New tools aim to make dining feel safe for guests and financially sustainable for operators.

By Oset Babür
June 18, 2020
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The restaurant business has never been more challenging. For our F&W Pro Guide to Reopening Restaurants, we've been collecting wisdom and best practices from leaders in the hospitality industry to help you navigate this unprecedented time.

After months of outcry over unjust fees that delivery apps have reaped from restaurants during COVID-19, tech companies might seem like an unlikely ally as establishments cautiously welcome guests back into their patios, parking lots, and dining rooms. But reservation and point-of-service platforms like OpenTable, Tock, SevenRooms, and Toast are racing one another to roll out features that position themselves as the must-have toolkit for operators looking to navigate the new normal.

“We surveyed roughly 17,000 of Tock’s most active diners in May in order to gain insight into the diner state of mind,” said CEO Nick Kokonas. “Restaurants are going to need to continue offering takeout, alongside limited capacity reservations for the foreseeable future.”

As COVID-19 temporarily makes impromptu dinner plans a thing of the past, reservation platforms are bringing their technology into spaces where guests wouldn’t normally think to plan ahead, like bars.

“Operators don’t want people congregating, so we just launched a product specifically for bars and wineries to exercise capacity control,” said Joseph Essas, Chief Technology Officer at OpenTable. “Diners can put themselves on an online wait list so they don’t have to stand at the door.” Essas said that his team is closely watching to see whether a demand for reservations at bars exists beyond COVID-19, and will determine whether or not it will become a permanent fixture.

With so many platforms working towards the same goals of making dining feel safe for guests and financially sustainable for operators, duplication of efforts is inevitable; Resy, SevenRooms, and OpenTable have rolled out tools for restaurants to re-organize floor plans that accommodate diners in a spaced-out fashion, as well as features that, upon receiving a new booking, allow operators to communicate customized messages with diners about the safety precautions they’ll encounter. Tock even allows two-way messaging so guests can respond directly to operators when they receive a notice about time limits for their booking, such as a cap of two hours and 15 minutes for tables of four, and two hours for tables of two.

Using Resy, operators have the option to use a capacity capping feature that automatically disables new reservations from being made once a safe occupancy has been reached. Similarly, guests using SevenRooms will be automatically prompted to order delivery or take-out from a restaurant that is unable to safely accommodate in-house dining.

“Is something like the capacity monitor going to be a feature that restaurants rely on in the long term? Maybe not,” admits Resy co-founder and CEO Ben Leventhal. “But we may look at a feature like that and think about what it’s like to continue to evolve it where it plays a meaningful role in the long term.”

Ironically, features that dramatically decrease human contact as well as time spent in restaurants—both of which used to be major parts of the traditional hospitality experience—are now being offered to chefs who are cautiously wading into reopening their dining rooms.

Tock’s newest update, Tock 20, launched just weeks ago, allowing guests to place orders before they even sit down for a reservation. Meanwhile, engineers at Boston-based point of service provider Toast aim to enable guests to scan a QR code to place and modify orders by July, in addition to its current functionality that allows for contactless bill payment through Toast hardware.

Both Tock and SevenRooms have also started offering contactless features within the last month. “Markets are opening, and the amount of customers that voiced a need for this technology definitely influenced our speed of development,” said Chris Comparato, CEO of Toast. As a result, he envisions waitstaff taking on a more consultative role. “Instead of just taking the order, they’ll be free to have more discussions about what’s being offered right now,” he explained. It remains to be seen what kind of impact decreased contact with front-of-house staff will have on tipping, but Comparato says Toast will be closely monitoring data to this end.

While the shutdown period proved (and continues) to be a time of intense financial and operational struggle for the industry, Joel Montaniel, CEO of SevenRooms, says his team focused on using that time to continue building up the platform’s database. Now, as restaurants welcome guests in person again, it’s prime time to put that new information to good use. 

“By allowing restaurants to offer delivery and take-out through SevenRooms instead of a third-party app, operators have been able to accumulate critical customer data throughout that time,” Montaniel said. “Third-party apps don’t pass data back to restaurants, but we’ve made it so if you’ve ordered take-out during the shutdown but never dined at that restaurant, the host will have you in the system when you make a reservation. They’ll know your preferences—for example, if you often ordered a certain dish, like, say, tzatziki—and they’ll be able to thank you for your patronage, or even send it out on the house.”

SevenRooms is also positioning itself to help officials in cities that are using contact tracing to slow the spread of COVID-19. “When people make a reservation or use contactless pay, it helps us understand who’s been in the restaurant. If there’s an outbreak, we can reach out to guests who dined with us that night and let them know to get tested,” Montaniel said.

Even with capabilities custom built for COVID-era dining, Ben Leventhal remains mindful of the fact that not every operator will jump at the chance to allow guests at a fine-dining restaurant to order through their phones, or pay with a tablet.

“There will be some restaurants that are more trailblazing and others are going to wait for everyone else to figure it out,” he said. “I think that one of the key positive things that’s going to come out of the crisis is that restaurants are diversifying revenue with delivery, take-out. They’re now extending their brands out to the home.”