From the Heinz Journal

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Tech has infiltrated every aspect of our lives: Uber has displaced taxi cabs, AirBnB has transformed hotels, and Amazon has started to crush brick-and-mortar retailers. While disruption has uprooted countless industries, it has had a limited impact — so far — on the hospitality industry. Restaurants have experienced only moderate disruption due to technology and high-end restaurant options have been particularly spared. These fine dining establishments may allow guests to make reservations online or read a menu on their webpages, but that is generally the extent of technological involvement. This will not last forever, though, as fine dining establishments begin to integrate more data-driven technology into their daily operations to boost their bottom line.

Until recently, most technologies in restaurants were focused on the front of house – employee interactions with customers. These technologies included reservation systems, customer data aggregators and order management systems. New technologies are beginning to move to other parts of the restaurant, like the kitchen itself. One nascent product, Foodpairing, helps chefs discover new combinations of foods that can surprise and delight the palette. Combinations include items ranging from common spices to unique varieties of fish. While new pairings were previously discovered through a basic guess-and-check method, Foodpairing claims to analyze “unique scientific and consumer data sources in combination with big data… for identifying the successful flavors of tomorrow.” This methodology may generate some peculiar-sounding combinations on menus, but they’ll be worthwhile if a desirable flavor is produced and customers return for more.

Outside of the kitchen, fine dining establishments are also investing in data analytics to drive profits. New systems, such as Upserve, track every detail related to a diner’s experience, including their contact information, visit history, past expenditures and individual food and drink orders. This data is compiled across the restaurant and can unveil powerful insights about the restaurant’s operation. For instance, Upserve’s platform automatically generates a scorecard that ranks menu items in comparison to each other and identifies what types of diners are most likely to order each dish. A repeat customer may select an entrée that is rarely ordered by first time diners, so this dish would be classified as a “hidden gem.” Upserve claims that this meaningful data can help servers give recommendations and help restaurants retain their customers over the long term by providing better service.

Another domain affected by an increased role of technology is in neither the kitchen nor the restaurant itself, but rather on the web. Online social media giants like Instagram and Facebook, as well as online review aggregators such as Yelp, are a dominant technology in the hospitality industry. Diners are eager to share pictures of their meals “tagged” with the restaurant’s name, especially at exclusive and trendy restaurants. “The average guest takes pictures for 10 minutes before ordering anything,” says Madelyn Markoe, owner of Media Noche, an Instagram hot-spot restaurant in San Francisco. Often, restaurants even have their own Instagram pages to promote seasonal menu items or nightly specials. While the free marketing is valuable, restaurants must now dedicate additional time and energy to fully engage with customers online.

To help restaurants optimize their online presence, Avero, a long-standing hospitality technology company, launched Avero Buzz in December of 2016. Avero Buzz is a “social listening tool” offering a centralized platform for communicating with customers across all online platforms. This service is particularly impactful for restaurant groups with a portfolio of different fine dining establishments, each with its own account on Yelp, Instagram, and Facebook. It integrates restaurant data with social data and generates analytics measuring the effectiveness of social media marketing campaigns. Though there are many ways to measure campaign effectiveness, the Avero Buzz platform focuses on changes in customer volume and customer behavior over long-term periods. By recognizing these changes and adapting to them, restaurants can derive real value from their customers’ online habits.

Across restaurant operations, data is playing an increased role. The data of flavor is helping chefs try new pairings and combinations. The data of customer history is shaping profitability and the dining experience. And the constant chatter of customer interactions across various social platforms online is a low-cost yet meaningful opportunity for publicity. Yet as these technologies and others continue to integrate into restaurants, other forms of innovation seem far off. Hopefully the 3D-printed hamburger is not in the near future.