Few would argue idea with the point that tech has now firmly cemented its role in the restaurant experience. When the pandemic hit, what was once a trickle of digital tools for businesses became a legitimate flood: Delivery aggregators. Delivery integrators. Reservations management. Lots of QR codes. Contactless everything. At this point there’s so much choice for restaurants, there’s almost too much choice.
But one way to bypass this tyranny of choice, as it were, is to treat tech like the (now-defunct) buffet: take a little of each offering and combine the elements to customize a solution specifically for your restaurant’s unique needs. Such has been the strategy of restaurant chain Bluestone Lane since the start of the pandemic. According to CEO Nicholas Stone, it has brought the brand much success in the last few months.
“We pivoted the whole company,” he says of Bluestone Lane’s pandemic response. Speaking over the phone last week, he added that “it’s been an extraordinary success.”
Bluestone Lane opened in 2013 as an Australian-inspired cafe serving premium-grade coffees and healthy eats. It now operates 53 locations across California, New York, Washington D.C., and Canada, among other places. It has two store concepts: a counter-service format and a cafe operation that functions more like a traditional sit-down restaurant.
Stone said that around the third week of March, revenue fell 90 percent in a single week across locations. “It was at a level we never expected,” he said. BluestoneLane shuttered all of its locations (most of which remain closed) and turned to tech as a way to enable better, faster off-premises ordering.
The company turned to the app-based restaurant experience as a solution. Lacking the budget to build a mobile app from the ground up (few restaurants have the level of resources to do that), but not wanting an one-size-fits-all solution, Bluestone Lane created its own custom app by merging several existing platforms: Stripe for payments, Resy for reservations, Olo for delivery, and so forth. “That was what we evaluated what was the fastest, most efficient way to launch on the project,” Stone says of this approach.
From the consumer side of things, you would never know multiple technology platforms are powering the experience. A user simply downloads the Bluestone Lane app, creates a profile, and can then browse the menu and order and pay for items. For the few cafe-style locations that are open, Bluestone also offers a reservations system through the app where guests can book a table. The app also works across the restaurant’s different formats: order ahead, delivery, in the dining room, and even with the brand’s e-commerce site.
And while Bluestone Lane may have pulled its platform together quickly, the brand’s focus on tech is here to stay. Stone sees tech as a way to keep restaurants more cost efficient, and believes the majority of those businesses will be tech enabled in the future.
On that point, he was eager to give some advice to other restaurants grappling with the sudden shift to off-premises and the tech know-how that has to go with that.
First and foremost, restaurants should adopt the “try before you buy” mentality when it comes to tech. “If you don’t fully understand what’s out there, you could implement a solution that’s just not fit for you,” says Stone. “Don’t just fall for the first thing you’ve been aware of.” He recommends getting testimonials from a solution’s existing clients and speaking with peer groups to get their reactions to the tech.
He also believes restaurant should have a dedicated project manager whose main job is to manage the tech side of things. This is in contrast to stories from the past few years of general managers becoming de facto IT people while trying to also run a dinner rush. To work properly, Stone says tech “needs a lot of focus and it needs someone who can manage it and become your internal expert.”
Finally, be disciplined with your budget. Don’t sign up for something you can’t afford. And if you can’t afford it, be honest with the vendor about your situation. “I think that a lot of the tech providers have flexibility from that perspective because their marginal cost is very low.” That point is evident in the number of discounts and deals restaurant tech companies have offered since the start of shelter-in-place mandates.
Stone points to the mounting pressures on restaurants — rising rents and labor costs, commission fees to delivery companies, etc. — as things that were whittling away restaurant margins even before the pandemic. Now, operators must manage those elements in the face of a public health crisis that shows no signs of abating and is fundamentally reshaping the entire restaurant industry.
The dining room experience as we knew it isn’t gone forever. It just may become more the territory of genres like fine dining in the future. For everyone else — causal dining, quick service — off-premises will rule the day, and require a lot more tech in the process. Which tools they choose and how useful those prove will depend a lot on how restaurants learn to think about tech’s role in their customers’ future experiences.