Some of them provide an easy target for mockery, especially among younger consumers who often see them as offering bland, unhealthy fare. Some can make a pragmatic destination for holidays and gatherings, places with enough menu variety to please nearly everyone — and some of them serve alcohol, taking the edge off family reunions and obligatory work events. They are unlikely candidates to inspire hit pop songs — nothing like Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” — nor do they seem to offer an atmosphere from which a great painting, or novel, or artistic school of thought would spring.
Fast casual and casual dining restaurants tend to get scant cultural respect. (Fast food, at least, is a firm part of Americana, and has close ties to rock-and-roll, modern youth culture and even politics.) But when it comes to retail technology, those sectors of the restaurant world have recently been making significant strides — progress that counters the image of a merely a place to go after a long day shopping, for instance, or where your mom will agree to eat because she demands “normal” food instead of that new sushi joint down the street.
Take one of the newest developments: pickup pods. While sounding almost like some sort of alien-abduction technology, these devices are designed to eliminate waiting for fast casual restaurants, which often attract a work-time lunch crowd constantly checking the time so they are not late getting back to the office.
In a recent PYMNTS interview, Minnow Co-Founder and CEO Steven Sperry described how his company’s pickup pods work. Customers place their orders through a restaurant’s website or app. The eatery then prepares the food and puts it in the pickup pod. The customer receives a notification when the order is ready, to eliminate waiting around for the order — which is how many customers retrieve takeout. That could help solve a major point of restaurant friction. Even at quick-service eateries, nearly 54 percent of customers still wait in line to pick up their orders, according to the PYMNTS Restaurant Readiness Index.
Beyond that, technology is important to fast casual dinners, with about 25 percent telling the National Restaurant Association that “technology options are important features that factor into their decision to choose a restaurant.” One way to meet consumer demand for tech and speed is to offer new payments options at those fast casual restaurants.
That’s the idea behind the recently launched offering from CARDFREE. Its mobile pay-at-table service, initially targeted toward casual and fast casual restaurants, enables consumers to use their mobile devices to launch a participating restaurant’s app or mobile web page to view and pay checks. The product integrates into a restaurant’s point-of-sale (POS) system without a hardware upgrade, which “eliminates a common pain point” for those merchants, CARDFREE CEO Jon Squire told PYMNTS.
Consumers scan a QR code on the check or table tent — or use a beacon or near-field communication (NFC) tag — and do not have to employ the server during the payment process (though a specific business might have the server start the process or make sure payment is completed before the customers leave). And — in a nod to the nature of fast casual dining — the payment offering enables customers to split checks via P2P payment services.
Ordering, too, is getting upgrades — usually mobile ones — in this space. According to a report, Panera’s recently launched “advanced ordering system for to-go orders … lets customer place and pay for online/mobile orders, which they pick up at a designated spot in the restaurant.” One can argue that such businesses are following in the footsteps of Starbucks in deploying such technology. After all, according to the PYMNTS Restaurant Readiness Index, 59 percent of the coffee chain’s customers made their orders online or via the Starbucks mobile app.
The fast casual space, in general, also is becoming less populated, at least when it comes to workers. As PYMNTS has reported, “technology that cuts people out of fast casual is popping up all over the industry, whether it’s automating repetitive kitchen processes or trading in cashiers for kiosks, a trend that has hit McDonald’s, Subway and other popular fast food and fast casual settings.”
Expect more of that, say industry executives, with minimum wage hikes cited as one reason for that trend.
“Self-service kiosks will become commonplace, and brands will place a greater emphasis on the experimental use of robots in both front and back of house to increase efficiency,” Ashely Morris, CEO Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, told Fast Casual, a trade publication. “In the short term, brands that implement kiosks won’t see much labor improvement, as they will have to be supplemented by new roles to enhance customer experience. This will be a short-term step to educate consumers and will later result in labor reduction.”
Some restaurants don’t get the respect they deserve, but that doesn’t mean they intend to lag when it comes to the tech race.