Restaurants Need to Rethink Their Relationship with Technology

Technology alone won’t rebuild restaurants in the future, but new and thoughtful technology can make them stronger.

Too Small To Fail | Technologically Fraught
Photo: Abbey Lossing

Even before shutdown orders, technology companies had profoundly changed the way restaurants operate. In recent years, we’ve seen centralized commissary-style ghost kitchens that rely on apps for customers and a new crop of fast-casual businesses that promote mobile ordering for in-store pickup. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, it looked like technology would be the hospitality industry’s savior: Overnight, online ordering and delivery became a lifeline after dining rooms shut down and social networks maintained connections with customers.

Delivery companies in particular became virtual front doors to restaurants. In March, Grubhub reported a record number of launches on the platform. Unlike reservation tech companies OpenTable and Resy, which gave restaurants a break on fees, Grubhub continued to charge commissions of up to 30% per order.

Unsurprisingly, chefs are speaking out against these commissions and encouraging guests to order food directly from the source. Some local governments banned excessive fees. Still, Grubhub’s current success exposes our true priorities: Our desire for convenience outranks restaurants’ bottom lines. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s that new ideas can be just as convenient, without coming at the expense of a restaurant’s profit margin. ChowNow charges restaurants a flat fee for online ordering and can facilitate delivery. Point-of-sale system Toast, website provider BentoBox, and customer relationship management system SevenRooms can also be configured for online ordering. These players work largely behind the scenes, and they’re gaining in popularity.

Technology alone won’t rebuild restaurants in the future, but new and thoughtful technology can make them stronger. As we rethink business models now, trading the old status quo for an unknown future, restaurants will need to make careful decisions about the tech they use—and more importantly, the tech they don’t.

Kristen Hawley writes about the intersection of restaurants and technology in a weekly newsletter called Expedite.

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