Even as dining rooms slowly reopen, many chains and restaurants are emphasizing curbside pickup when it comes to how customers can get their food. Case in point: today, sandwich/bakery chain Panera announced a new curbside pickup service that, among other things, offers some technological bells and whistles meant to speed up the process.
The Panera Curbside process includes steps you’ll find in many curbside operations these days. Customers order via the Panera app and select Panera Curbside as their delivery option, then include their vehicle’s make, model, and color in the Special Instructions field. For those that prefer it, there’s a standard “I’m here” button they can tap upon arrival. But Panera has also introduced geofencing technology to its curbside process that will immediately notify the restaurant when a guest has arrived, rather than that customer having to find and click a button. Customers, of course, need to be comfortable with getting recognized by a technology system, and so the service is opt in at the moment.
According to today’s press release, part of the reason Panera is launching curbside pickup is to alleviate some of the congestion that’s been happening in drive-thru lines lately. Drive-thrus have needed an overhaul for some time, as wait times have increased considerably over the last decade. The pandemic just made everything worse. Allowing customers to order ahead or simply pull into a parking space and order directly from their phones could trim down those drive-thru lines.
Over the long term, curbside pickup could and most likely will be a mainstay in terms of ordering options for customers. It wouldn’t be surprising if, at some point soon, companies begin to integrate other technologies, like AI-enabled license plate recognition, into the process.
Curbside is also an obvious substitution for pickup orders, where a customer walks into the restaurant and collects the meal themselves. Though dining rooms (along with everything else) are reopening, many customers will be wary for some time to come about spending too much time in a restaurant, even one with reduced capacity.
And while curbside will be an important technology to restaurants going forward, it has to actually deliver on its promise of saving time and operational stress in order to be worthwhile to restaurants. A geofence-enhanced app that tells restaurants when a customer has arrived sounds helpful. The test will be whether those notifications help staff or just further overwhelm them, as has been the case at some restaurants.
For its part, Panera already had a robust digital and off-premises strategy at work before the pandemic, which means its back-of-house operations are probably equipped to easily ingest a new technology and ordering option.