Like in other industries, technology was a muddled and complicated arena for many restaurants before COVID-19. Restaurants would openly admit that they were getting by on a patchwork of systems. They would also acknowledge that while technology had become an increasingly important and was part of their long-term strategy, there was no sense of urgency to invest. They could “get by” just fine. Once the pandemic hit, getting by was no longer enough. Businesses quickly had to shift gear and embrace technology in order to survive.
Technology adoption in a crisis: How a piecemeal approach became a liability
Over the last decade, eateries from independents, to quick-service, mid-scale chains and even fine dining establishments have welcomed technology in some form or another to advance and enhance service and customer relationship opportunities. However, more often than not, in the pre-COVID world, investment in technologies that have existed in the industry for years, for the most part have been slowly, haphazardly and often begrudgingly adopted.
While operators got by on the available, base POS technology for inventory and sales, new digital interfaces (e.g. mobile ordering, contactless, tap and pay, mobile wallets, digital tipping, self-service stores, dedicated pickup solutions etc.) were seen as a nice-to-haves but not serious profit drivers.
A new report from J.P. Morgan and payment provider FreedomPay, revealed that, pre-Covid, nearly two-thirds of C-level leaders said their top challenge was making tech investments that would minimize risk. But the pandemic changed all that. With a surge in takeout and delivery, coupled with mandatory safety regulations for in-restaurant visits, they quickly had to park their once held conservative approach to technology investment.
The aforementioned report, which was based on interviews with 50 executives and IT leaders across retail and hospitality both before and during the pandemic, found that priorities shifted to rapidly deploying digital features to meet consumers’ changing needs as COVID-19 took hold. The report shows that restaurants made a huge technological leap in 2020. Although tools that were already growing in adoption, like curbside delivery and online ordering suddenly became crucial for survival. Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of such technologies. The result was effectively years’ worth of technological progress in a matter of months—and in some cases, days. As Fred LeFranc, founding partner of restaurant advisory company Results Thru Strategy commented, the pandemic was a “once-in-a-century kind of event”. When it comes to adopting technology, “They [restaurants] had no choice… We’ve reached a tipping point.”
Retrospectively, while none of us envisaged a pandemic or want to experience one again any time soon – at the end of the day when it comes to technology, Covid only accelerated many trends that were already in motion but might have taken longer to fully play out. Customers already wanted more convenience and digital connections. But a new focus on safety has amplified these demands and has become a major driver for existing technologies to be fully implemented. Now it’s not so much a question of how to keep up or leverage the latest gadget, but how technology can be leveraged to maximize revenue channels and protect restaurant businesses in the face of unpredictable change. We are beginning to see a reprieve from the pressures of the pandemic. Smart restaurant are taking this time to ensure they are maximizing the effectiveness and features of their technology stack.