Digital menus here to drive restaurant ordering

We’ve seen a lot of changes in the restaurant scene since the first lockdown. A lot of them are bad: fewer items on offer because of supply shortages, and some favourite places permanently closed because they simply can’t afford to stay in business. Some, like booking deposits, are interesting products of a time when health concerns preclude restaurants from seating to their full capacity. A change that was already picking up steam and is sure to stick around even when COVID restrictions are gone is the digital menu. With shared menus out of use for fear of spreading the virus, many places have turned to printing single use paper menus. Perhaps they get recycled after, perhaps they end up in the rubbish bin. Either way, they take a lot of ink and a lot of effort. Digital menus, meanwhile, can be contactless, residing on diners’ smartphones.

COVID safe

Stevan Premutico, founder of restaurant booking app Dimmi (now TheFork), launched me&u prior to the pandemic as a way to personalise the dining experience. Diners could download a restaurant’s menu and filter for dietary preferences, e.g. vegetarians could choose to see only the vegetarian options.

At the time, Premutico saw time-saving as the app’s most important feature. “At Dimmi we disrupted the way we book our favourite restaurants. Now we will disrupt the way we order and pay,” he said when me&u launched. “It’s clear Aussies love to eat in restaurants, but the way we order and pay is terribly clunky and antiquated, whether that be trying to catch the waiter’s attention to order, waiting for the bill at the end of the night, or the awkwardness of splitting the bill. It simply shouldn’t take five minutes to pay a bill! We will fix that.”

That convenience will help digital menus stick around for a long time. What’s most important right now is that me&u can streamline contactless ordering and payment, making dining just that much safer. With many menu questions answered already, it can cut down on the amount of tableside interactions with servers, a particularly vulnerable moment in the dining process because eaters tend to not be wearing masks at the table and putting one back on to ask the server a question or two is inconvenient and thus unlikely to happen often.

The system also makes life easier for servers amidst a staff shortage, allowing them to provide quality service whilst some of the labour-intensive data entry is automated. Several thousand restaurants and pubs have made inquiries with me&u, which receives a commission on orders placed through the service.

Fast Food

In what Restaurant Dive hailed as the deal of the year for 2019, McDonald’s purchased AI company Dynamic Yield a year before the pandemic hit. The digital menu boards, first rolled out in Australia and the US, proved successful pre-pandemic, with the fourth quarter seeing record highs in Macca’s customer satisfaction.

As with me&u, the elements of convenience and personalisation play key roles. Via machine learning, the digital menus in-store and at the drive-thru can make order recommendations based on the weather, time of day, and what’s trending. At the drive-thru, they can even recognise vehicle number plates and recommend items based on order history and what you might like to try next. As always with this kind of technology, there is potential for abuse of privacy, but Dynamic Yield assures only customers who have opted in will have their plates scanned.

The digital menu boards also know how impatient we can be, so not only do they help people order more quickly, when queues at the drive-thru start to back up they recommend items that are faster to prepare.

Macca’s success has triggered a wave of other fast food chains joining the party, partnering with their own tech firms or developing internal technology, making digital menu boards a permanent fixture.

“Our belief is those who aren’t investing in technology, at some point will be behind and will need to catch up,” McDonald’s CFO Kevin Ozan told investors in October. “And we’d rather be a little bit ahead of the curve and spend the right amount that we think will drive future growth.”

By getting out in front, they’ve once again changed the game.