Fast casual isn’t just the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry, it’s also out in front when it comes to adopting mobile technology for ordering and payments, tools that fast-food chains and casual concepts are only now beginning to seriously explore.
“Drive-thrus are starting to think about using self-serve and digital ordering — enormous restaurant groups with thousands of locations are saying, ‘this is really important to me,’” says Noah Glass, CEO of mobile ordering provider OLO.
On the casual side, chains including Applebee’s and Chili’s are experimenting with table-top tablets designed to speed service, boost average checks and give guests a gadget for playing games and paying the tab.
OLO, which launched in 2005 to provide restaurant chains with online and mobile ordering capabilities, counts fast-growing chains including Five Guys Burgers & Fries and MOOYAH among its clients. Mobile has been outpacing online as more consumers carry smartphones and find new ways to use the gadgets to connect with the world and simplify their lives, Glass says, a trend that makes him wonder whether restaurant patrons will turn from their personal devices to public computers when they sit down at a restaurant table.
“My view is that when you have every customer walking around with a smart device in their pocket that has more processing power than a computer did 10 years ago, why would restaurants need to pay the hardware costs and maintenance for these devices? I ultimately think that, if I have the ability to pull out my own device and I have a credit card on file and I can get through with one click, why would I want to use a public device that’s sitting on the table?”
Whether they use their own mobiles or the public ones, though, the digital gadgets are destined to become a bigger part of the restaurant experience, especially among Millennials who have grown up with them, says Technomic’s Product Innovation Director Mary Chapman. “Younger people assume that things will be made easier and easier for them, that things should be simple and streamlined,” she says.
OLO’s growth mirrors the rise in mobile adoption. It took the company six-and-a-half years to reach one million users, Glass says, and in the past year, business has doubled from two million to four million. “Everything is accelerating, and because of that, restaurants are seeing greater benefits from engaging customers through this mobile channel.”
In addition to speed, accuracy is another key goal for quickserve chains looking to digital and mobile tools. Only about 20% of restaurant meals are eaten on site, and 80% are purchased at either the counter or the drive-through, according to NPD Group’s Harry Balzer.
Meanwhile, the best drive-through windows boast a 90% accuracy rate and many fall far short of that, says Glass, a problem with the potential to turn off customers who don’t find out they got the wrong thing until they get home. Trading squawky intercoms for mobile systems that send the order to the point-of-sale and then directly to the kitchen could go a long way toward ensuring accurate orders and fostering repeat business.
Chains may also be exploring ways to automate more functions as a hedge against higher labor costs, but few say they’re replacing humans with digital machines. Instead, fast-casual chains that have found success with mobile ordering systems use the tools to replace repetitious tasks like order taking and payment, freeing up the best workers to provide a positive interaction while delivering the food, Glass says.
“They do not do away with labor, but they shift hospitality toward food processing and hand-offs. The pickup counter is where the most hospitality is occurring,” he says.
Digital technology may be most visible in front of the house, but restaurants and other foodservice operations are also using new tech tools behind the scenes as part of the quest to improve speed and accuracy, says Technomic’s Chapman.
“Using a tool sometimes makes things simpler and using tech tools in the back of the house or in training or in scheduling or whatever a general manager has to do, allows them to then focus on the service. It can enhance the customer experience without the customer even knowing it.”