Food Service Going Digital

It doesn’t deserve a mention that we are passing through digital age, which can be easily construed as an advanced stage of information age. This digital age is likely to pave in to the robotic age with its artificial intelligence, within a decade or two.

Over the years, we have seen that the new-age innovations of our times have been applied by several industries, with the objective to decrease costs, increase efficiency; to increase revenues and profits.

Over the recent years, for innumerable corporate players such objectives have been translated from potential into welcome realities. The Indian food services industry has also applied an array of new-age innovations of our digital age with the above-mentioned objectives and many players in the industry have obviously reaped success in this regard. We can expect that in the near future, the applications of new-age information technologies of the digital age are expected to be more pronounced in the Indian food services industry.

There are various ways the information technology can facilitate towards enhancing customer satisfaction of restaurant guests. There are also various ways by which digitalisation can offer potential for enhanced revenues and profits for the restaurateurs. Some of these routes are already evident, some are pregnant in the future. "Next 10 years are big for 'out-of-home dining and here the technology is going to be the game changer. Innovation and customisation are the mantra of today's Indian food service business," expressed Rohit Mahajan, the Founder, Loofre.com and Managing Partner with K5 Brand Solutions Pvt. Ltd.

 

Online Food Delivery

The online food ordering is now old hat, but if done well, it can pose a serious challenge to the conventional restaurant business in the future. From the entrepreneur’s side, the establishment costs tend to be much less as compared to conventional restaurant business, and from the consumer’s viewpoint, online food ordering can save the cost of commuting and traffic hassles, which in turn leads to saving of time and saving oneself from tension. And who doesn’t know that in today’s post-modern age, time is not money but greater than money. It is heartening to know that according to a RedSeer report, the online food delivery industry in India grew from an estimated gross merchandise value of 120million USD to an estimated gross merchandise value of 300 million USD between 2015 and 2016.

This is despite the fact the many roadblocks were faced by the online food delivery business in India, during 2016. "India’s online food delivery industry experienced many roadblocks in its growth story in 2016 with multiple players scaling down their operations or shutting shop. This was also visible in low investor sentiment wherein the industry saw a total funding of less than 80 million USD in 2016 against 500 million USD during the same period, in the year before," RedSeer observed.

One can say that despite the teething troubles, the potential of online food delivery business in the country is huge, and restaurants too are using online platforms to extend their reach. For though the investors may have shown loss of faith in online food delivery business in India during 2015-2016, online food delivery is popular among Indian consumers. And what is more important that this popularity is only expected to increase with the years to come, as urban middle class India is having less and less time. And consumers' demand is perhaps what matters for the food service business the most.

 

Customisation of Menu

Already restaurants are having tablets in place of paper menu for the guests to order their preferred dishes in an interactive manner. Online reservation apps are getting vogue in the Indian food service business, but as the competition intensifies in this field, the ones who would provide the exciting and exclusive deals unfailingly would thrive.

Online food delivery of digital age is complemented by the happening trend of digitally powered table reservation. “Loofre is a next generation table reservation platform through which we want to define the experience of dining in a new way. Through Loofre, we are helping restaurants grow by increasing their footfall, and facilitating the diners to discover the perfect table according to their mood, cuisine, budget, ambience and in finding the best restaurants nearby to them with best possible offers. Loofre.com is not merely limited to table reservation, it has more to offer. Team Loofre makes sure that our customers are updated about all the happenings in the city, be it the best offers available in the city or the most happening party thrown,” elaborated Mahajan.

But the time is ripe for advance booking of menu and customisation of menu. One of the ways these two facets can be merged is through customisation of the menu in advance. Though advance booking of menu sounds futuristic in India, but this writer thinks that soon it would be a reality. Let us explore this further. For example, a family is thinking of dining at a fine dining or a casual dining restaurant in the evening. In this evolved digital age, they should also have the option of selecting the dishes they want to have at the restaurant in advance after browsing through the restaurant’s menu; being displayed at the concerned restaurant’s website or on its Facebook page for that matter.

The restaurant’s website should have the user-friendly technical option for its future guests to select the dishes they want to have at the given restaurant (let us name the restaurant as restaurant A) in advance. The guests can copy those preferred items and paste them in a special Feedback section of the restaurant’s website, which would be different from the usual Feedback section of the website.

This special Feedback section of the website of the restaurant A can be termed as ‘Feedback to the Kitchen,’ and here the feedback could be accessed and worked upon by two or three dedicated personnel on a continuous basis through the entire operating hours of the restaurant A. Then the future guests can write a note saying that they want these ‘selected’ dishes to be served within five minutes of reaching their restaurant or within ten minutes of reaching the restaurant or as soon as they reach the restaurant(as per their preferences), and also specify what kind of ingredients or oils they want in those dishes.

Of course, the future guests should also mention the date and expected time of their coming to the restaurant and how much time it is expected for them to come from their home/offices/other destinations to the given restaurant. Preferably they should inform the Feedback team of the restaurant when they start their commuting to the restaurant concerned.

Another hot and happening trend in the Indian food service business, which can gather momentum in the near future is the mobile payments. “Mobile payments are the current trend and it will contribute towards customer ease. Also now we are in a space where technology is going to be part of the ambience of the restaurant,” observed Mahajan.

 

Opportunities and Challenges

We can say that digital revolution has on the one hand opened new floodgates of opportunities for restaurant business, but on the other hand, it has compelled food service business to be more accountable and watchful of quality and hygiene.

Nowadays thanks to sites like Zomato, TripAdvisor and many other renowned online platforms, and also due to social media channels like Facebook, the power of restaurant guests has increased manifolds. In this digital age if a restaurant falters in terms of taste, ambience or hygiene, there is not only chance of getting quick adverse criticism but those adverse views can go viral in digital platforms in extremely quick time span.

At the same time, restaurants which are going the extra mile to delight their guests can easily garner greater marketing mileage in a given period of time (say within six months) than they could expect to get in the pre-digitalisation age within that same given period of time.

This digital age has come across as double-edged sword for the food services industry. If you do better than the guests’ expectations, the use of this sword can quickly take you to success, by cutting through competition, and if you do badly than the guests’ expectations, the same double-edged sword can cut down on your revenues very quickly. Succinctly, the digital age has made the present day restaurant business, which of course includes the Indian restaurant business, much more responsive to the guests’ feedback than they were a decade before.

Naturally then the outcome of the continuation and further maturation of this digital age is extremely likely to make the guests more valued and revered for the food services business at large. “We can expect that in the Indian food services industry, especially in posh restaurants across metropolitan cities, reputation management would assume great importance in the future,” affirmed Mahajan. 

Of course, digital age has given the restaurateurs enough potential to escalate their revenues and profits within a short period of time. For example, through Facebook, restaurants/restaurant chains can promote their special packages or innovative events or the news of opening of a new outlet without incurring much cost. Social media is a much more affordable medium than print or electronic to promote your outlet. “The whole ecosystem of consuming and disseminating information has undergone complete change. These days we are very much dependent or rely on information on digital form. Most often we first get important news on social media. And expectedly, food service business which operate in the service sector, has been hugely impacted by it. The best thing about the social media is that it allows you to create relationship with your guests on a real time basis, transcending geographical boundaries,” opined Tanya Agrawal, Director, Shri Radha Brij Vaundhara Resort and Spa, located in Mathura. She believes that “Social media is an apt platform to talk about your new promotions and services, at almost negligible cost, to a large audience.” 

“Digitisation has been playing an important and interactive role in our restaurant business. You can now order from your favourite restaurant in a jiffy now, through apps! It is just a click away! Online portals pertaining to food service businesses also help you to get instant feedback, ratings, suggestions, etc., and thus the restaurateurs can now get the opportunity to improve and upgrade their product/s quickly. Moreover, in this digital age, your menus are reaching the market through these portals, which has the potential to get you a wider customer base. The online portals are enabling the restaurants to have wider awareness and reach,” aired Rajesh Khanna, F&B Head, The Metropolitan Hotel & Spa.

However, Tanya rightly pointed out the flip side of the digital age for the restaurant business. “Digital media is highly accessible in terms of airing of individual’s views, as compared to print or electronic media, and because of this there is high risk of somebody posting negative things about your outlet on an online platform or on multiple online platforms. No matter how genuine or non genuine that remark may be but it has the potential to reach nook or corner of the world in a matter of few seconds. So in this digital age, the food service outlets need to be on the guard all the time,” she stated.  We can say that as the digital media is much more democratic in character and is not dependent on geography, its reach and power can easily destablise or even demolish a restaurant business in very less time.

 

Going the Extra Mile

Especially, the computer savvy segment of younger generation is very much proactive on social media, and thus we can expect the Indian restaurant industry of the near future to specially tailor packages to attract young, upwardly mobile guests. But the challenge is that a great many of the young, Internet savvy guests who are fast moving through the Indian food services industry with impressive disposable incomes, are seldom easily satisfied.

Thus, in this digital age, simply providing good food and service in a pleasant ambience and decor or by simply providing what is expected of them is not likely to fetch the classy highly priced restaurants(consequently expectations are higher for them) much positive feedback on social media platforms in this age of increasing numbers of discerning guests. The guests and/or former guests must be sufficiently impressed to get induced to give positive feedback about these outlets on social media platforms, in sufficiently large numbers.

One of the ways is by going beyond the call of duty or going the extra mile or by being flexible towards customer satisfaction wherever or whenever it is feasible. For example, a family has come to dine at an outlet of a three-star hotel, which is focused on Indian food. The kid asks for a Chinese dish, which is not in the menu of the restaurant, and the hotel has only one restaurant. Now if the restaurant’s Chef manages to go out of his way and prepare the kid’s desired dish (if not on the same day but at least on the next day of the family’s stay at the hotel) that would not only pleasantly surprise the kid but gladden the heart of his parents too. Chances are they would write glowingly about the given restaurant on their Facebook platforms, along with posting of relevant photographs.

Similarly, if the expected time to deliver a given dish to the guests is 25 minutes, and if the food service outlet manages to deliver it in 12-15 minutes, without compromising on the quality of the dish, then the concerned guests are likely to be pleasantly surprised and be induced to post their positive feedback on their Facebook page.

Overall, we can say that even a small error on the part of restaurant business can affect its business adversely in this digital age, but in order to enhance footfalls or revenues by using the digital media platforms, the restaurateurs of the Indian food services industry need to trudge through the extra miles, of course with a smile on their faces. We can say that digital media is not perfectly neutral in character as far as food service industry goes; it is slightly biased in favour of the guests

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