Technology affects almost everything we do and hospitality especially is influenced by technology as is operating a restaurant or food outlet. Changes are constantly occurring in the way restauranteurs interact with guests and with the way diners interact with restaurants. Restaurants no longer simply provide food and beverages and deliver service in an inviting and comfortable setting. Lawrence Horwitz, Executive Director of Historic Hotels Worldwide puts it, “Today’s customer wants to discover, experience, and, most important, share. You need the most modern technology to enable that.”
Hospitality Asia spoke with several chefs and restauranteurs to gauge how they utilise digital technology in their operations and how they incorporate ever-changing technology. These questions ranged from how technology is making inroads in their business to the influence of social media like Instagram and food delivery services.
Social Media Making Inroads
Social media is essential for restaurants these days and having the finest food, the best wine list and impeccable service doesn’t amount to much if potential guests don’t know this. News travels fast and the news travels fastest on social media.
The old saying, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ is more important today than it ever has been with many chefs spending as much time on the plating as the preparation to ensure the result is Instagrammable. It appears that many diners choose food that looks good and not necessarily, if it is good.
James Won, owner and chef at the impressive Enfin by James Won in downtown Kuala Lumpur relishes the opportunities presented by the digital world. “We made a conscious decision from the restaurant’s inception to strategise a programme for the digital world and to make it an integral part of our business,” he maintains.
The restaurant is engaged in an online reservation platform that integrates customer relationship management to mobile devices and across to the Point of Sale (POS) systems. Being totally linked to its social media addresses means customers are able to make reservations around the clock and receive the latest information from the restaurant. This includes – reservation availability, changes to their reservation, dietary requirements, allergies and enabling deposits to be paid.
James Won continues, “Across our social media platform, we have a dedicated content scheduling and nourishment programme delivered every quarter”. The chef also works with the print media for content creation; and to stay in touch with them regarding brand and new developments.
Nearby is Joloko Restaurant which has a webpage that is well designed and effective, according to owner Rick Jorre. “We post and update social media like Instagram and Facebook at least three times a week and upload Instagram stories on a daily basis. We send monthly newsletters to those on our database and most important of all, we collect data from our existing customers through our online reservations platform, a loyalty programme with automated marketing and by hosting events, which require attendees to subscribe. We have at least one article each month published on blogs or online magazines,” adds Rick Jorre.
Meanwhile, in Launceston Tasmania, Jeremy Kode from Geronimo Aperitivo Bar and Restaurant fully embraces the digital world. “It assists in every aspect of my operation. Social media is the obvious digital marketing tool however, I use others. This includes rostering and payroll applications and online booking platforms that assist with marketing opportunities and the ability to capture bookings around the clock. The booking tool we use also provides vital guest information that allows us to know guest dining habits.”
Jeremy Kode’s business is expanding and a project management tool enables decision makers to successfully manage the current projects and have the ability to add tasks to those responsible for particular operations.
No restaurant can survive without being connected, one way of the other with the digital world according to Miguel Perez, Food and Beverage Director at the Banyan Tree Kuala Lumpur. From external (marketing and customer reviews) to internal processes (management, reservations and finance) restaurants are no different from any other business according to Miguel Perez.
“We are going all in with the digital marketing world,” according to Hans Gill at Tiki Taka Restaurant. “We’ve been focusing on Facebook as well as Instagram ads to drive our business and it has worked really well. People aged from 25 to 45 are social media savvy, hence the best way to reach these consumers is by social media advertising. We offer a free daily dessert giveaway that just requires diners to ‘check in’ into Tiki Taka on Facebook or Instagram,” claims Hans Gill.
According to Balasubramani Naidu, Director of Food and Beverage, New World Petaling Jaya Hotel, restaurants are involved in digital technology, primarily in digital marketing and secondary, in digital payments.
Plating, Photography and Posting
Social media has created new restaurant behaviour and characteristics. ‘Two, four, six eight, tuck in don’t wait’ is meaningless these days as diners clamour over the best position to photograph the food before tucking in. Food and Instagram are inextricably intertwined with over 330 million food posts on Instagram and rapidly rising. It is as if this social media platform was exclusively developed for the restaurant industry.
James Wan is fully aware of the relationship. “Food plating design and styling have changed to make sure phone cameras are able to capture the image we intended. Lighting in the main dining room had to be changed to allow photography to be friendlier and more flattering. Service timing also needs to accommodate diners eating behaviour because we need to allow the customer time to take photos before eating,” explains the chef.
He adds, “Social media exposure has extended our reach to new customers who are not traditionally our target market. People are interested to know what the food looks like and do not really read or want to understand what the cuisine is about via words.”
Leo Kuscher, General Manager at the Royale Chulan Seremban Hotel adds that hoteliers are expected to stay on their toes to create Instagrammable moments for their guests to communicate with their friends. This needs to be creative, edgy and memorable. Creating memorable moments is also important like cooking classes with the chef involving a pre-dawn visit to the local markets to source for fresh sustainably grown organic produce. He adds, “Although millennials are gadget conscientious, well-heeled travellers, especially those staying in luxury properties need to create special personalised moments with unique touches for their discerning guests.”
The situation is the same in Launceston where Jeremy Kode maintains keeping customers engaged is incredibly important. Social media, especially the proliferation of outstanding food and beverage-focused publications, has helped in the general awareness of good food and beverages. “We constantly look at what is happening across the world to ensure we are abreast of new ideas and inspiration,” he explains .
Balasubramani Naidu suggests that social media is now more powerful than word of mouth. Indeed, great ‘images of the eye’ are considered a greater multiplier with the biggest impact.
For Miguel Perez, there is a similarity between the food and beverage industry and the fashion industry. “The digital world represents a window to show the world what you do.”
Hans Gill suggests, “You must adapt to changing times or you will be put out of business by the market. Hence staying abreast with the latest happenings is very important. The great thing about social media is you can understand your customers better by following them on Instagram. You then know what they like and dislike. This gives you a better understanding of what your customers want and you can adjust your business model to keep up with their demands as well as trends.”
Food Delivery Services
The online food delivery services market was valued at US$8 billion in 2017 and will grow at a rate of almost 10% per annum until 2026 according to Research and Markets.
Food delivery services are similar to online shopping and have taken millennials into a new era of dining at their comfort. However, hotel restaurants are yet to see significant benefit from these delivery platforms especially in urban properties as millennials living nearby prefer food from local diners, keeping hotel outlets for special celebrations and occasions.
Miguel Perez envisages these platforms as presenting an opportunity to extend Banyan Tree’s portfolio. Hans Gill realised that consumers are looking for convenience. “Although we would love people to dine in our restaurant every day, we accept reality that people have so many things happening in their lives. Sometimes they just want to order in. Tiki Taka received many requests so we listened. Today we are on Grab and Food Panda and sales have been encouraging so I think it’s good. I look at it as an additional stream of revenue instead of something that cannibalises our sales.”
He believes these food delivery services are here to stay and he thinks they help businesses. He explains, “Many people had heard of Tiki Taka but had not come to the restaurant. Since going on Grab and Food Panda, there have been many who tried our food via delivery and enjoyed the dishes. Then, they decided to come here to dine. I’m not worried about these services affecting our business; I embrace it.”
Jeremy Kode is not convinced and claims that from his research, many Australian restaurants are not happy with food delivery services as they charge incredibly high fees. He adds that restaurant margins are typically low and these commissions don’t make business sense. Furthermore, “I will be investigating all companies offering this service to assess their viability. I feel these businesses are bad in the sense that they take such huge commissions however restaurants need to compete and feel forced to take it on. They are great as they allow you to reach new markets and expand your business operation without increasing fixed costs or expanding your physical footprint,” he concludes.
As wages rise, restaurants need to creatively provide incredible service to maintain guest interest. Could it be possible that manual order taking could be replaced by robots or self-ordering kiosks and QR codes (quick service restaurants like McDonald’s are already rolling out some of this technology)?
James Won notes that Malaysians are increasingly seeking locally produced food and artisanal approaches to farming and sustainable ingredients. Known as locavore, diners focus on eating locally grown produce.
Going meatless is another trend and it has never been so easy in this day and age. An increasing awareness of the health and environmental implications of going meat-free has taken off amongst many. James Won notes, “Malaysia was ranked the third most vegetarian-friendly country in the whole world. Malaysians are also part of the global movement towards making a difference in taking care of the environment, banning plastic straws and food packaging.”
He adds, “They are also looking to chefs and restauranteurs to see how they can play a part in cooking sustainably to keep food waste to a minimum.”
Rick Jorre thinks the restaurant scene will see stronger concept places, with young talent and passionate people.
Fine dining is on the way out, with but a few surviving over the next five years, according to Jeremy Kode. “Diners are savvier than ever and want an engaging food experience that requires incredibly knowledgeable staff to be able to cultivate great experiences that don’t break the bank. I believe the origins of food and beverages will become even more important especially in a state like Tasmania,” he surmises.
For Balasubramani Naidu, the Internet of Things (IOT) will advance in the coming years, “AI will be a trendsetter, including 3D printing your own cake or your own meal at your table. Biotech will produce home-grown or lab-grown meats and plant-based ingredients. Robotics will be more common in delivery systems and farming. Cloud computing and applications for training, menu planning, knowledge base and real-time information will become restaurant standards. Finally, FIR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) will boost the farming and food sector to obtain more affordable food for all,” he envisages.
“I perceive a lot of partnerships and different concepts mixed together,” claims Miguel Perez. He continues, “There will be no more differentiation but restaurants will focus on the experience whilst offering real and honest food. I foresee an increase in the convenience factor for customers with faster and innovative delivery services. Technology will play a very substantial role in the decoration, equipment and layout of the restaurant plus the online world making restaurants accessible to all parts of the world.”
However, Hans Gill doesn’t see any major shift in terms of food and beverages. Food delivery will expand further, but it won’t kill establishments as people still enjoy dining out, he maintains.
“If any outlet does not have a presence on Facebook or Instagram today or within the next five years, they will go out of business,” he predicts. He adds, “Any brand that is not embracing the digital world, will be put out of business by the market as they will become irrelevant. People will decide on places to dine with what they see online first. Online brand presence is going to be critical in the next couple of years.”