Dine-In Restaurant Recovery Hinges on Digital Experiences

In the early weeks of the pandemic, restaurant enthusiasts took it for granted that we’d be truly back to normal by late 2021. What most consumers — and even many restaurateurs — had not counted on was that the very meaning of “normal” for restaurants would be permanently changed.

The industry is emerging with a stronger grasp of how to use technology — not only to meet consumers’ food needs at home, with the dramatic uptick in pickup and delivery orders, but also how to use technology to create a more frictionless on-premise experience. Yet, for many restaurants, the devastating effects of the pandemic are far from over.

“The data itself is encouraging — dining demand is back, and I think anybody who’s eaten out in the last several months has probably seen that,” Alex Lee, vice president and general manager of Resy and the American Express Global Dining Network, told Karen Webster in an interview. “Restaurant reservations are often hard to come by, and the restaurants are often quite full, and certainly that’s encouraging for the industry that has been hit so hard. But I think the theme we look at more than anything is that the recovery from COVID has been unequal and inconsistent.”

Lee noted that while some restaurants are nearly back to their pre-pandemic performance, others have a much steeper road ahead, facing a variety of challenges — those within and out of their control. Resy is focused on how to support and assist restaurants with navigating these challenges.

The New Normal

Research from the PYMNTS Pandenomics survey series, “The Post-Pandemic Consumer At 18 Months: Spending Now, Worrying Later,” found that at the time of this July survey, only 27% of consumers planned to dine out more at restaurants over the following three months.

Read more: Economic and Lockdown Fears Are Eclipsing the Contagion

One of the most significant factors keeping some diners out of restaurants is the continuing sense of uncertainty around contagion risk. To address these concerns, Resy announced a partnership in September with secure identity company CLEAR to make the latter’s Health Pass technology available for free to Resy’s restaurant customers, making it easier to check for vaccines and/or negative test results.

See more: Resy Announces Free Health Pass Integration as Restaurants Struggle with Employee Vaccine Mandates

“The partnership with CLEAR was a great example of validating for customers what a restaurant is doing, the protocols they have in place, so a diner knows they are being treated safely,” said Lee. “It’s an education platform.”

He added that since much of the friction comes from consumers being unsure of what will be required of them when they arrive, tools that clarify expectations in advance can allow for a better experience when the customer shows up.

Read also: How Ordering, Payment Technologies Help Restaurants Serve up Safer Experiences

However, for consumers and restaurants alike, anxieties remain, as each month brings its own set of unpredictable circumstances.

“I think it’s certainly increased optimism, but maybe a skeptical optimism, as we’re not fully back to where we were,” Lee said, regarding the current climate among restaurant operators. “We have to anticipate the next set of challenges to come.”

Stand by Your Fans

Another effect that the pandemic had on restaurants, Lee added, was to highlight the importance of building relationships, with the pandemic showing restaurants the need for loyal customers, “the ones who stick by you as you’re in recovery.”

For a major quick-service restaurant (QSR) chain, rewarding loyalty may look like offering points for purchases that can be redeemed for free foods. For independent table service restaurants, however, relationship-building typically comes in the form of providing high-quality, attentive service.

Lee noted that as reservations fill up, restaurants are looking for ways to prioritize seating those who spend the most, and they are seeking opportunities to flag these loyal customers for wait staff. Additionally, since Resy and American Express are integrated, Resy can tip off restaurant customers as to which diners are likely to spend more.

“In July, we launched a program called Global Dining Access for American Express premium Card Members that enables us [Resy] to tell the restaurant in advance that this is one of our top diners … who we’ll want to bring into the fold and hopefully make a regular,” he said. “Restaurants [are] not only getting to know their customers better but are being introduced to terrific new customers they may not have tapped into in the past.”

Now You See Payments, Now You Don’t

As consumers have increasingly come to expect digital convenience, the remaining friction points stick out more than ever. The process of waiting for the check, for instance, feels outdated, with consumers now accustomed to lightning-fast payments — and restaurants are seeking alternatives.

Lee noted that digital payment tools that remove this wait can improve the process for consumers. He added that with COVID-related anxieties and payment friction as the major distractors, mitigating these two concerns can allow restaurants to provide a more competitive experience.

“Especially in a COVID environment, where the beginning of your meal starts with worrying about your vaccination proof, and the end of your meal is going through payments, if we remove those two elements and the anxiety around them, we’re able to just focus on the dining experience,” he said.