Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, restaurants and bars have had to quickly understand and implement new digital technologies. Some chains already used common tools like restaurant management software, as well as point-of-sale, accounting, and payment processing software. Here we examine some of the new tools and restaurant tech that are helping them remain competitive.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the food service sector particularly hard. Restaurants, bars, cafes, and food trucks have all faced restrictions on opening at various points since March 2020. They have also had to contend with disrupted supply chains and additional costs to implement protective measures for reopening.
A survey by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce reported that 83% of businesses in the accommodation and foodservice industries had to close completely at some point. And two-thirds of respondents to the survey said they had to lay off staff. At the time of writing, restaurants in Toronto and Montreal have been closed to indoor diners for more than a year; the cities lead the world in the length of closure of their indoor seated sections.
In the year to February 2021, Al Jazeera reported that restaurants in Canada had logged their worst year on record. Sales at food trucks, catering companies, and bars fell by 48%, while those specializing in fast food or takeout saw a drop of 13.4%.
To survive, many establishments have refocused on takeout and delivery services and invested in new systems to provide these services. While some still view the industry as being fundamentally analogue, it has digitized rapidly in the past 18 months. New technologies had to be adopted and integrated together in efficient, multi-functional bar and restaurant tech stacks.
What is a tech stack?
Digital tools are a vital part of any modern business, and they usually work better when properly integrated with each other. Companies that pick software for one-off use cases often end up with a sprawling collection of applications running on disparate systems. This results in duplication of effort, high running costs, and data that sits in silos, preventing companies from efficiently analyzing their business processes.
The term “tech stack” is neatly encapsulated by the classic “LAMP” stack. The LAMP stack comprises an operating system (Linux), a web server (Apache), a database engine (MySQL) and a programming language (PHP) – all of which are all free and open source, contributing to the popularity of the stack. Each component provides a distinct and useful function in order to carry out a process – in this case, serving web content – but no component would work without the others.
This is one simple example, and there are many other digital tools a restaurant might want to use. A key concept to remember is integration. Because the tools are integrated, data flows between them without the need for human intervention. This allows restaurants to automate processes, speeding up service and saving money.
The pandemic has accelerated the variety of software available to restaurants and bars, as well as the feature sets they contain. Below is a run-down of some of the major categories of software restaurants should consider for their tech stack in 2021.
New ways to manage using restaurant tech
At the time of writing, the pandemic is far from over. Restrictions in Canada have been easing steadily, and vaccination numbers are rising, but there is no certainty that the recovery will be either smooth or quick.
The number of guests that a restaurant or bar can welcome can still change quickly, and establishments must ensure they have the inventory to serve them when required. Inventory management software makes it easier to track, manage, and organize inventory levels, orders, sales, and invoices. Such software can also help streamline processes, given that there may be fewer people working to pass on and process inventory data.
Unpredictable market conditions have made it even harder for restaurant and bar managers to stay on top of the complex shift patterns of their workforces. It is now more important than ever to keep track of personnel and be able to adjust shifts quickly if circumstances change. Employee scheduling software helps managers do just that. They can also control the in- and outflow of employees to minimize physical contact.
Business performance management
For any business to perform well, it needs a comprehensive understanding of its operations. This is especially true in unpredictable and unprecedented times such as these. By implementing business performance management software, restaurant and bar managers can automatically collect data from a range of applications in the establishment’s tech stack and represent it in easy-to-understand graphs and charts. With an overview of orders, customers, performance, revenue, profits, and more, they have a new level of insight with which to improve service.
New ways to operate
With home still the safest and most comfortable place for many people, the food delivery sector has seen a leap in popularity. A survey by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab (AAL) at Dalhousie University found that in the six months to January 2021, “4.2 million more Canadians are ordering food online at least once a week than before the pandemic.”
Food delivery software helps restaurants handle the entire process, including taking orders and payments from customers, managing the kitchen and delivery stages, and reporting on performance.
Guests have been able to reserve seats at restaurants over the internet for a long time, but not every establishment offered the option. Now, restrictions on how many people can occupy a space and surging demand as people look to get “back to normal” have made reservations software a must-have. Not only do these tools make it easier to stay on top of capacity, they also give restaurants useful data for other areas of the business such as marketing.
To minimize physical contact between employees and customers, restaurants have turned to kiosks during the pandemic. These self-service counters are already widespread in fast-food outlets – especially drive-throughs – and usually use a touch-screen interface to let diners select and pay for their food.
Kiosk-based ordering systems have options for restaurants to customize the interface with their own branding and integrate with other systems in their tech stack.
About QR codes
Many software packages for food service management make use of QR codes, which have themselves seen a general upsurge in popularity during the pandemic. The codes comprise a simple black-and-white matrix of squares that works like a barcode and can be scanned by almost any smartphone. Once scanned, the codes often direct users to a website or some other online resource via an app.
COVID-19 tracing apps, for example, let people check in to venues using a code, and some restaurants and bars have started placing codes on tables. Guests simply scan the code, order and pay on their phone, and a server will bring their order once it’s ready.
A new digital presence
Building and maintaining a professional-looking, high-performing, richly featured website has become a lot easier with the range of affordable website-building software available on the market today.
Until a few years ago, restaurants could get by with the bare minimum on a website: a phone number, address, and a menu were often enough to signpost visitors to a physical location. Today, a good website is a vital component of any modern restaurant’s customer experience; a link between its social media presence and the physical restaurant itself – somewhere new customers may never even have visited. Staying competitive requires tools to take bookings and orders, as well as a contemporary design and the ability to handle traffic spikes at peak periods.
Most major website building packages offer restaurant-specific features as modules. They can be easily integrated into a site’s design, and even non-experts can put together a website by dragging and dropping the elements they want into place.
Social media management
With a lack of other activities to occupy their time during the pandemic, Canadians are spending more time online – especially on social media. Statistics Canada reports that 41% of Canadians (and 57% of people aged 15 to 34) are spending more time on social media and messaging services since the pandemic started.
This is a prime opportunity for restaurants and bars to focus on their social media strategy and attract new (or returning) customers. Social media management software is ideal to help brands engage customers at home. It handles the often complex and manual tasks of publishing posts and managing accounts and can integrate with other marketing tools such as CRM systems.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has become so advanced and affordable that even small companies like independent restaurants and bars can integrate it into their digital presence.
Chatbot software often comes bundled with other packages such as customer support or CRM tools. It provides a virtual assistant that answers visitors’ questions automatically on websites and major social media channels. Chatbots allow restaurants to create simple, always-on services based on existing content from their website so they never lose another lead.
A good starting point is a service where users can ask a chatbot questions about opening times, contact details, menu options, and COVID-precautions. Using a chatbot is quicker for a customer than reading through long FAQ pages, and many tools can automatically create the bot if the restaurant supplies the existing content.
Restaurants and bars have a multitude of new tools to help with management, service, and marketing. When considering the components of a tech stack, it is important to consider how these components would work together, and what work might be involved to integrate them. If this is done properly, investing in one area may provide a boost in others by automating a process or surfacing new insight into an area of the business. The benefits should help restaurants and bars thrive during the pandemic and, hopefully, beyond.
Note: The applications selected in this article are examples to show a feature in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication.