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Dine and dash with your mobile device

By Evan Wade / March 28, 2014

Save a seat for mobile devices

Communication technologies have long helped shape the restaurant industry. From the delivery services and call-ahead seating of the landline era to store locators and ecommerce platforms made possible by the Web, smart restaurateurs have always been quick to capitalize on emerging technologies. In an arena where speed, convenience and the ever-crucial customer experience reign supreme, adapting to new technological advancements is as crucial to a restaurant as their health score. Everyone from national chains to mom-and-pop eateries are starting to take note.

BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse

Most chain restaurants have cooking times down to a science, and while issues do arise in the kitchen from time to time, the most noticeable delays in the dining process come before an order is taken and after the meal is finished. To combat these “pain points,” BJ’s Brewhouse is creating an app that streamlines the dining experience from the second customers enter the door to the moment they wrap their seat belts around their full bellies.

BJ’s mobile solution aims to put them in a more favorable position against the rising tide of fast-casual dining establishments like Chipotle by allowing customers to order and pay for their meals without a waiter’s assistance. The app lets smartphone-toting patrons peruse the menu, place their orders and settle their check directly from their mobile devices.

BJ’s head honcho, Greg Trojan, claims their app will be able to reduce hour-plus meal times to a comfortable 35 or 40 minutes. Between the reduction in employee costs and the increase in table turnaround, building a system that utilizes consumer devices could be a worthy investment for any restaurant in the struggling casual-dining market.

Chili’s & Ziosk

Rather than creating an app for customers to access on their own smartphones and tablets, Chili’s is teaming up with commercial-tablet manufacturer Ziosk to make meals faster and more interactive. The Ziosk table-mounted devices will allow diners to place their orders, settle checks, ask for refills and even play $.99 games while they wait for their food.

The Ziosk tablets also work as a marketing tool, allowing diners to check-in, like and share their experience with their entire social network. They also have a built in camera, so customers can post pictures of their Southwestern Eggrolls to Instagram without getting their smartphone greasy.

Once the meal comes to a close, all the diner has to do is add a tip, slide their card and decide whether they’d like their receipt sent to their email or printed directly from the Ziosk device. Once their check is settled, an LED light illuminates on the top of the tablet, letting the hostess know another table will soon be available so a new set of diners can take advantage of the Ziosk system.

Loyalty is key

One of the most attractive and addictive features implemented into dining applications are the loyalty programs. Both BJ’s app and the Ziosk tablets encourage return visits by rewarding their most frequent customers. Although these systems can be hugely expensive to set up and maintain, they can also be a win-win situation for everyone involved with the proper design and implementation.

The well-loved Starbucks loyalty program is a prime example. When smartphones were still in their infancy, the coffee giant had the foresight to give customers scannable loyalty cards they could access from their phones and continue to earn stars towards their online profile. As a result, these international caffeine pushers increased customer loyalty, streamlines the ordering process, reduced credit card fees incurred by the company and provided a trove of valuable sales and marketing data they could use for future promotions. The latest iteration of the app even supports virtual tipping and a shake-to-pay feature.

McDonald’s McD app uses a similar concept with a hint of exclusivity. Instead of a traditional loyalty program, the McD app pushes online-only deals to devices that have the app installed. Better yet, the promotions can be restricted to certain geographical areas, allowing the company to promote regional items and avoid sending irrelevant content to users in other areas.

If for no other reason, eating establishments should implement an app-based loyalty program for user convenience. As phones continue to become a more integral part of our day-to-day lives, the opportunity for a customer to forget their loyalty card is constantly on the rise. Attaching your loyalty program to their phone will greatly increase the likelihood that they’ll actually use it.

Eating with beacons

As smartphones and tablets continue to become an increasingly common dining companion, the novelty of an app will begin to diminish. Restaurants will be challenged to find new technologies capable of delighting customers and speeding up the order process.

One app that’s already getting ahead of the curve is a payment service called Dash. In order to set itself apart from competitors like TabbedOut and MyCheck, Dash is helping locally-owned bars and restaurants generate foot traffic and increase profits through beacons. When anyone with the Dash app passes one of these beacon-equipped establishments, they’ll receive a push notification encouraging them to stop in for a drink or a bite to eat. The beacon can also sway customers with discounts, while allowing them to use the Dash app to process their payment.

Beacons can also be useful once a customer has already stepped foot in the door by keeping them updated on seating availability and daily specials. With less than a year on the market, this technology is still in its infancy, but you can guarantee more restaurants will follow suit as the success stories stack up.

Food for thought

It’s hard to say exactly what the future of restaurant apps will hold, but with gadgets like beacons rising to prominence, it’s sure to be exciting. For now, we’re happy to see the current slate of software making great use of smartphones and tablets. As more decision makers within the industry decide to separate their app from the competition, we’re sure to see even more great ideas from the dining sector. Let’s just hope they don’t lose focus on what really matters—the food.

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