Josh Phillips swore he would never employ a contactless platform or app because he wasn’t sure how it would be received. “My original hesitation was always ‘how would guests react to ordering on their phone?’”
But that all changed when the Covid-19 pandemic began wreaking havoc on the hospitality industry. “At that point we couldn’t afford to hire back servers, as our sales were still recovering and most of our servers had moved out of D.C. anyway,” recalls the partner and president of Destination Unknown Restaurants, based in Washington, D.C.
After initial attempts to implement a proprietary ordering system proved to be cumbersome at best, they started using GoTab at Espita, a Southern Mexican restaurant and mezcaleria, and its ghost restaurant Ghostburger.
GoTab is one of the platforms along with others like Toast, Koomi and HungerRush that bring the POS device directly to the customer’s smartphone, allowing them to order and pay via an app or website. Founded in Arlington, Virginia in 2016, GoTab is now available in restaurants, bars, hotels and breweries in more than 35 states. Since March of 2020, the company has seen a 7,000 percent increase in transaction volume. Proponents of the app tout its efficiency in streamlining operations, while critics see it as another way technology encroaches on human interaction, something the industry has traditionally thrived on.
According to GoTab co-founder Tim McLaughlin, “safe” was never really a design goal for the platform, “convenient” was. But early in the Covid-19 crisis, McLaughlin predicted how using contactless tools and apps could allow servers and bartenders to make better use of the time they would normally spend getting orders to the kitchen, tallying bills and processing payments. “Savvy operators [can] strike the right balance between creating an experience with just enough socially distanced human interaction,” he says, like having a mixologist “touch the table” before a customer orders a cocktail online, and a sommelier swinging by after the main course and wine were served to see what diners think of the pairing.
That’s precisely what happened at Espita, where management rethought the role of the server. “By shifting the mechanics of serving to GoTab, our servers are now entirely focused on hospitality,” Phillips says. “Making recommendations and telling the story of the restaurant, ensuring they are enjoying their meal and have the things they need to enjoy their experience.” Staff has more time to work the floor, educating guests about mezcal, helping them create customized flights and decide on food partners.
Evan Charest, owner and director of operations of Severance, a fondue restaurant that recently moved its location to the Palihotel Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, agrees that contactless ordering and payment tools can actually add to the visit— when done well. At Severance, as well as their attached coffee shop, The Darkest Cup, staff use the Toast POS for online and table ordering. Handheld devices are available for those who prefer not to use their phone; payment is done with the QR code on the check or handheld tablet with the server.
“We adjusted our steps of service to work alongside digital ordering,” explains Charest. Servers are available to guide diners through the menu, answer questions and help educate. “But physical ordering can be on your own timeline and terms.”
Since implementing Toast, Charest and the team have noticed a shift in the entire notion of hospitality towards more of a holistic approach. “We think of it more as aggregate service, where the needs of the entire dining room are prioritized over the needs of any given table.” Automating ordering and payment— traditionally the two most time-sensitive parts of a customer interaction— now come with a lower stress level of service. And checks have jumped an average of 20% versus tables that use hardcopy menus, says Charest.
Greg Frazer, Vice President of hospitality for Stone Brewing in Escondido, California, first became aware of contactless ordering and payment methods when he traveled to China, where digital payment was far more prevalent than in the U.S. Right before the pandemic temporarily shuttered locations, he implemented GoTab at several Stone Brewing locations, including two large format restaurants in San Diego.
When management reopened, they decided to transition completely to the platform to serve customers in a safe way. As a result, they’ve been able to add a manager and cicerone visit to every table. “We can bring back the focus to our history, our innovations and what makes a craft pour exceptional,” Frazer says.
To offset the number of times that a staff member might approach a table, they’re now putting more emphasis on entrances and exits, assigning staff to welcome guests, walk them through the ordering process and answer questions.
No matter the contactless platform used, Frazer believes high-quality, well-lit and attractive photos of beverages and dishes is key to making the menu pop. “If you don’t have the server talking about the specials, you really need a nice photo and description.” For Phillips, the impact of great images is so vital, Destination Unknown Restaurants hired a full-time photographer to capture the Oaxacan dishes on their menu.
The overall takeaway, according to Charest, is that contactless solutions originally implemented for the safety of diners and staff are proving to deliver much more. “Our staff can finally focus on the guest experience,” he says. “It’s allowed us to offer a more enlightened approach.”