Box’d, in Toronto, has been dubbed Canada’s first fully automated restaurant. (Courtesy of Box’d)

Ontario restaurants are going high-tech during COVID-19

The pandemic is driving a tech revolution in the restaurant industry. But how will that change the dining experience?

Servers wearing face masks, half-full dining rooms, Plexiglas installations between tables: dining out doesn’t look the same as it did before the pandemic. But these new physical-safety measures aren’t the only element of the restaurant experience that’s changing. 

QR-code menus and contactless ordering and payment systems are popping up at restaurants across the province as the dining industry turns to new technology for COVID-era service solutions.  

Sofia Santiso, marketing director for a group of Ottawa-area restaurants, says that switching to QR-code menus — digital menus that diners can scan and access on their phones — became a cost- and time-saving necessity for operating amid the pandemic. 

The group’s restaurants, which include Zak’s Diner and the Grand Pizzeria, initially switched to disposable menus to provide peace of mind for diners and to save on time spent repeatedly sanitizing reusable menus. The price of printing disposable menus, however, began to add up, she says: “It was costing me two grand a week, which I cannot justify.” 

Although it was the new health and safety challenges posed by the pandemic that initially prompted the restaurant group to try QR-code menus, Santiso says, the new system has proved useful for reasons that extend beyond COVID-19. 

“The main advantage is the ease with which you can alter your menu,” she says, adding that her restaurants can now showcase special holiday offerings or remove dishes that have sold out without needing to reprint menus. “In the past, let's say for Canada Day, I would have to take all my menus off the floor and print specific menus just for that one weekend. Now, that can happen easily and without a cost.” 

In Toronto, the Distillery Restaurants Corp. recently launched www.Distillery.Menu, a new ordering system developed with Sociavore, a Kitchener-based website builder and e-commerce platform geared toward restaurants. 

The platform allows diners seated in designated areas of the patio to place orders with four participating restaurants, pay for their meals, and tip directly from their phones or mobile devices. “I call it delivery-to-table,” says Rik Ocvrik, VP of the Distillery Restaurants Corp., which includes such restaurants as El Catrin and Madrina Bar y Tapas. Like Santiso, Ocvrik says that the integration of the new technology was driven by the pandemic but has produced an efficient system — one he can see the restaurants continuing to use over the long-term. “It’s worked so well, and there’s been such a positive reaction to it,” he says. “I think this is part of the new normal.” 

Ocvrik adds that most diners have been quick to take advantage of the new platform. “It’s pretty easy,” he says. “People love the idea of it, and it's fairly evident to most people how this stuff works.”

Contactless ordering and payment systems may make it easier for restaurants to promote physical distancing, minimize the cleaning of such touchpoints as debit machines and menus, and even speed up service, but do they take away from the personal element of the dining experience in the process?

Santiso says that, although the QR-code menus have been successful, her team is still considering whether to go one step further and implement a digital ordering system. “The big thing that we’ve always known is that food is a small part of the dine-out interaction,” she says. “The service, the social scene, the seeing-other-people is important.”

In the Distillery District, Ocvrik says, a hostess is onsite to help customers with ordering and to answer questions: “We’ve had to walk some people through the process who may not be as comfortable with the technology.” 

Toronto’s Box’d restaurant uses a similar approach, employing staff known as “concierges” to provide customer service onsite. At Box’d, which has been dubbed Canada’s first fully automated restaurant, diners place their order in advance via a mobile app or through an in-store kiosk. Digital status boards within the restaurant direct diners to cubbies to pick up their food when it’s ready. 

Karalyn White, marketing manager for Paramount Fine Foods, the restaurant group behind Box’d, says the concept was originally envisioned as a way to help time-strapped office workers grab quick lunches. Launched on the heels of the pandemic, Box’d instead ended up being an almost pre-emptive solution for providing physically distanced service. “When the pandemic hit, you would think that we had had a crystal ball,” she says. 

Although customers don’t interact with staff when placing their orders, the experience at Box’d isn’t impersonal, White says: “If anything, it’s increased the hospitality because the concierge can just speak to customers and talk to them about the menu, rather than having their head down in the [point-of-sale system].”

Instead of eliminating the human element of restaurant service, White says, Box’d is simply giving customers a choice as to whether they want to have that interaction with staff or not. “Even before COVID, if someone was in a rush for lunch, they didn’t necessarily want to ask questions,” she says. “It gives guests the opportunity to better personalize their experience.”

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