The big restaurant news over the weekend was a new set of findings from the CDC that suggest a higher risk for COVID-19 among those who eat in restaurant dining rooms.
The inescapably obvious point is that the findings are worrying for restaurants planning to reopen or increase the capacity of their dining rooms. That in turn brings up a less-obvious point, that the so-called contactless technologies out there that say they’ll make restaurants safer have yet to prove their value.
As has been extensively covered, the CDC’s report found that adults who test positive for COVID-19 were “approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant” than those who tested negative.
These are exactly the types of findings the restaurant industry has tried to avoid, and it has used a lot of tech to do that. When dining rooms first started to reopen, restaurant tech companies rushed to bring contactless “kits” — software that enables digital menus, ordering, and payments — to market. There are now so many of these offerings it’s often hard to distinguish one from the next.
To be super-duper clear, no company is claiming they’ll fend off COVID-19 with a QR-code enabled menu feature. It’s also worth noting that we don’t have extensive data yet on how many restaurants (including those in the CDC study) have actually implemented contactless software, which is expensive and a time-consuming process.
While we don’t know how vast contactless implementations are, we know restaurant tech companies use phrases like “safe,” “contact-free,” and “end-to-end contactless experience” all over their marketing copy and product-speak nowadays.
But giving a piece of software the “contactless” label and actually eliminating (as opposed to minimizing) human-to-human contact in the dining room are two different things. Customers might be able to browse a menu, order a meal, and pay for it from their own device, but someone still has to run the food to the table, refill drinks, and step in if there is a problem with the order. Humans still cook and plate the food, and even spreading tables further apart won’t necessarily stop the spread of coronavirus. (One study found that infectious droplets can spread up to 16 feet away from the infected person.)
In their current form, contactless restaurant tech solutions can’t totally eradicate human intervention in the restaurant experience. Even if it could, there are still the other diners to contend with (see above), which means contactless tech can’t completely wipe out the risk that someone will get COVID-19 from going out to eat. Hence the CDC’s latest findings.
What contactless tech can do is speed up the order and pay process, help restaurants keep labor costs lower (fewer staff to pay), and even drive more people to restaurants’ native mobile apps instead of third-party delivery platforms. It can also speed up formats like curbside pickup and drive-thru, areas where restaurant operators should perhaps spend the bulk of their energy implementing contactless tech.
For now, at least, all signs point to off-premises formats like drive-thru and takeout as the areas where restaurants should be spending the bulk of their energy, period. The National Restaurant Association just released new figures that note one in six restaurants have closed either permanently or for the long term. I doubt the CDCs findings will make that number any less bleak anytime soon. For the present, restaurants should continue to focus on developing their off-premises formats, whether that’s faster curbside service via contactless tech, a ghost kitchen, or even a makeshift drive-thru lane.
As far as the dining room is concerned, it may be time for bolder moves than a QR code. By that I mean more robots to do things like run food and wash dishes, and more creative ways of arranging the dining room layout. In other words, it’s probably going to take more than iterative tech to get the restaurant biz back on its feet.