The surprise hit story on The Spoon this week has been our recent post on Mexico City-based remotekitchen, a startup that’s building a mobile-first restaurant-tech platform that, theoretically at least, only needs a smart phone to operate.
I highlight this story not because I think every restaurant needs to pare down their tech stack to a smartphone, but because now more than ever, restaurant tech companies need to ensure their products are offering real value to restaurants. In other words, they need to solve problems restaurants are having right now while also helping to prepare for the ones waiting for us in the future.
Remotekitchen’s platform solves some obvious problems for its core audience. Its founders explained to me that 96 percent of independent restaurants in Latin America are not online, that restaurant tech solutions are underdeveloped in the region, and that a vast majority of restaurant owners have to take orders via their own smartphones. The mobile-first approach also better equips operators to run virtual restaurants, which may be necessary depending on how high the coronavirus wave spikes.
The U.S. is not like Latin America when it comes to restaurant tech. We have choice and then some. Prior the pandemic, restaurant tech solutions included not just point of sale systems and self-serve kiosks, but also reservations management, wearable computing, virtual reality on boarding . . . the list goes on and on and on.
I don’t think restaurant tech companies should necessarily stop work on any of the above solutions, so long as they’re somehow helping restaurants solve the industry’s most urgent problems. Such as:
Improving restaurant pickup orders. For restaurants new to the off-premises world, juggling takeout and/or curbside pickup orders has proven challenging — to put it politely. Restaurants need more streamlined ways to both receive and deliver pickup orders to customers. (Geofencing, perhaps?)
Making restaurants more socially distant. I don’t refer to space between tables here. That is not a problem tech needs to solve. Menus, on the other hand, are. The number of simple digital menu solutions out there right now is encouraging, and many of them rely on simple signage or QR codes. And unlike chalkboards or disposable paper menus, digital menus could eventually become interactive tools for guests to learn more about the food they’re eating.
Enabling better communications with customers. This one is huge. Back when the pandemic first hit. I remember one restaurant telling me their customers didn’t even know they were open for takeout. Part of this is due to the rise of third-party delivery, which owns a lot of customer relationships. Delivery integrators are one way around this, as they allow restaurants to offer off-premises while still keeping their customer data.
These are just a few of the hot-button issues in the restaurant biz right now. I’m sure you have others, so drop us a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) to let us know where you think restaurant tech will be the most valuable right now.
Restaurant Closures Underscore the Need for Off-Premises
The week, Yelp released new data about COVID-19’s continued impact on businesses, the restaurant industry included. The takeaway? A bunch of restaurants that have temporarily closed may never reopen.
Quite a lot of them, actually.
As of June 15, roughly 140,000 businesses were listed on Yelp as closed. While retail got hit the hardest, restaurants came in at a close second, with 23,981 businesses closed. And here’s the kicker: more than half — 53 percent — of those restaurants currently closed won’t reopen, according to Yelp.
“Restaurants run on thin margins and can sometimes take months or even years to break even, resulting in this higher rate of permanent closures,” Yelp explained in its update.
This is aggravated by the rising number of COVID-19 cases across many states, which is causing governments to either delay reopening or order closures again. Some restaurants that had already reopened have to close once more because of employees becoming infected.
Right now it’s incredibly hard to predict the total number of restaurants that will close permanently. Yelp’s numbers are actually smaller than a report by Independent Restaurant Coalition that said 85 percent of indie restaurants could close by the end of the year. Still, tens of thousands of restaurants is a lot of restaurants.
The lesson? First, that we’re going to be riding this will they-won’t they wave in terms of restaurant closures for a long time. Second, those that can, must continue finding ways to serve their customers with off-premises orders, even if their dining rooms have partially reopened.
I’m All-In on Smart Vending Machines for Restaurants
On the note of restaurant tech that’s useful, The Spoon’s Editor recently did a report on the promise of automated vending machines in the foodservice world. I give it a shout out here because these next-generation machines, which serve up actual meals created by real chefs, could be the answer to getting good food in a socially distanced manner in many settings.
Consider the old mall food court, where you could mill between different restaurants and build your own smorgasbord of mediocre mall food. Digitizing as much of these very public spaces as possible will be necessary for sanitization and social distancing in the future. Since next-gen automated vending machines are basically their own little restaurant in a box, it’s possible we’ll one day head to food courts not manned by people but equipped with multiple machines from different brands offering increased choice without so much human interaction.
Given the way this pandemic is heading, smart vending machines could be a really smart idea.
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