Technology on the menuAccording to recent National Restaurant Association consumer research, well over half of U.S. adults (63%) have used restaurant-related technologies. When asked what they’d done in the past month, those surveyed were most likely to have looked for a restaurant location and directions on a mobile device and also to have viewed menus, ordered food, or made online reservations on a computer. When it comes to the technologies consumers would use if offered, the same two top the list: looking up a restaurant location and getting directions (underscoring the importance of claiming listings in online directories); and using a computer to view menus, order, or make reservations (elements which should be part of a restaurant’s online presence on its own website and/or via third-party sites).

In almost all cases, the younger the consumer, the stronger the attraction to the technologies included in the study. For example, compared to the average of all adults, Millennials (aged 18-34) would be more likely to look up nutritional information on a mobile device (70%), interact with a restaurant on social media (56%), order takeout/delivery on a mobile device (74%), and look up location/directions on a mobile device (88%) if offered. But don’t sell older customers short – almost a quarter (23%) of those aged 65+ said they’d use a reward or special deal on a mobile device. NRA research also shows that while the consumer-facing technologies in the study are presently offered by a limited number of restaurants, 54% of tableservice and 48% of quickservice operators say they plan to invest to close the gap between what they currently offer and what consumers say they want. Some things to consider:

MOBILE TOOLS
Abigail Lorden, Editor-in-Chief, Hospitality Technology, says, “We’re seeing much more interest in mobile tools, with the ultimate goal of engaging customers, improving their experiences, and streamlining operations. Mobile is becoming the most important way to communicate with customers.” Rocky Lucia, IT Director, BR Guest, Inc., hq New York, NY, agrees. “With everyone using smartphones and tablets, a mobile-friendly site is a necessity today.” Chris Shirer, CEO, Madison & Fifth, a digital agency specializing in restaurants, hospitality, and retail, reports that 40% of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants’ website viewership is now on mobile devices. She says, “It’s also important that emails be read easily on mobile devices, so we use MailChimp.com which resizes emails automatically to the recipients’ screens.” Plus, she advises, it’s key to support flash animation and HTML5 for video, so that if a device doesn’t have flash, the video will be automatically bumped to HTML5. “The challenge continues to be third-party providers, such as those who sell gift cards, that aren’t mobile friendly yet.”

TABLET TECHNOLOGIES
It was recently reported that Applebee’s intends to install 100,000 tablet computers in more than 1,800 locations nationwide by the end of 2014. Julia Stewart, CEO, DineEquity (Applebee’s’ parent company), said customers had been telling them for some time that they don’t like waiting for a check and that tablets will present the company with a unique opportunity and competitive advantage. This technology will allow customers to pay at the table, order, and play games, giving Applebee’s another way to engage and communicate with their guests. Similar devices are being used by other casual dining restaurant chains, including Chili’s, Red Robin, McDonald’s, and Buffalo Wild Wings. While upscale and white tablecloth operators are continuing to evaluate the use of tablets, some are having success using tablets for their wine lists. “Our Fleming’s WiNEPAD has helped customers engage with wine, discover new ones, and get advice on pairing with food,” explains Craig Sheppard, National IT Training Coordinator, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, hq Newport Beach, CA. “It’s helped increase satisfaction and sales.” Rocky says BR Guest has been looking at an iPad wine list but is concerned that it might increase time between table turns as guests become fascinated by it; however this has not been an issue at Fleming’s, according to Craig.

MOBILE PAYMENT
While not in the pipeline currently, Rocky says that BR Guest has been looking at mobile payment options, even though their guests are not screaming for it. “Right now it’s like the ‘wild west’ – there is no standard yet. There are some handhelds and a bunch of apps, such as LevelUp and TabbedOut. Some of these technologies interface directly with POS systems and use the same credit card payment ‘pass thru’; some do not interface and are their own credit card processors or use third-party processors.”

LOCATION INFORMATION
“We recommend looking at your restaurant listing on Google+ Places to confirm the information listed is correct and that you’ve added as much to the listing as possible (menus, photos, etc.). Then use that same information as a template for all other directories such as Urbanspoon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Bing,” advises Chris. Steve Brooks, Director of Information Services/Business Analyst, Tumbleweed, Louisville, KY, says they’ve hired a company for about $65 per store to clean up their online presence – checking maps and addresses, opening and closing times, etc. “This way we know customers are receiving correct information when they’re searching for us.” Chris says services like Yext update and sync geodata and content automatically for $50-$100/month. “If you’re doing a good job of regularly updating menus and photos, that’s a great value.”

ADVICE
Abigail says the biggest challenge with new technologies is to sift through the options and look for a solid company that has a good track record. Steve advises, “Get three bids; often you’ll be surprised how different they are. And consult with people in your area who have done a similar project – get pros and cons from users, not just sales people. We’re part of the Kentucky Restaurant Association and members are always willing to talk about what works and doesn’t work, as well as give advice, so you don’t make a mistake.”