We’re in a moment of flux for restaurants as the vaccine rolls out across the country and consumers gear up for a summer of gathering and connections. The question remains for restaurant operators — what role will the digital innovations of the past 14 months play in the months ahead? Andrew Robbins, co-founder and CEO at restaurant Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company Paytronix, spoke with Karen Webster about how digital investments will continue to drive restaurant sales even as customers return for dining in.
“We’re at one of these inflection points where people are asking ‘what’s going to happen in the future?’” said Robbins. “Because one could imagine that, with a return to [on-premise dining], online ordering should go down. What we’re seeing in our numbers is that it’s part of some people’s lifestyle that they would like to keep.”
As evidence of online ordering’s stickiness, Robbins noted that even as dine-in sales increase, online ordering has remained elevated, suggesting that digital ordering will remain a key part of consumers’ routines even once contagion concerns subside.
The Role of Apps in Communicating with Customers
With this continuation of digital ordering trends, loyalty programs become more important than ever. In addition to rewarding frequent spending, these programs also allow restaurants to keep in touch with their loyal customers, communicating moment-to-moment changes in this period of flux.
Robbins noted that these programs serve as a vital way for restaurants to collect customers’ email addresses and phone numbers, and that this “ability to communicate with people and to message them helped save many, many restaurants.”
Additionally, as customers cut back on restaurant spending during the pandemic and reduced the number of restaurants they ordered from, Robbins recalled, those that had strong loyalty programs had an advantage. He pointed out that consumers “would do takeout from the one [restaurant] that had the loyalty program.”
These loyalty offerings also allow restaurants to direct consumers to order through the restaurant’s own platform, allowing the restaurant to gain more access to customer data and in turn to make their rewards even more compelling. Looking towards the future of loyalty offerings, Robbins predicted that we will see “more creativity” as restaurants ask themselves, “How can I stand out when I’m rewarding my guests going forward?”
The Role of the Ghost Kitchen
After ghost kitchens’ proliferation during the past 14 months, the post-pandemic future of the model remains to be seen. Robbins predicted that these virtual-only brands will be a key way for restaurants to experiment going forward.
“The economics of a ghost kitchen can be very low fixed costs but a little higher variable costs, and that can be good if you’re trying out a new area, like if you’re going to move into Florida and you haven’t been there before,” he noted. “You can go to a co-ghost kitchen, like Kitchen United, and you can get kitchen-as-a-service. So instead of renting 2,000 square feet, you can get 450, and you’ll just get a very small area for kitchen prep, and you’ll share refrigerator, pickup and other amenities, and you won’t pay very much down to do that. And you can find out if that is a good place for you.”
Additionally, Robbins predicted that more restaurants will begin taking advantage of ghost kitchens to bring in an additional source of revenue from their existing infrastructure.
Integrating Into Consumers’ On-the-Go Lifestyles
Robbins expects that we will see more contextual integrations, such as artificial intelligence (AI)-powered, voice-enabled, in-car ordering. He expects that in-car AI will be able to, based on time of day and consumers’ previous orders, prompt consumers to, say, get their morning cup of coffee. He predicts that the interface will be able to “order you the large iced coffee, and route and navigate you to the nearest Dunkin,” noting that many restaurants are already looking to develop these features.
Additionally, Paytronix’s new integration with Google allows restaurants to direct customers to their own ordering platforms through Google Maps. As Robbins said, “It’s very seamless. It’s a one-click payment using Google Pay, and customers like it. And it helps you go upstream to where their eyeballs are … and you own the customer.”
When consumers use the Maps service as a restaurant discovery tool, rather than using third-party delivery services, restaurants can retain a greater portion of the sale. Robbins said of Google: “They are the massive content aggregator.”
The Restaurant Experience of the Future
“That digitization of the experience, it’s going to stick,” said Robbins. He noted specifically that QR codes on tables to access menus will stick around, both because they are convenient for consumers and because they save printing and labor costs for restaurants as menus change. Additionally, he predicts that we will see more cashless payment options and off-premises channel, and more drive-thru/curbside hybrids for off-premise orders.
Robbins also expects that some of the more out-of-the-box outdoor restaurant experiences we have seen during the pandemic are likely to carry over into the future, pointing out, “Restaurateurs are really nimble, and they love to be creative and experiment.”
Accordingly, if an outdoor event such as a “Tiki bar on a Friday night in their parking lot” can draw customers and accommodates more people than the in-restaurant dining room, “then they’re going to be doing that every single Friday night.”
Ultimately, as restaurants look to digitally evolve, the ones that succeed will be those that can create a stable foundation from which to innovate.
“One of the big common questions [from restaurants] right now is, ‘What should I be doing for my technology platform for the future?’” said Robbins. “They’re saying, ‘I was nimble. I had to adapt last year, and I put in a lot of cool things. Now that I know tech is really important, do I have the right platform to grow on in the future?’…People want to go fast, but they want to know that the base is something to build on.”
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