Editor’s note: At the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago, David “Rev” Ciancio, senior marketing executive and brand evangelist at Branded Strategic Hospitality, moderated a discussion about restaurant technology and ways to improve the guest experience with Johann Moonesinghe, CEO of InKind, and Tim McLaughlin, CEO at GoTab. The talk centered around the need for restaurant operators to give guests what they want and use the technology to accomplish that goal. The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Rise of the QR code
Rev: What do you guys think is the most significant change that has happened in the restaurant industry over the last year or two?
Tim: I can tell you that most of the big changes that have occurred, many restaurateurs hate it, is QRs. It went from a totally unacceptable technology to them being pretty much here to stay. Outside the US they were already dominant, but the US couldn’t get their head around it and then COVID hit.
Johann: We started using GoTab like 4 years ago, 5 years ago, with a restaurant in DC. Guests didn’t really care for the QR codes. We had this big space, like 8,500 square feet and it was really, really busy at happy hour, and we needed GoTab so people could order at the table without having an army of servers for four hours. We were I think the first full-service restaurant to use GoTab. And QR code ordering was a challenge. That is very different today. Everyone knows what a QR code is.
Tim: Here is the funny thing, I would get complaints a few years ago. They had a QR on the table and it didn’t do anything. I can’t get a serve. I can’t get the menu. I can’t do anything with it. I think the expectation has been set the other way if people have experienced it. I now have control of my destiny, and I go to places where I can control it. Obviously, it is not copesetic on all settings but it does reduce frustration.
Johann: I agree with you. The biggest change is the adoption of technology and the customers’ expectation for – why do I have to wait to get a bill? Why can’t I just pay? Or why can’t I order? It’s really busy and I have to try to flag someone.
Rev: What drives me crazy is when a place has a QR code, and it takes me to a PDF.
Tim: It’s even worse than no QR. If you are going to a QR code menu, you have to do ordering. There is no other way.
Rev: I think there is a sense that restaurants did the QR code thing for the pandemic, but think their guests don’t really want it. At my restaurant, we are 99% digital ordering. We don’t even have a register.
Tim: There is a point of frustration. It is age correlated. Some people want it to be the old way. But there are other people that absolutely love it. It’s a mix. That is always the challenge of knowing your customer and what they care about. But if the demographic is like your restaurant, nobody has any expectation of service. They want the food to come quickly. That is what they consider to be service. Food coming quickly and always available.
Johann: I think it totally depends on the type of restaurant. A high-end restaurant doesn’t want QR code ordering But what is nice is that GoTab has evolved during the pandemic for full-service, high-end dining, They have features that they want. Plus, you can pay your bill.
Tim: I was actually just talking to a full-service software company that is associated with fine dining. In that scenario, we have heard repeatedly that the guests do want to buy a second glass of wine and pay with technology – in some scenarios. It’s great when your server is always available but inevitably they are not.
Johann: Absolutely. Because the worst thing is letting time pass by waiting for your server.
Rev: I can’t tell you how many times I have been at a steak house or a fine dining restaurant my glass is empty and I really just want one more drink. And it’s like ‘give it to me know.’ I think that is what has changed about guest expectations. Everybody now has Uber on their phone. Every single person has Target on their phone. We know how to use our phones, and we want things right now. I don’t care if you are the highest-end restaurant if it makes the guest journey easier than you need it.
Tim: I know this can be provocative, but I think sometimes restaurants think they are more important than the guests.
Rev: We are selling to the restaurants, do think it is easy for us to say that?
Johann: We have funded a lot of restaurants so we work with a lot of operators. From the independent single-unit that is run by a family to the bigger brands. I think that the most successful ones are the ones that produce what the consumer wants. I like wine but it may not be the same wine that other people like to drink. I think that is what the best operators do. They get people what they want in the fastest, most efficient way.
Need for improved communications
Rev: What is the lowest hanging fruit for restaurants to improve the efficiency of the guest experience?
Johann: To me, I think it depends on the particular restaurant. We have a client that has big venues, and there you go watch a show. They have a lot of locations. And you are sitting there during the show and you have to flag down a server or leave and go to the bar and get a drink. I’m like guys, you need to use GoTab. It’s a clear win. You are going to serve two to three times as many drinks in a night and make a lot more money.
Tim: I agree. In some cases, there are obvious 2X wins. I do think that if everything is staffed properly and everything is working great there isn’t any low-hanging fruit.
Rev: My vote would probably be communications. My family was recently at home sick, and we decided to order breakfast. We can get delivery and nobody to get ready to go out. So we order from our favorite breakfast place. It’s a national chain that can bring us pancakes and biscuits and gravy. I go to the brand’s website, and they say 35-40 minutes for delivery. I get a notification a while later that my food will be delivered in 5 minutes. I go to my front door and don’t see the car. After a while, I’m like ‘where is my delivery?’ So, I call the restaurant and they said ‘We don’t deliver your food so you need to call DoorDash.’ I was like ‘No, I ordered from you. This is a you problem not a me problem.’ And then I get a notification that the food was delivered. I don’t have any food in my hand. I call the restaurant, and they tell me nobody ever picked it up. Something failed in the technology, but I ask them to just send it to me and they tell me that they don’t have drivers. Now I’m angry because I did this to save time and money. I end up driving to the restaurant and picking up the food and then I’m on the phone for an hour with DoorDash. DoorDash tells me they can only refund the delivery. For me to get refunded $37 for pancakes, it took 2 and a half hours of my time. How is it that a national brand makes it this hard to communicate?
Tim: I agree with you and I can tell you we have a client that uses us exclusively for two-way SMS. It’s a wine bar that uses GoTab, because you can text message back and forth. It turns out things go wrong. People get the wrong stuff. Things happen. And everybody has a phone with SMS. You don’t have to install an app. All you have to do is order the food from a phone with text messages. They are service-focused. And it turns out that being able to talk to your customers is really important when they are off-premise.
Rev: I wasted my time and I never got an apology. We have the technology. It’s not like a restaurant can’t figure out how to communicate with their guests.
Tim: It might be surprising, but most restaurants do not have two-way messaging. You do get into issues about privacy. Does your staff use their personal number to call the customer? Is that good, healthy? You can always use the main number to call them back, but we think SMS is the best way. When you take an order, you need a phone number. That way you can always get back to that guest if something goes wrong. And I find that most restaurants don’t think about what might go wrong, they think about how it works normally. The problem is that those 1% of times when something goes wrong, you end up spending 50% of your day on. And all the pain from those pissed-off customers comes from that 1%.
Tech integration is a challenge
Johann: I think for restaurants the challenge is that you have to integrate everything together. I was talking to one of our operators the other day and he was telling me about all the technology that they use. It was like two pages long. It is a ton of technology. Most restaurateurs are trying to figure out how to integrate all the technology. It’s a challenge and when something goes wrong, they have no way to respond. The amazing thing that came from COVID is all this technology, but it is hard for them to figure out how to put it all together. I think you will start seeing solutions that work together.
Tim: That is a super common problem. We see gift cards that work only at the point of sale but don’t work online. I don’t understand how that is acceptable.
Rev: We have that problem at my restaurant because we have different POS and online ordering systems.
Johann: The customer doesn’t understand that.
How do you make tech decisions?
Rev: How would you advise a brand about making a tech decision? How do they prioritize that?
Tim: I can tell you how we always win but I don’t know the best way to go about it. I think the problem with a lot of operators is they only do a thin look at the products. They don’t think about what happens when things go wrong. They check things off. Does it do something?’ The nuances are important. But I can say that we always win as a product when we get to do an in-depth thing. Because we know if we go deep, that is when we can show them instances. But it takes time. It is more than just saying ‘this is the best product.’
Johann: Certain products work really well for certain kinds of restaurants. As restaurants grow, they have to reevaluate the software that they are using on a regular basis. If I have a one-unit cast casual, maybe I use something versus if I have a five unit or a ten unit fast-casual.
Tim: I find it surprising how many operators do not even know what their service model is. We always ask — is it counter service or full service? Is it some mix? Is it a large space? Is it a small space? All those things are really fundamental. Sometimes we don’t have the language. There is not really a standardized language in restaurants.
Rev: I think we have entered an era where the technology stack is wrong. Right now the technology stack is centered around the point of sale system, which makes sense because for a long time you walk in a store and you pay money for something. So we had to figure out how to enable a transaction. Now, because guests are on their phones all the time, and whether it’s ordering, communications, feedback, the phone is the center of the tech stack. That doesn’t matter what your service model is. Even if you have a fine dining restaurant, you still made a reservation online. You still bought a gift card online. Every single piece of the journey is on the phone other than eating the food. I think restaurants need to think about what is the center of my tech stack. And I really think it is about communications.
Tim: I would say that you have to set expectations. One of the things we do is tell the guests how long it is going to take. We always ask the question – what would the server do? You can talk to the server and tell them that you are in a rush for lunch. You can ask what would be the quickest thing to order. They tell you don’t order the pizza but you can order a burger. But how many menus that you look at on your phone are gonna tell you 25 minutes for a pizza and 5 minutes for a burger. The biggest part of communications is anticipating what are they going to ask.
Johann: I think the shift is really from point of sale to CRM. That is where restaurants do a good job. They understand their guests. We have to communicate with our guests and bring them back. We need to repeat the frequency. You have an understanding of what the guest is ordering and you can get them to come back by communicating in a personalized way.
Tim: I find it ironic that most restaurants know the people who order in their venue less than those people who order takeout. Because the people ordering takeout have put these identifiers in their device that tells you ‘This is Johann.’ And if you are Johann ordering from a server, you are just some dude. I don’t know who you are.
Johann: That is the shift. You have to start understanding your customer better.