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Designer: Don't let restaurant tech wave wipe out customer experience

| by S.A. Whitehead
Designer: Don't let restaurant tech wave wipe out customer experience

Numerous national pizza brands are among the clients of veteran restaurant designer and consultant, Steve Starr, so when he talks about great restaurant design, restaurateurs are smart to listen. And that's just what happened when the North Carolina-based founder of Starr Design spoke last month at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago. But contrary to most presenters and vendors at the sprawling May show, Starr wasn't touting the glories of restaurant technology so much as imploring brand leaders to use it more wisely, since it can easily destroy the design a brand worked so hard to pull together to create a great customer experience. 

Steve Starr, President Starr Design.

(Photo: S.A. Whitehead)

"A lot of things are changing for restaurants today with technology ... and we, as an industry, have an opportunity to decide how much technology is going to play a role in restaurants going forward," he told the audience. "Will we let it take the place of person-to-person interaction? Or will we use tech to enhance person-to-person interaction. ...

"We've always seen innovation start at the high end (pricier brands within an industry) and move down to the lower end. But now we're seeing the exact opposite with QSRs and fast casuals really driving the innovation in the business."

That also means that the limited-service end of the pizza restaurant spectrum will lead the way on how to best use design to facilitate a tech-infused food service environment, beginning with his answer to a question that seemed to infiltrate every discussion at this year's National Restaurant Association Show regarding how restaurant operators can use design to create a great customer experience in a world where so much is beyond operators' control now, thanks to the necessity to employ third-party delivery providers with all their unknowns and uncontrollables. 

"Here, I always go back to good design where you build in some flexibility to your production process and make sure that it doesn't affect the walk-in experience," he told the crowd. "A lot of restaurants over the last few years have given the responsibility of managing off-premise program to the host or bar staff. I don't think I could think of a worse possible scenario because these are people tasked with creating a sense of hospitality and to burden them with such really high-volume transactional tasks is probably the worst thing we can do in the industry. ... So my advice is to really think through the process."

For instance, Starr said restaurateurs need to consider all the needs that go into their off-premise programs, from maintaining the temperature and quality of the food, to staffing the kitchen adequately and allotting the space needed to prepare and hand off delivery dishes. He said when all factors are considered, good restaurant design can in most cases, maintain or improve the customer experience while furthering the off-premise preparation and delivery process. 

A tale of 2 brands' use of tech

One of the questions tossed out that Starr showed particular interest in involved the types of design elements that he sees today being used to lure people back in to eat, order or just linger at limited service brands, like QSRs and fast casuals. He said this was also an area where restaurateurs can really employ tech to draw guests in and build great experiences, rather than use these tools to separate and segment diners. 

"We as an industry have a true opportunity to make a difference in our society because restaurants have always played an amazing role in connecting people with people," he said, using his own wedding proposal to his wife as an example. "All of us have such great experiences that if ... are integrated in some way with food. 

"Now we're seeing tech that is enhancing convenience but at the same time also has the potential to take the place of person-to-person interaction. ... But I also have some great examples where restaurants have looked at tech to see how it can foster interaction."

As an example, Starr compared to two chains that have used tech to help with the ordering and convenience process in different ways. One brand, he said, installed in-store ordering kiosks, while another deployed team members armed with tablets to facilitate drive-thru orders. 

"One takes the place of person-to-person interaction and the other fosters that person-to-person interaction," he pointed out then asked, "Which do you think is having better results?"

The brand with the tablet-equipped team members, he said, has had "staggering" results, while the other brand he said that used kiosks alone has actually reportedly increased its labor costs to help with an ongoing problem of kiosk customer use questions that necessitated putting employees near kiosks to help visitors learn to use the machines rather than working on other operational tasks. 

Finally, the audience was interested in learning more about how to actually connect guests to each other through restaurant design. On that note, Starr said he and other designers are now seeing seating densities growing again in their designs for brands. In fact, he said many are increasingly adding community tables again. 

"Ten years ago, the area required per person was getting larger" in restaurant design, he said. "Now, it is the exact opposite."

Feature photo: iStock

Topics: CONNECT: The Mobile CX Summit, Customer Service / Experience, Delivery, Digital Signage, Interior Décor, Menu Boards, Mobile Payments / Commerce, Online Ordering, POS, Restaurant Design / Layout, Systems / Technology

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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