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The simplicity of bells and whistles

It’s no surprise that stressed-out consumers clamor for restaurant meals that provide a bit of a respite from the tensions of the day. A new report from Siegel + Gale points out that consumers expect their restaurant experiences to be among the simplest transactions they have, and reward chains that come through, including McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Subway and Starbucks Coffee, as Nation’s Restaurant News reported last week.

And even popular chains that don’t always offer a quick, easy transaction are feeling the pinch as patrons pull away. Panera Bread, whose transaction count fell 1% last quarter,  will invest in staff and systems to cut down on wait times and incorrect orders, CEO Ron Shaich said in last week’s earnings call. Panera will spend about $15 million to add more workers at its cafes, and will invest in new equipment, streamline workflows and work to move disruptive phone orders to the Web, according to the Wall Street Journal and other media reports.

The quest for simplicity comes at a time when technology is playing an increasingly important role in restaurant operations, according to recent reports. Turns out that all the seemingly complex tech bells and whistles that may seem anything but simple are actually feeding the craving for simplicity.

Some 63% of consumers have used technology in their interactions with restaurants in the past month, according to a new report from the National Restaurant Association, turning to their smartphones for everything from finding restaurants to checking menus to making reservations to ordering and paying for their meals to accessing deals and loyalty rewards. NRA also reported that, while fewer than one in 10 sit-down restaurants offer tableside tablets for ordering and paying, 54% said they’ll invest more in that kind of technology this year.

Wall Street Journal food critic Bryan Miller offered a primer on the hottest restaurant mobile applications along with his column on the many ways mobile tech has become part of the dining experience, and the pros and cons of the tech shift. “While new apps are expanding, accelerating and streamlining the dining experience, the ubiquity of smartphones can eclipse some of the very reasons we eat out: relaxation, discovery, camaraderie and a fleeting escape from our machine-driven lives,” he writes.

Miller also points out what any restaurant operator who has ever experienced a negative Yelp review already knows — mobile technology puts much more power in the hands of the customer, a shift that can cut both ways. Additionally, the ease of finding last-minute dining options on the smartphone can lead to more no-shows, a problem some reservations sites are taking seriously. OpenTable cuts people off from its reservations service if they fail to follow through with four reservations in a year.

Finally, no matter how high-tech the restaurant industry becomes, the human touch will always be a key part of the recipe for success. “When you lose the experience of ordering with somebody who can give you an intelligent answer, you lose, well, hospitality,” Kevin Boehm, co-owner of the Chicago-based Boka Restaurant Group, told the Wall Street Journal.

How have you incorporated tech tools into your restaurant’s operations? Tell us about it in the comments.