Let’s Go Out To The Drive-In Movie Restaurant: How One Restaurant Is Reinventing The Dining Experience

Anyone who has ever driven North on Route 1 from Boston, Massachusetts, has seen Kowloon Restaurant. It’s hard to miss. The iconic Chinese restaurant and cocktail lounge is a huge angular structure with pagoda-style roofs and a totem pole visible from the highway. Over the past 50 years, the Wong family has been the owners and operators, constantly adding themed dining rooms and even a comedy club. Kowloon can accommodate 1,200 customers.

Not one to rest on his innovations, third-generation owner Bob Wong recently had two ideas as he was assessing ways to generate revenue amid the Massachusetts state-ordered lockdown and subsequent indoor dining restrictions. The first came from Kowloon’s massive parking lot. With outdoor dining doing reasonably well, and families being an important clientele for the restaurant, he thought: drive-in movies. That part was relatively easy. Next thought: A new ordering system. That’s where the story gets to be interesting and intersects with a new payment innovation from Paytronix.

“We originally had 1,200 seats available but now (because of the pandemic) it’s cut down,” says Wong. “So we were in a much more advantageous situation than most restaurants that are smaller and have had a tougher fight. That’s not to say we haven’t had to adjust a lot, especially once we went to takeout and we didn’t know what we were going [to do] to get through this. And we still don’t know, because we were only in the summer right now. We don’t know how long this is going to last. And then we hit the fall and winter. If we have a (COVID-19) relapse or something like that, you know, can we count on recovering the way we did? I’m not saying the recovery is complete yet, but we are hopefully recovering. But we do have to change our thinking about long term. What we, how are we going to change as things go along? We don’t know what the next step is in some cases. So we [are] just doing the best we can.”

So drive-in movies were in the planning stage. Then Wong had another idea. What if the consumers at the drive-in could interact with the restaurant as they did with carhops back in the 1950s and 1960s diner era, where the servers came to the car for the order and then returned with the food. The idea had some scale issues of offering service to hundreds of cars. But what if one of Kowloon vendors could help with the idea of putting the drive-in diner idea into the customer’s hands? What if they could order from the car via a contactless system?

Enter digital payment software company Paytronix and its new tool called Contactless Dining. Wong’s idea was very close to what Paytronix CEO Andrew Robbins and his team were cooking up with its mobile tool that is built on a mobile web platform and connects to the restaurant’s point of sale network. It allows dine-in guests to open a tab for drinks, access menus, order food and then pay and tip touch-free. For Kowloon, if a table has leftovers to wrap, the food can even be delivered.

“Restaurants are always thinking about creative ways to fill in the cash flow gaps, and I’m tremendously impressed by it.,” Robbins says. “I look at restauranteurs as just being the most entrepreneurial people in the world. So, when Bob is talking and saying he saw people bring in lawn chairs to sit outside, I said, well, why don’t we help cater to that? And the next thing you know, there’s another thing and another thing, and now he’s got the movie-theater-carhop thing going. I mean, that just, how would anybody have thought of doing that? And it’s constantly happening across the United States.”

Robbins’ observation is supported by the PYMNTS June Order-to-Eat tracker project. It found that facilitating contactless experiences and diner management is critical as restaurants start to reopen. For example, burger chain Shake Shack is adding pickup windows to all of its existing locations to better manage the flow of customers at its 280 locations in the U.S., and the company plans on making these offerings a permanent part of its store designs going forward. The pickup windows will help facilitate orders placed via third-party delivery apps in a more swift and efficient manner, according to the restaurant. Shake Shack is also setting up makeshift drive-thrus at certain store locations to quickly fulfill orders and help customers better comply with social distancing mandates.

With the Paytronix system in place, Wong is keeping his outdoor options open.

“We will always have something outside?” asks Wong. “It may or may not be the actual drive-in, but we will hopefully expand on maybe a different concept. But we do love the fact that we’re going towards where even if we had 50 tables outside, we’ll have something that people would just order online versus having a wait staff because labor is an issue as well. The fact that we have such a big area right now for the drive-in, I don’t have enough staff to actually go wait on the customers. So our main focus is having the customer order themselves, whether it’s online or going up to a concession stand, but actually online is a lot easier. And so that’s going to be huge going forward. I see that as being something that’s going to be forever.”