Restaurants had to overhaul nearly every aspect of their operations in 2020. Between online ordering surges and the shift to outdoor dining to meet new health and capacity regulations, the industry has had to adapt like never before.

But crisis often leads to innovation, and some of the changes that restaurants have implemented in the past year have brought about new efficiencies, better processes — and, in some cases, more money. Among these changes, new restaurant technologies have had a significant impact on improved operations and a streamlined guest experience.

New technologies will be a key part of the industry post-pandemic — and if your restaurant embraces them, these new advances could help usher in the future of dining.

The power of digitally enabled restaurants

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the restaurant economy hard when capacity restrictions shrank dining rooms and stay-at-home orders closed business for weeks, sometimes months, on end. Consumer habits shifted, and many restaurants relied on their digital capabilities to stay afloat. According to the National Restaurant Association, 68% of consumers are more likely to purchase takeout from a restaurant now than before the pandemic, and 53% said that takeout and delivery are vital for how they live today.

Online and mobile ordering and contactless payment options are now essential for restaurants — and they'll continue to be when the COVID-19 pandemic abates. Eighty-one percent of Americans own a smartphone, the Pew Research Center says, which means there's a large customer base with ready access to restaurant reviews, menus, and online ordering options. And if guests use digital wallets, they can pay for their food with a quick click, wherever they are.

As your restaurant prepares for post-vaccine business, keep in mind that online and mobile ordering capabilities and contactless payment options can help to promote and protect public health. These solutions also provide added convenience for your guests, and they can increase your restaurant's cash conversion cycles by moving inventory quickly.

Essential tech for restaurants in 2021 (and beyond)

These days, having a website is just the first step toward being a digitally-enabled business. To succeed in the new normal, you need to expand your digital capabilities and embrace technology solutions, especially those that improve the dining experience, increase profitability, enhance operational efficiency, and build awareness and loyalty.

Online ordering systems

An online ordering system is a solution that lets guests place orders via a website or dedicated mobile app, which works in the dining room to cut down on contact and make for a super-efficient guest experience, or well beyond the dining room when a guest is craving your 5-star dish from the comfort of their own couch. Depending on the online ordering program you use, orders can be sent directly to your point-of-sale system, which allows for efficiency in tracking orders through a single centralized system, improving order times and overall guest experiences. In addition, having your online ordering data centralized can lend valuable insight into your restaurant's overall kitchen performance, customer ordering trends, and more.

Online reservation systems

Many restaurants implemented online reservation systems to pivot quickly during the pandemic and ensure they met capacity and public safety requirements like contact tracing.

But these systems have become such a critical part of restaurant operations that they're sure to stick around post-pandemic. An online reservation system lets guests book a table directly from their smartphone or laptop, when and where it's convenient for them. It also provides waitlisting capabilities, giving guests a better idea of when they'll be seated and letting your restaurant manage capacity limits effectively. The best system even includes two-way texting with the host so your guests know exactly what to expect.

Whether you've had one for years or you've recently adopted one to handle pandemic restrictions, you can use your system for much more than managing reservations. You can collect guest data for follow-up marketing and to better understand your restaurant's peak and lull times. You can also build rapport with diners by communicating menu changes or social distancing guidelines. And by using server rotation and table management tools, you can turn tables faster, saving you time and money.

If you're not taking advantage of these perks of a modern reservation platform, now is the time to start.

Restaurant hardware

As your restaurant ramps up post-pandemic, you may also want to explore technology to make the payments process more seamless for guests and easier for your team on the back end.

A mobile point of sale system can help with both. A restaurant handheld POS lets your staff take secure payment from all corners of your restaurant, patio or parklet, including Apple Pay and Google Pay. And it's especially useful for event services such as catering. You can send orders to the kitchen in real-time, improve throughput, and reduce ordering mistakes all in one place, while saving time for guests and servers alike.

A customer-facing display is perfect for counter-service, quick-service, and fast-casual restaurants wanting to engage guests at the point-of-sale. It allows for marketing integrations to collect guest contact information to grow your guest database and engage them with marketing or loyalty campaigns.

While these devices helped restaurants move to safer contactless ordering and payment processes during the COVID-19 pandemic, they will continue to help streamline restaurant operations and the guest experience well into the future.

Marketing platforms

Economists predict that pent-up consumer demand over the last year will lead to a post-pandemic economic boom once the world returns to some form of normalcy. To capture your share of this demand, your restaurant will need to stay top of guests' minds.

Adopting a cloud-based marketing platform can help you automate your marketing and ensure guests think of your restaurant for their next meal. You can use it to create cross-channel campaigns and reach guests via email, on various social media platforms, on mobile, or on desktop. With every click and visit, your marketing platform can gather more data about each guest's preferences, giving you valuable information to tailor your marketing messages, campaigns, and branded experiences.

Tracking your performance and automating your promotion delivery gives you more visibility into what works and helps you maximize the return you get for your time and financial investment.

Loyalty programs

Loyalty platforms can help you convert occasional guests into regulars.

Finding new guests takes time and money, but using loyalty software can help you create a program that brings them back over and over. And it'll boost your bottom line, too: Research shows that loyalty programs can increase purchases by up to 20%.

With a loyalty platform, guests can easily enroll to receive rewards based on how much they visit or how much they spend. When they come to your restaurant, they can check in on a loyalty tablet provided by your technology partner — ideally, one that's also connected to your point-of-sale system — to earn rewards they can redeem later.

Taking advantage of software-based loyalty tools can help you create or fine-tune your loyalty program, attract and engage guests, provide rewards to thank guests for supporting your business, and even invite them to share a positive review on Yelp or other review sites.

Discovering new efficiencies

Running a restaurant is expensive. There's a lot of overhead: You need staff, inventory, and real estate. When the pandemic flipped the industry on its head, many restaurants scrambled to innovate and optimize their overhead costs.

Enter ghost kitchens — kitchen-only restaurants with no dining area or service staff, according to industry magazine QSR. Also called cloud kitchens, this new approach has been steadily rising as an additional source of revenue for restaurants for years -- but 2020 was truly the boom with restaurants under capacity limits and stay-at-home orders. But once the pandemic subsides, these so-called ghost kitchens aren't going away: Restaurant Dive says that they could be a $1 trillion market by 2030.

But you don't have to go full-on ghost kitchen to learn from the model's digital-forward approach. You can lean in to your digital presence to connect to guests while simplifying your menu and trimming inventory and equipment costs. And as restaurants reopen post-pandemic, you can use your flourishing carry out and delivery business — supported by digital tools — as a revenue-boosting supplement to in-house dining.

Using the reputation management tools and online ordering systems that have made ghost kitchens possible, traditional restaurants can thrive while pandemic regulations are still in place — and set themselves up for even greater success when restrictions are lifted. Choosing the technologies to help your restaurant succeed during the pandemic will uncover the efficiencies that will help you thrive post-pandemic.

Finding the right technology for your restaurant

If 2020 taught us anything, it's that restaurants have to be flexible. And there are now plenty of innovative technology solutions that can help accelerate your restaurant's agility while aligning with your core business needs.

If you run a delivery-only restaurant, a fully integrated online order system with outsourced delivery is worth considering. If you plan to reopen a full-service dining room, you might want to consider upgrading to a modern reservation system. If your neat little footprint expanded to meet distancing requirements, a handheld POS could make your life a lot easier. And no matter what kind of restaurant you run, you'll want to reassess how you're engaging guests online - from your website, to your reviews, to digital marketing. Choosing the right technology for your restaurant means balancing your current operational needs with what you'll need once the pandemic recedes.

2020 was a challenging year for so many restaurants, but there's a silver lining. It's now easier to understand what your guests want and to pick up on post-pandemic restaurant trends that can help you deliver better service and increase your margins. Technology solutions can help you meet new demands, foster greater loyalty, and position your business to grow and thrive for years to come.

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