The last five years have seen some dramatic changes in the way we dine out, the expectations we have of our favorite restaurants and even what we like to eat. In addition, the culture surrounding technology has changed the dining-out experience in some subtle and some very noticeable ways:
• Immediate gratification. Restaurateurs are having to change their systems both in the front and back of the house to accommodate larger numbers of people who show up at the restaurant without a reservation, expect to be seated and served with no wait. Sylvia Moubayed of CAV Restaurant told me that on a recent Friday night, there were reservations for only 16 when the night started, but by the end of the evening, the place was packed. CAV seats more than 150 patrons.
This means the restaurant management has to reconfigure its staffing needs for the evening with servers on call to cover later rush hours. Multiunit restaurant operations can shift staffers between or among locations as traffic flow dictates.
• Social media dictating choice and price. Paul Shire, chef and proprietor of 2 Pauls City Grille in East Providence has a different take on technology, specifically the growth of online and social media marketing. He said, “It used to be food writers and columnists were the primary way a restaurant would be reviewed. Now anyone with a computer can write anything and have a platform.”
The groundswell surrounding on-line review websites such as Yelp has affected the restaurant industry right down to the daily operation of an individual place. At a minimum, virtually every restaurant makes it a daily practice to check the review sites for feedback. Some restaurateurs in other parts of the country have attempted “best defense is a good offense” approach to blunt the effects of potentially damaging reviews. One West Coast operator after such a negative review on a consumer-driven site ironically was on the receiving end of even more bad publicity when he responded aggressively to the reviewer, whom he suspected of being a competitor.
Shire also acknowledges the discount and rewards programs that have become so prevalent. On my radio show, he said such come-ons can give chains and larger restaurants an advantage over standalone places like his. The challenge with the half-price couponing programs is meeting the expectation of those consumers who are frequent users.