“Fast” and “on the go” aren’t just the buzzwords of QSRs anymore. Even casual dining restaurants are hopping on the mobile ordering bandwagon.
A growing number of such establishments are now looking beyond their own dinner tables, working to reach customers wherever they are and serving them in the ways they want to be served — whether it’s through a device at the table, a mobile app or even a virtual assistant.
Scott Gladstone, vice president of strategy and development for Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill + Bar, has seen this shift firsthand. In a recent interview, he told PYMNTS that eCommerce and mobile order-ahead trends are reshaping the casual dining landscape.
“[In the broader retail landscape], behavior is changing, and guests are more comfortable consuming and purchasing things on their phones and online,” Gladstone said. “Consumption patterns are changing, [too, and] most restaurant concepts in casual dining are really pursuing to-go because it’s incremental — and it’s where the customer is going.”
Eating Good — and Ordering Ahead — in the Neighborhood
For Applebee’s, on-premise dining is the core of the business, and is likely to remain as such in the near future. The restaurant chain is recognizing the growing importance of offering mobile order-ahead and online ordering channels, however.
Its dine-in and order-to-pickup offerings don’t compete thus far, according to Gladstone. Instead, order-ahead services seem to cater to the millennial crowd and to customers who are too busy to dine in. Meanwhile, Applebee’s Carside to Go takeout diners tend to have children or pets in their cars, making it more difficult for them to come into the restaurant.
“They want to have that Applebee’s experience, but they might not have the time, or it’s not the right occasion to consume it in the restaurant,” he explained.
One major difference between dine-in and pickup orders is readily apparent: Gladstone says consumers who eat in tend to order more beverages than those who take their items to go. These order-ahead customers are taking their meals home, where they may already have drinks, but check totals tend to be comparable when it comes to food items.
Cooking up More Efficient Mobile Fulfillment
Introducing an online and mobile ordering service has forced Applebee’s to reexamine its software and hardware to make the flow of orders as efficient as possible.
One major area of focus has been ensuring proper order timing so kitchen staff members are not overwhelmed with requests at peak times, Gladstone explained, and so order-ahead volume doesn’t compromise service to in-restaurant diners. The company conducted studies to ensure proper functioning, and has implemented careful limits on both pickup time slots and when orders appear on kitchen display systems.
Applebee’s also recently reconsidered its food packaging for to-go orders after Gladstone and his team noticed that not all items are created equally for dine-in and takeout.
“Ice cream does not travel as well as a burger or a steak,” Gladstone explained. “How do you present these items to a guest so they’re still appetizing at the end of a 15- to 20-minute car ride?”
Customers select their items differently because of this, so the restaurant chain decided to design and roll out new packaging, which debuted in April. The new packaging does a better job of containing and separating dry from wet, keeping ice cream, soup and similar items from dripping and ensuring they’re still appetizing when they reach a customer’s home.
Changing the Service Landscape
Gladstone believes customers will soon be using smartphones and other technology to help grab meals, regardless of whether they are sitting down or having their food to go.
“There’s going to be, at some point, the confluence of the mobile device coming into the restaurant,” he said. “Over the next several years, you’ll start to see that type of evolution [in] how guests are interacting, either to order, pay or order ahead to engage with the restaurant within the four walls.”
Dine Brands, which oversees Applebee’s, is currently exploring a service that would offer this blend of mobile and in-restaurant dining, enabling customers to order items ahead and have those items fully cooked when they arrive to eat. Applebee’s sees the potential to tap more customers who want the dining experience but are tight on time, Gladstone explained.
Current practices suggest that customers do have an appetite for using such technology. The restaurant already provides on-table devices that enable diners to place orders, play a game or swipe a card to pay a bill. It has seen consistent growth in usage of these devices, too, suggesting that customers may be ready to apply ordering technology to dine-in experiences.
“We’ve seen success with that, and that’s an indication of guests’ willingness to interact with mobile or technology within the restaurant,” Gladstone said.
Applebee’s future omnichannel strategy includes enabling menu ordering through third-party providers. It recently signed an agreement to allow voice ordering with Google Assistant, as well as partnerships with Waze and General Motors to enable ordering from a car.
“These are emerging technologies,” Gladstone noted. “It’s not necessarily how the guests choose to order today, but it may be how they want to order in the near future: hands-free ordering from a car or from your home. We want to be ready for those continuing shifts and changes in the same way we’re enhancing our mobile devices. If guests change the way they consume, we want to be ready for that.”
Getting in front of hungry customers has so far meant having mobile apps, voice ordering and in-car ordering readily available, as well as preparing for whatever may come next. After all, not even casual dining is exempt as consumer purchasing moves increasingly online.