Just like diners, restaurateurs and all humans are social creatures, with strong inborn biological and neurological needs to interact. In fact, "Braving the Wilderness" author, Brene Brown explained that loneliness is as powerful a force as hunger or thirst. Put simply, interaction is not just something we "want," but truly something we absolutely "need" and restaurateurs would do well to keep that top of mind.
But lately I’ve seen a shift in the manner that consumers and restaurants interact, based largely on the changing dynamic between how and when food is consumed and consumer demand. This shift is showing itself in the form of a polarization within the restaurant space based on two completely separate dining motivations. One is convenience and the other is social.
When we look at the motivation of convenience, it largely stems from the increasing competition restaurants face from C-store offerings, food delivery services and the ever-more-accommodating grocery store around the block. And why shouldn’t these businesses vie for a piece of the restaurant pie? After all, they’ve learned by watching the restaurant industry that there’s a ton of pent-up consumer demand for quick and easy options when it comes to picking up and consuming food.
In turn, restaurants have responded to the increased competition by creating ever-more convenient options themselves, like the many manifestations now of take-out and delivery, along with all the other options that use technology to drive down transaction times to essentially zero.
Likewise, automated labor processes are here and growing in use, often under the belief that if a restaurant brand uses systems that involves less human labor at more convenience to guests, the overall customer experience improves. But, in all this rush to convenience, are we also sacrificing that other key dining motivator of human interaction?
Granted, today’s consumers are busier than ever and crave more convenient and affordable options to meet their dining needs. But in our quest to fulfill this call for convenience, are we missing out on the very reasons restaurants have become such an integral part of our society?
Technology can’t take the place of human interaction, because while we may communicate through technology, we can only truly connect face-to-face. So, I believe that when restaurant operators minimize customer-staff interaction, they are also minimizing a prime opportunity to create a positive brand touchpoint.
That interaction can be as simple as joking around with restaurant staff, or just getting verbal confirmation that a special order was actually received and executed. After all, in most cases, people want to be seen, known and even valued in others’ lives. That’s why I believe that building in these “touchpoint” opportunities is still critical to the restaurant operator’s overall success.
On the flip side, if most restaurateurs choose to replace all their opportunities for customer interaction and connection with faster, more efficient technological tools, are those restaurateurs or the restaurant industry in general really gaining in the long run? I would suggest that we might be losing that key "brand experience" by increasingly exchanging opportunities for customer-staff interaction with customer-technology interfaces. Ultimately though, this is a decision operators and owners must make for themselves, although the ripple effects of those decisions impact many more who work, socialize, eat and depend on their choices.