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  • Writer's pictureCulterra

Investing into the Future of Restaurant Tech: Navigating the “New Normal”

JUNE 2020

“Normal” noun: the usual, …typical state or condition. As we have all experienced during this pandemic, we know that nothing has been “usual” or “typical”, particularly for restaurants as they have had to fight and innovate just to survive these last few months. The “new normal” is about change. To thrive in this fluid environment restaurant operators will need to accelerate pre-COVID digital trends, embrace new notions of what constitutes a restaurant, and look to technology to strengthen their brand and relationship with customers.

Convenience reigns supreme: The shift to take-out/delivery will reshape the basic premise of many restaurants

Well before COVID-related shutdowns, the increasing customer demands for convenience had already fueled a major shift from dine-in to take out/delivery. In 2019, we reached the tipping point where off-premise sales (drive-thru, takeout, delivery, catering) represented a majority of U.S. restaurant revenues. Now, intensified by a decimated restaurant industry and an uncertain socially-distanced future, the growth of off-premise will only continue. As restaurant operators increasingly respond to our “new normal”, we have seen many full-service restaurant concepts testing a more “fast casual” off-premise approach, with increased tech-focused integration, minimized employee/customer exposure, and a lot of creativity to inject hospitality into socially-distanced interactions.

The bottom line is that the restaurant experience – from QSR to Fine Dining – will increasingly no longer be confined to the four walls of a restaurant. We have reached an urgent point where the basic premise of dine-in restaurants must evolve in order to generate the sales volume and margins to remain financially viable.

The Evolution of the Digital-Forward Restaurant: Integration is Key

Digitization alone will not save the restaurant industry, but it is becoming economically and operationally imperative to upgrade IT systems for more seamless integration across all digital channels. And with digital channels (online, mobile, app, and kiosk) representing only ~10% of total U.S. restaurant sales (for both on-premise and off-premise combined, pre-COVID), there is still tremendous opportunity to upgrade.

For example, integrating a restaurant’s digital channels provides the opportunity to increase first-party data capture, create operational efficiencies, target higher margin customers, better upsell and customer incentivisation, while also letting operators make better decisions based on the underlying connected data.

That’s not to say digitization guarantees success. Adding new digital channels can also create operational bottlenecks, silo’d data, or added complexity/margin erosion via third party providers. In order to mitigate some of these key risks, operators are increasingly integrating digital ordering/delivery within the POS system, and driving orders via white label platforms. As most operators are now aware of, third-party aggregator platforms own the customer data through their platforms (not the restaurants), underscoring the importance for restaurants to integrate ordering/delivery through their own branded websites/apps.

Beyond updating the underlying IT-infrastructure, the new digital-forward restaurant experience also requires physical changes in both back- and front-of-house layouts to address congestion, capacity constraints and the added complexity of accommodating mobile customers and delivery workers.

Physical characteristics of the new generation of restaurants will likely be smaller footprints, limited/no seating, separate larger areas and clear signage for digital/off-premise orders, as well as increased off-premise commissary/ghost kitchen prep for multi-unit operators. The customer experience will further be supported by dedicated employees for digital orders, increased mobile / kiosk order options, as well as touchless/frictionless ordering/pick-up methods using URLs, QR codes, or NFC tags.

Digitizing the Guest Relationship: Omnichannel loyalty will be a critical lifeline within a sea of aggregators and marketplaces

Hospitality and guest relationships are key reasons why many operators are in this business. However, it has become increasingly hard for them to own and manage a direct customer relationship. This is primarily due to content aggregators and ordering/delivery marketplaces steadily growing control over most restaurant/food reviews and direct ordering/delivery relationships.

Thus a strong, omnichannel loyalty platform is one of the last avenues for operators to own their customer base. Loyalty should be a critical area of investment, and successful operators will optimize their tech strategy to capture as much digital data as possible. During this new era of decreased order volumes and disconnected customer journeys, data-driven omnichannel loyalty will help operators uphold the brand, funnel customers into more profitable digital channels, and ultimately drive a richer relationship with customers by connecting all the dots across all touchpoints and interactions.

Automation and Tech-Driven Interactions: Will the Robots Take Over?

In short, no. We have seen the recent struggles of scalability by a number of fully robotic food solutions, due to the fact that labor/cost savings are rarely realized due to the complexity and cost of the technologies.

However, in contrast to fully robotic food solutions, I do believe that this “new normal” will make specific task automation, voice assistance, and computer vision increasingly vital and prevalent across the industry. Adoption rates won’t skyrocket overnight, but they are absolutely escalating.

As restaurant operators seek to reduce employee/customer contact and offset workforce challenges, while looking to increase operational efficiencies, speed of service and quality control, they will look for technology partnerships to leverage robotics, automation, computer vision, and voice technologies.

Some of my favorite solutions in this category include: precision preparation/cooking, smart IoT Kitchen Display Systems (KDS), voice- or computer-vision-driven inventory analysis, natural language drive-thru/phone ordering platforms, cashierless checkout, and food waste management technologies. Bolstered by the pre-COVID off-premise trends, “Smart Vending” is also on the rise; be sure to check out the recently published Smart Vending Machine Market Report by The Spoon.

Moving the Needle on Adoption: What’s Next?

The net effect of the “new normal” is that it has yet to unleash any completely new, innovative concepts in restaurant technology. Instead we are seeing– or are likely to see– the accelerated adoption of innovations that existed pre-COVID that move restaurant concepts beyond their traditional four walls, and closer to the real digitization necessary to sustain financial viability in our shared new reality.


Brita Rosenheim is a Partner at Culterra Capital and Venture Partner at Better Food Ventures with 20 years of investment, M&A, and strategy experience within the food and food tech verticals. Her analysis on the Food Tech & Media sector is regularly used by participants in the space to understand the quickly evolving landscape. This post originally appeared on The Spoon.


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