Of all the challenges restaurants face right now, this is one of the biggest: being able to serve enough customers to generate some kind of revenue while still keeping everyone safe and socially distant.
Touchscreen technology shared among clientele isn’t the first thing that springs to mind to combat the issue. But two companies, international hardware manufacturer Elo and Swedish software startup Clicksys, have devised a way to make the concept more palatable to wary restaurant customers and help businesses fulfill more orders in the process. Combining their respective technologies, the two companies have created a touchscreen kiosk that allows customers to self-order without ever setting foot inside the restaurant.
Over a Zoom chat this week, Clicksys’ CEO Aleksandar Goga and Sonal Apte, Elo’s VP of Retail and Hospitality Solutions, explained to me how the system works.
The kiosk uses an open frame capacitative touchscreen monitor that can be installed flush against a windowpane. Because the touchscreen is projected capacitative, it can sense touch even through thick glass, such as a window. That means restaurants can display a kiosk to the outside world without actually putting the machine outside.
In the restaurant world, one use case for the technology is with Sushishop in Stockholm. The restaurant is one of those small establishments in the middle of the city that holds few tables and normally accommodates a line of about nine people inside waiting for pickup orders. After social distancing guidelines, that meant Sushishop was only allowed to accommodate four people inside — not exactly a booming business model.
The restaurant teamed up with Clicksys and Elo and installed a kiosk against its front window, providing a way for customers to place orders without actually having to go inside.
Mikael Shaaya, the owner of Sushishop, told me over email that when coronavirus first hit, the restaurant was not able to serve any customers because of its inherently limited capacity. “Thanks to Clicksys and Elo, we can handle more guests while still being able to more easily follow the rules of the public health authority,” he wrote. Guests can order and receive their food outside and are “happy they don’t have to crowd into the restaurant.”
A small shop in a city center is one use case for the technology, and a good one. These kiosks could also have a huge impact on restaurants outside dense urban centers, where either drive-thru congestion needs to be alleviated or people would prefer to just order from an outdoor kiosk and then wait in their car for their food. Goga likens it to a more digitized version of Sonic, where customers can park a car, order via the touchscreen, then wait until a staff person brings out their meal.
For restaurants, another plus is that they don’t need their own digital properties to power the order and pay functions of the kiosk. As we discus a lot, sophisticated mobile apps and order systems a la Starbucks or McDonald’s are financially out of reach for smaller restaurants and even smaller chains. A mom-and-pop store that simply needs a way to efficiently offer takeout orders could install the touchscreen, which would include their logo and branding throughout the user interface. As a bonus, customers would not have to download yet-another app with which to order food. The system simply collects a user’s phone number and sends them a text once the order is ready.
The kiosks haven’t come stateside yet, though they may at some point in the future. Goga said right now the company has its sights set on London, then the wider U.K. for the near-term future.
Of course, all this talk of touchscreens during a pandemic brings up questions of safety and cleanliness. Will customers want to order from a screen 10 people have touched before them, even if through glass?
“What I see here is that the fear of meeting people is bigger than having to touch something,” said Goga. “Better to touch something and be alone than to stand in front of another person.”
Apte added that when it comes to sanitization, social distancing, and the new standards the pandemic has placed on the restaurant industry, there are three Cs to keep in mind. The first is “clean frequently.” “Think about every touchpoint on that journey,” she says. After that, restaurants should “communicate that cleaning” with their customers. Finally, “Allow your customers control.” For example, Sushishop offers a hand sanitizer station next to the kiosk.
Practices like the ones above will be important for restaurants moving forward when it comes to reassuring customers and also offering them alternatives to sitting in the dining room. In the U.S., states have allowed dining rooms to reopen, but at a reduced capacity that’s as low as 25 percent in some cases. Countries like Spain and Italy are allowing some areas to reopen, but again, with reduced capacity and in some cases only outdoor seating. Even a place like Sweden, which did not shut down like other countries, has enacted social distancing guidelines for bars, cafes, and restaurants. Meanwhile, 66 percent of U.S. consumers recently polled said they would not immediately go back to a restaurant once it reopens.
In all likelihood, the practical nature of kiosks in terms of being a digital ordering device will outweigh concerns about safety in the long term. With off-premises orders expected to drive the bulk of restaurant sales over the next decade, restaurants small and large will need to offer some kind of kiosk technology to accommodate spur-of-the moment orders from customers driving by in their cars or passing on the sidewalk outside. And the pandemic has, in Apte’s words, “greatly accelerated digital transformation.” For the hundreds of thousands of restaurants that aren’t digital behemoths like Chipotle or McDonald’s, a kiosk like this one could go a long way in helping them make that transformation.