Mike Hinojosa

Where Contemporary Diner Expectations and Technology Meet

From fast-casual to upscale, guest trends are inspiring new restaurant concepts with previously undiscovered menu items and fun, thematic floor designs. Guests these days still want their dining experience to be seamless, but that doesn’t mean they want it to be predictable. They want an element of surprise, whether the surprise comes in the form of exquisite service, innovative menus or a unique atmosphere.

Farm-to-table, or farm-to-fork, has increased in popularity primarily out of concerns for food safety and freshness. Sourcing foods closer to home is a trend that guests of all generations have come to expect. Restauranteurs have adapted to address its growing popularity, citing a variety of reasons – most commonly the lack of nutritional value and flavor in ingredients that are shipped from afar. Farm-to-table creates an opportunity for more open exchange with diners, giving servers a reason to share stories about where the menu items are sourced. Farm-to-table is food with a story, and diners have satisfaction knowing their food is thoughtfully sourced and prepared.

Communal tables are another growing trend among diners that has taken over in quick-serve and fine-dining alike. Today’s diners seemingly want a side of social interaction with their meal, and communal tables deliver. Outside the U.S., sharing a table in restaurants is not uncommon. In the states, they’re becoming more popular in large foodie markets like New York or Boston, where three or four parties can find a seat at a community table with strangers. Pretty soon they’re interacting and sharing a meal together. More than that, restauranteurs see communal tables as a cool way to increase guest headcount with better space planning.

A more recent food movement is “food that heals.” It’s the convergence of healthy causes and cooking, and it promotes menu items and preparation methods that are designed for optimal wellness. While it hasn’t yet taken hold in many restaurants, guests are attuned to the you-are-what-you-eat adage. They’re more cautious about what they consume and are increasingly taking control of their well-being with first-time ever options like grain-free carbohydrates, dairy-free yogurts and plant-based proteins.

Despite the fluctuation of guest expectations, restaurant managers and service staff are finding creative ways to keep up. It’s a good thing considering complacency can be a restaurant’s worst enemy. Whether quick-service or fine-dining, restaurants aren’t as likely to become complacent if they’re focused on these up-and-coming trends. Those who follow the trends find themselves on a continual path toward bigger profits. It means being alert, staying aware of even the slightest cultural shift and always remaining open to guest feedback. Being agile enough to adjust workflows and other processes creates a go-with-the-flow restaurant culture that’s highly productive amid constant change. More often than not, this is where technology makes the difference. Time-strapped diners value seamless convenience more than ever, and operators respond by leveraging technology to provide an efficient, yet enriched guest experience. Restaurant technology is being designed with greater focus on features that actually address these shifts in guest expectations, allowing restaurants to center their attention on the dining experience.

Improving digital guest engagement and loyalty was a top tactical technology objective for restaurants this year, according to the 2018 Restaurant Technology Study.

Technology-Augmented Dining

Technology is helping spur much of the growth in the restaurant space. It’s originating from both competitors and guests, with the sole purpose of offering a higher standard in frictionless and personalized service. The individual dining experience is one of the most important competitive differentiators in restaurants today. It takes priority, alongside trendy offerings such as farm-to-table or communal dining, among contemporary diners. Leading restaurants are adopting more technology-oriented guest service, and it’s really no surprise. It’s the latest movement to keep guests engaged, increase traffic and facilitate a well-rounded dining experience. Through social media postings and beyond, real-time marketing and push notifications help restaurants reach more diners with special offers, often based on loyalty and guest profile data.

Most diners are willing to share a little information in exchange for a personalized experience, and as a result, restaurants have more guest data than ever before. They’re empowered to use it in ways that surprise and delight diners who are celebrating birthdays, graduations, anniversaries and more. Using that data to create loyalty and marketing notifications offers a goldmine in positive reviews and repeat visits. It gives restaurant managers and staff access to information that facilitates a deeper understanding of their diners. Curating a personalized experience via technology means knowing when the guest has a shellfish allergy, remembering their favorite brand of whisky or the fact that they always order dessert. It helps provide the highest level of service personalization and always results in increased guest satisfaction.

A Well-Rounded Approach

There are several interconnecting pieces forming the foundation of an exceptional dining experience. And while there are stand-alone apps that help increase guest engagement, they aren’t sufficient as the only component contributing to the overall guest experience. Typically, an independent solution used solely for back-of-house purposes is not guest-centric enough, and therefore doesn’t have the ability to capture the all-important guest data. A solution that’s not capable of integrating with other technologies, including those the restaurant may already be using or they will later adopt, can limit overall service productivity.

Integration is also important among restauranteurs who responded to the 2018 Restaurant Technology Study. Interoperability enables a smarter, more connected and empowered service staff. It gives the restaurant workforce the reliability of data to help create an exceptional guest experience. One way they’re accomplishing this is via integration between the table reservations system and the restaurant point-of-sale. Boosting the server’s ability to provide personalized guest service, it goes beyond just knowing the guest has a shellfish allergy or a preferred brand of whisky, and creates unprecedented opportunities to tailor individual experiences using data from the combined systems. When data is unified, technology is leveraged to expand diner profiles to include information about their spending patterns. It offers insights into important guest behavior, helping restaurants identify ways to drive customized offers and incentives proven to lift revenue and retain guests.

Courtesy of iStock

Driving Guest Loyalty

Technology can be an elegant solution for communicating with guests. For example, sending text notifications when a reservation is confirmed or a table is ready can be an easy way for the staff to stay engaged with guests. Equally important is bi-directional communication. This allows the guest to easily notify staff of any changes, and provides the opportunity to customize their own experience. It should be just as simple for users to track and redeem loyalty points, and even place orders in advance from a smartphone. Loyalty features of the software may ping a guest with a discount offer for special events. It may draw them to the restaurant using proximity alerts for wine-tasting, happy-hour events or two-for-one deals. According to the 2018 study, location-based sensors, or beacons, are a strategic priority among restauranteurs who embrace digital guest engagement initiatives. Smart technology that helps augment guest service is the latest way to keep them connected to the restaurant at times when they otherwise may not. It allows restaurants to message guests not only by SMS, but over popular IM networks as well, such as WhatsApp, WeChat and FB Messenger. This is especially important for international markets, but is quickly moving to the U.S. This open communication makes guest service much easier for restaurants, but more importantly, it enables a communication approach and guest service delivery that contemporary diners desire. The continuity of these communications before and after the dining experience will further promote high levels of personalization and guest retention.

Some trends come and go, but restaurant technology is deeply rooted among contemporary diners today. It’s not just accepted, it’s expected. Diners want their dining options to be convenient, but with a side of engaging. As an owner or manager, one of the most productive yet cost-effective ways to stay aligned with market demand is to embrace modern technologies. The idea of using a smartphone to reserve a table or pay for a meal isn’t new, but as more guests look to mobility to interact with, order and pay for items, technology will continue to evolve and provide a higher level of user convenience with revenue growth opportunities for restauranteurs.

Mike leads the POS product management effort for Agilysys’ InfoGenesis, rGuest Buy and all guest- and staff-facing mobile technology.  With more than 15 years serving in leadership roles with increasing responsibility at Agilysys, Mike brings a strong background and in-depth knowledge from virtually every market segment. Having led large-scale implementations at many industry-leading hospitality enterprises, he continues to serve as a key contributor to the overall product and development strategy. Mike was raised and currently resides in Silicon Valley, where he enjoys spending time with his family and, when time permits, surfing, skiing and playing golf. Contact Mike.