurants have adhered to strict safety guidelines for decades — but to feel safe while dining in a way that makes the guest feel relaxed and comfortable and willing to return. The need to maintain direct relationships with guests is obviously irrefutable at this point.

This is, of course, just one example of what to expect from the future of restaurant tech. There’s a focus on the end-to-end experience, because that’s how restaurants need to operate in the near-term future: bookings in advance, understanding who’s coming and what they might want to eat, managing flow, and an easy way to learn about their experience and invite them back. 

It’s possible the opportunity here is some sort of big, fat technological reset button. Many of the changes we’re living through feel like they could become status quo. Good luck taking away my to-go margaritas, city of San Francisco! But also: high-end dining at home as restaurants offer exciting and accessible to-go offerings perfect for special occasions and also Tuesdays. A huge focus on safety and the associated marketing and advertising campaigns that promote it. Capped fees from third parties that are more reflective of what businesses feel they’re receiving from a tech company — not what the companies dictate is reasonable. (New York is the latest city to impose restrictions on third party ordering and delivery commissions, 15 percent on delivery, 5 percent on anything else.)

There are plenty of people and companies who see the opportunity in what’s happening now, with an eye toward responsible hospitality operations. (Let’s keep finding them.)

Take care, 

Expedite is produced by Kristen Hawley, a San Francisco-based journalist with over six years of experience covering the restaurant technology industry. Previous iterations of this content were available via Chefs+Tech and Skift Table. Thanks for reading. 

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