Restaurant industry has yet to tap full potential of technology, say industry players

THE restaurant industry has digitalised at an unprecedented rate amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but restaurateurs still have a long way to go in maximising the benefits of technology and data in their businesses, said regional key industry players and restaurateurs at a webinar on Tuesday.

The event was organised by online restaurant-reservation platform Chope, in conjunction with the launch of its e-book, "Restaurant Technology: 2020 and Beyond".

Chope chief executive Arrif Ziaudeen moderated the discussion, which featured:

* Ian Wilson, restaurant tech startup consultant and advisor to the Singapore Tourism Board;

* Julien Perol, director of hospitality solutions in the Asia-Pacific at Tripadvisor;

* Inesh Putri Chandra and Adrian Khoo, directors of Eat Company in Bali, Indonesia; and

* Loh Lik Peng, chief executive of hotel and restaurant group, Unlisted Collection.

Ms Inesh said restaurant technology has helped her company differentiate itself from competitors, especially in the key battleground space of food-delivery.

Recognising that people crave a "home-cooked" style for daily meals, Eat Company set up a virtual brand dedicated to family-style dishes cooked using technology like combination ovens and sous vide, and delivered fresh. The virtual brand also operates on a pre-order basis, so that it can minimise wastage and optimise the preparation timing for delivery.

She said: "They can have (quality food) in their homes at a price that's not like at a five-star restaurant. A lot of people are doing the same thing here, but obviously they're using their regular kitchens at home. We have an advantage because we have a restaurant, to use the kitchen technology."

Unfortunately, getting chefs to adopt such kitchen technology is difficult, because they are often more interested in creating more complex dishes than in improving productivity, said Mr Loh of Unlisted Collection.

"Chefs trying to make a name for themselves in the industry and get a Michelin star are often not interested in (technology)," he said. "Their purpose and motivation is not to reduce their workload, but to introduce a new element to the dish they're producing."

Eat Company's Mr Khoo agreed, saying: "Chefs are notoriously stubborn as well. It takes a lot of work to convince them that an inventory system is going to save them time, because at the end of the day, they are really just focused on their passion to create better, outstanding food." If systems are difficult to implement and operate, the chefs will be even more unlikely to adopt them, he added.

Despite this challenge, there are many other ways restaurants can leverage technology to grow their business. For example, they can adopt customer relationship management (CRM) systems to capture and mine a wealth of customer data for insights and marketing opportunities.

Mr Perol said that the Tripadvisor platform helps drive traffic to restaurants by tracking customer intent through user searches and reaching out to them through e-mail and advertisements for the restaurants they viewed. Tripadvisor can do even more targeted and effective marketing if it had more information on customers, like who they are, what they do for a living, their average ticket size and marital status - but most restaurants do not have the technology to collect such data, he said.

He urged restaurateurs to invest in technology so they can collect, protect and integrate data points from all their systems to derive long-term value for the company.

When selecting a technology solution, restaurant owners need to be clear about their goals and what they want to achieve with the technology; they should also explore potential hidden costs and hidden value that could be unlocked by integrating it with existing systems, and pick a partner that will work alongside them to accelerate returns on the investment, Mr Perol said.

"Try to negotiate a free trial or a proof-of-concept, try to see if you can derive some quick benefits within weeks or months, and then go for it," he added. "There is risk, but it has to be calculated. If done well, technology can be very powerful, especially on the customer experience front and marketing front, and can really drive more guests and diners to your restaurant."

Mr Wilson said restaurant groups should ideally standardise their technology across all the brands to derive maximum value from aggregated data. While some players are concerned that this may mean having to share valuable customer data with other brands, being able to manage who has access to what data is "Data 101" - it should not be a problem to safeguard each brand's customer data.

Restaurant groups could also use the aggregated data to draw customers to their different brands without necessarily forcing a restaurant to give its customers away, since most people would not want to eat at one restaurant every day and could be enticed to visit another of the group's brands on days they want something different. "Ultimately, if you look at it from a 'coopetition' perspective, everybody wins," he said.

Chope's e-book explores the range of restaurant-technology solutions including real-time dynamic pricing and CRM systems and automation. Featuring expert advice and insights from regional industry players and restaurateurs, it also highlights key trends and solutions that the industry should invest in to accelerate digitisation and future-proof their businesses.

The e-book can be accessed at restaurants.chope.co/futuretech2020/.