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Restaurants invest in tech tools to increase safety during the pandemic and beyond

Restaurants invest in tech tools to increase safety during the pandemic and beyond
(Image credit: Image: Pexels/Pixabay)

As restaurant operators continue to look for ways to serve customers safely amid the coronavirus pandemic, many are outfitting their eateries with high tech solutions to increase sanitation and facilitate contactless payment and other touchless tasks. 

Many of these new tools and systems come with high price tags, but operators increasingly view them as an investment in their restaurant’s future. The majority of the restaurant technology upgrades happening now are features that many operators already had on their radar — the pandemic simply moved them to the top of the to-do list. 

Expanded online ordering capabilities and delivery and pick-up options were the first to get fast-tracked when the pandemic forced restaurants to abruptly close their dining rooms back in March. Off-premises dining had been growing for years before the pandemic hit, but demand for delivery and drive-thru options skyrocketed once they became consumers’ only option for eating restaurant food. It’s likely that demand will remain high even as dining rooms reopen, and many restaurants are reacting accordingly by fine-tuning their takeout menus and carving out more space for online orders.

Several chains have announced plans for new store formats that cater to the social distancing mandates of the here and now, but will also stand up to increased demand for off-premises dining long term. Krispy Kreme’s New York City flagship store set to open next month will offer a grab-and-go section and a walk-up window. Starbucks and Taco Bell have both announced that they are speeding up the roll-out of new store formats designed to streamline mobile order pick-up.

These off-premises tactics are only half of the equation for most restaurants, which are also struggling with how to rebuild dine-in sales. 

Beefed up safety, sanitation measures are here to stay

Food is only part of the reason consumers dine at restaurants, and as the pandemic presses on the pent-up demand for the full experience of dining at restaurants is growing. However, safety concerns are keeping many consumers out of dining rooms, even as they reopen. More than half of respondents in a Datassential industry survey conducted earlier this summer said they would not be comfortable with on-premises dining once the pandemic improves and social distancing is eased.

To combat this unease, Maryland-based Silver Diner has invested in an array of new safety features, including a three-tiered air purification system.

The hospital-grade system includes HEPA filters to purify the air as well as ultraviolet light in the air conditioners to disinfect air moving through the restaurant. An additional set of ultraviolet lights disinfect surfaces overnight.

The cost to install the system in all 18 Silver Diner locations and two Silver Brasserie locations totaled about half a million dollars, said Silver Diner executive chef and co-founder Ype Von Hengst. He said the chain is the first in the US to install such a system that combines air filtration with two levels of UV light disinfection.

“It’s a lot of money, but it’s a lot more money losing sales every day and trying to pay your rent and trying to pay your associates on half the sales, which is an impossible thing to do in the long term,” he said.

The percentage of sales coming from off-premises orders has nearly doubled during the pandemic, but Von Hengst said it’s imperative to bring customers back inside the restaurant’s four walls.

“We need people to come back in again, but they can only come in again if we take the steps to make them feel safe,” he said. 

Sales have seen a slight uptick since Silver Diner installed the systems on Aug. 12, and Von Hengst said the customer reception has been very positive. He predicts safety features like these will become the norm even after the pandemic, likening the shift to the sea change in airport security after 9/11.

Touchless tech is the future of foodservice

Another area of restaurant technology likely to keep growing post-pandemic is touchless systems that eliminate the problem of spreading germs via high-touch surfaces by using QR code scanners or facial recognition.

The latter is the focus of Florida-based P&O Global Technologies, which focused on surveillance tech before the pandemic. Seeing an opportunity to provide restaurants and other businesses with a safety solution, the company pivoted to develop the Check Point Temperature Pedestal. 

The machine combines temperature measurement, a hands-free hand sanitizer dispenser and facial recognition to create a contactless check-point that can be connected to a door to control employee entry, according to Maurizio Pejoves, director at P&O Global Technologies.

The thermal camera verifies that employees aren’t running a fever, and the facial recognition feature can confirm that they are wearing a face mask before allowing them to enter. Pejoves said P&O made sure to develop the facial recognition feature so it would still work even when people’s faces were partially obscured — a unique challenge of the pandemic era. The facial recognition feature can be used as a contactless method of clocking in, which is the type of touchless tech that Pejoves predicts is part of the new normal.

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