Restaurants provide us with more than just food. They are the setting of our most important moments – first dates, family reunions, anniversaries and more – allowing us to break bread and share a glass of something good with the ones we love.

However, our relationship with restaurants has changed dramatically during the pandemic as we embraced al-fresco dining, more takeaways and meal kits. In our 2021 Future of Restaurant report, we found that an overwhelming number (98%) of restaurants had to “get creative” in the last year to keep the connection with their customers strong. Therefore, we saw a significant amount of business model transformation in the restaurant world.

With ongoing uncertainty, it is likely that the future of restaurants and their offerings will continue to change and adapt to new circumstances as well as customer demand.

The growth of contactless payments

The pandemic has caused a surge in digital transformation across all industries, and restaurants are no different. From contactless payments to automated scheduling, technology is helping restaurants manage their entire business in one place so they can focus on the customers.

Contactless payment was already well established in the UK when the need for safety measures was first introduced. With high adoption already in Europe, the rollout of the technology continued to rise in 2020.

As the same report found that nearly half (46%) of all restaurants introduced contactless payment options to increase their customers’ safety. The contactless limit increase has continued to drive this trend as over a quarter of consumers (26%) consider contactless technology critical to their dining experience.

Entering the digital age of restaurants

Restaurants also adopted technology for customers dining at home during lockdowns, with 50% of restaurants implementing online ordering for delivery in the past 12 months. For restaurants, embracing online systems and takeaway requires both a digital infrastructure for taking customers’ orders, payments, delivery personnel and resources. This can be achieved through a first-party hub on the restaurant’s website or via a third-party delivery app.

an image showing a person ordering food online.

This trend will likely continue upwards as 91% of restaurants expect they will derive at least some of their revenue from takeaways in the next twelve months. One in five restaurants expects that the majority of sales will come from delivery and takeout. However, we will see a shift away from third-party delivery apps to restaurants using their own websites to offer delivery as 62% of consumers and 70% of restaurants would prefer this method of delivery.

As well as digitising the customer experience, restaurants that want to thrive in this ever-changing world will also need to streamline backend logistics. With changing demands on their staff, restaurants are turning more and more to digital technology to improve internal processes, such as managing absences for those that might be isolating or keeping employees up to date on the latest social distancing and mask rules.  

In the past year, 35% of restaurants have made investments in kitchen automation technology, while a further 41% plan to invest in the technologies in the upcoming six months. For example, restaurants adopted order-to-table solutions as a necessity during the pandemic, but many are maintaining these tools as they ease the pressure on serving staff and save time for customers.

With seamless communication between multiple asking channels, front of the house, and back of the house, the possibilities are endless. But the benefits of investing in automation aren’t just felt by the restaurants, they trickle down to consumers too.

The changing face of restaurants

Throughout the pandemic, we have seen increasingly innovative and interesting kinds of customer experiences that go beyond the traditional restaurant offering – including cocktails, meal kits, and special events. These have been some of the biggest business model transformations in the industry and are the ones that customers have delighted in. Therefore, this trend will no doubt continue over the next year.

Loyal customers are the backbone of the restaurant industry – supporting it through good times and bad. In recognition of this, just over a quarter of restaurants have introduced or expanded loyalty schemes for their customers in the last year.

In fact, we’ve found that between October and November 2021, buyers bought 64% more gift cards from food and drink merchants. Not only do these give customers more flexibility on how they can spend their money, but they also allow customers to support local businesses without needing to go in store.

Developing personalised dining experiences

To entice more diners through their doors (or onto their websites) 75% of restaurants have introduced special ‘off-menu’ items and one-off marketing initiatives to their repertoire. Nearly a quarter of restaurants have developed personalised dining experiences for events like Valentine’s Day – when restaurants would typically be fully booked.

an image showing a couple ordering food in a restaurant.

Other popular plans include meal and cocktail kits (28%), pre-made frozen food (12%), and subscription services (14%) such as wine clubs. In addition, one in four restaurateurs has offered either online cooking classes or video call tastings and dining events.

Some restaurants are taking this one step further, offering themselves as a hybrid restaurant-bar-store for all their customer needs. Sam Corban, owner of Cambourne based 400 Degrees Pizzeria, saw an opportunity to pivot his business, splitting his efforts between his pizza oven and pantry.

As people rushed to buy staple goods, he saw an opportunity to help locals by launching a delivery service of essential items that he delivered on his bike. This decision paid off immediately with goods selling out before they had even arrived at the restaurant. It is creative changes like this that have enabled restaurants to continue being a staple in local communities and to connect with new customers despite lockdowns.

The future of restaurants

There is no telling what the next year will throw at the restaurant industry. But one thing is clear; those who embrace change and adopt technology will have what they need to thrive. The human-interaction element of dining is never going to go away but restaurants need to use the right tools to keep the heart of the beloved restaurant experience, just in a more efficient way.

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