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The Digital Divide: 3 Reasons Why Some Restaurants Outperform Others As restaurants take steps toward recovery and set the stage for post-pandemic growth, it's critical that they continually evaluate their execution in three key areas that can affect where they land in the widening digital divide.

By Brendan Sweeney Edited by Chelsea Brown

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

For two years, restaurants have faced a relentlessly challenging environment fraught with uncertainty, significant operational changes and supply chain disruptions — not to mention a labor shortage that is costing 71% of restaurants $5,000 or more per month.

So, how have restaurants survived, and even thrived, with the odds stacked against them? The pandemic shined a spotlight on two important factors influencing business performance: 1) the remarkable resilience of restaurant owners and staff and 2) their level of technology usage.

Whether they pivoted to online ordering or re-engineered dining room experiences, restaurants that were already more tech-enabled or quicker to adopt new technologies tended to bounce back faster and withstand additional curveballs as Covid variants made their way through the Greek alphabet.

Seemingly temporary solutions became core to operations, and the increased reliance on technology will continue as restaurants look to boost guest volume, efficiency, sales and profitability. A Popmenu study of 415 U.S. restaurant owners and operators found that 51% plan to automate more online operations in 2022 and 41% plan to automate more on-premise operations.

As restaurants take steps toward recovery and set the stage for post-pandemic growth, it is critical that they continually evaluate their execution in three key areas that can affect whether they land on the higher-performing side of a widening digital divide.

Related: This Is What People Want in a Post-Pandemic Restaurant Experience

Digital divider #1 – Online menus

Hands down, the online menu is the most important and most underutilized sales asset for a restaurant. A text-only or PDF experience is not going to do a menu justice and will likely cost a restaurant some business: 30% of U.S. consumers said that if they visit a restaurant's website on their mobile device — which most consumers do — and they see a PDF menu, they will move on to another restaurant.

Quick tips:

  • Offer an interactive menu with enticing photos, descriptions and the ability to review dishes. Imagine visiting Amazon to buy a pair of shoes, and there are no photos or written details. Chances are, those shoes won't make it into the shopping cart. The same goes for ordering meals. According to Popmenu's research on over 2 million online orders, dishes with photos receive twice as many orders and four times as many reviews.

  • Leverage the menu for search engine optimization (SEO). Each dish should be set up as a unique and indexed page for search engines. When a restaurant updates the menu, adds new dishes or has reviews posted, that automatically signals search engines that there is new information to read. This helps the restaurant to appear higher in search results and increase website traffic, and the interactive experience helps to increase customer conversions.

  • Integrate with Google Business Profile. Google owns the vast majority of search engine marketing share, and nearly half of all Google searches are local, like "restaurants near me."

By implementing an SEO-driven online menu and website, The Hampton Social, a coastal-inspired, multi-location restaurant group in Illinois, Florida and Tennessee, experienced a 63% increase in average monthly website sessions within three months (reaching over 285,000) and more than doubled the value of its organic traffic keywords to over $520,000. Texas-based upscale steakhouse, B&B Butchers & Restaurant, drove over $450,000 in online orders since expanding digital capabilities during the pandemic.

Related: These 3 Restaurant Franchises Thrived During the Pandemic. Here's What to Learn From Their Successes

Digital divider #2 – Marketing … or lack thereof

Many restaurants do not have dedicated marketing staff, and a lack of time and resources can hinder the ability to attract and re-engage guests. While marketing can seem complex and costly, so much of it is just staying in front of guests with "craveable" assets. A lot can be automated — and at a manageable price point.

Quick tips:

  • Send automated text messages signaled by guest behavior. When a guest places an order, likes a certain dish or leaves a review, automatically send a follow-up message with a special promotion to incentivize future business. Make sure to invite guests to become a VIP so they can receive exclusive offers, invites to events and other perks.

  • Stay social. 45% of consumers have tried a restaurant because of a social media post by the establishment. Share info on new dishes, happy hours, trivia nights, wine tastings, guest experiences, etc., posting at least twice a week if not every day.

The Chori-Man, known for chorizo-making artisans in southern California, is very active on social media and other digital marketing channels. They bring their staff and customers into their story and leverage user-generated photos and content in addition to professional visuals. From 2020-2021, The Chori-Man attracted twice as many monthly visitors as they had the previous year and saw a 40% increase in their Instagram following, which is now over 20,000.

Related: Food For Thought: Restaurants Go Digital To Survive and Thrive

Digital divider #3 – On-premise execution

Once thought of as a barrier to building guest relationships, technology is now being embraced as a facilitator as restaurants navigate safety mandates and talent deficits. From QR-based, contactless dining on-premise to AI-enabled phone answering, restaurants are continually engaging guests even when they can't be in front of them.

Quick tips:

  • Be available 24/7. Two-in-five consumers (42%) say, if they call to make a reservation at a restaurant and they get voicemail, they immediately move on to another restaurant. Restaurants can now use AI technology to answer common questions as well as customized ones for their business. AI technology can also send the caller a link to the restaurant's menu, send a link to make a reservation and record voicemails via text so owners can instantly view priority messages.
  • Use waitlisting as a marketing tool. With new tech, guests automatically receive a link to the menu when they add themselves to a waitlist via a QR code or the restaurant's website. After the meal, guests are invited to submit a review and follow the restaurant, so ongoing engagement is automated.

The Deck on Laguna Beach in California uses automation to support its oceanfront dining experience, ensuring customer inquiries are addressed even if they can't get to the phone. In 30 days, AI-enabled technology answered 1,658 calls, covering everything from restaurant hours and location to reservations and ordering information.

Consumers became accustomed to new ways of doing things during the pandemic with 75% expecting restaurants to offer more digitally-enabled experiences both online and on-premise going forward. As the industry works toward sustained recovery, restaurants that are leaning into technology to drive greater connections and convenience are poised to perform better.

Brendan Sweeney

CEO and Co-founder of Popmenu

Brendan Sweeney is the CEO and Co-founder of Popmenu, a leader in digital marketing, ordering and on-premise technology that works with over 10,000 independent restaurants and hospitality groups. Sweeney specializes in building solutions that help restaurants grow traffic, sales and profitability.

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