In recent weeks, I’ve received a number of press releases about new phone apps that relate to the food world. One of them exists specifically to help diners find oysters in their city. Another, announced with great fanfare from Outback Steakhouse, will allow customers to put their names on waiting lists at the (non) Aussie eatery, as well as pay with the app before leaving the restaurant. Fast food spots are making their own apps so diners can order ahead.
It’s hard to see how any of these apps are likely to do much to change the way we eat or dine. The time and money being invested by behemoths such as Outback and McDonald’s to get into the technology game is depressing. The urge to seem with-the-times is understandable (particularly for chains that are losing market share rapidly, as almost all big chains are these days), but entire apps that let you do something vaguely quicker than before — and for only one restaurant — will never succeed.
A few weeks ago, OpenTable (an app that actually provides something — reservations — across many restaurants, cities and countries) released findings from a study about what diners want from technology. And the results ought to serve as a lesson to folks throwing resources at what may be a losing proposition.
The study, the results of which were reported by Nation's Restaurant News, found that diners are interested in using technology as it relates to dining (an obvious finding, given those being questioned were already OpenTable users). But the stat that stuck out to me was that 56 percent of respondents said they are either unlikely or very unlikely to download an app for an individual restaurant, and only 6 percent responded that they were very likely to do so.
So what do they use technology for? Finding restaurants, looking at menus, reading reviews from other diners and reading reviews from professional critics. Of those things, Yelp and OpenTable cover two of the four, and Google covers the other two, though there might be some room for an app that aggregates professional reviews. I somehow doubt it. (Also, this only strengthens the long-argued point that all restaurants should have mobile-friendly websites that make reading the menu and finding contact information simple. Trying to aggregate that info over a city full of restaurants likely would be similar to herding cats.)
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Some of the wishes of customers were interesting but also seemed untenable — for instance, 68 percent of diners said they'd be interested in technology that allowed them to choose their own table. Anyone who has worked as a restaurant host and understands the Jenga-like puzzle of a seating chart would understand what a disaster technology-enhanced, self-serve seating would be. Though if you could come up with an algorithm to replace that puzzle (and probably the job of host altogether), you might be in business. You could even charge for better tables, like the scam of airplane seating. Actually, never mind. Terrible idea. (Seriously, please don't do this.)
Apps take up precious space on people's phones. Info that can easily be found online (such as where to get oysters in a given city) will never be reason enough to convince people to take up that precious space. There is genuine competition right now for which food-delivery app will come out on top, but once one of them corners the market and gets the most restaurant participants, that game will be done. No one who has launched a reservation app since OpenTable became the dominant force in that field has fared particularly well.
Apps are at their best when they provide us with an alternative to a system that doesn't work (like L.A.'s taxi service) or is too expensive for many of us (like hotels). Perhaps they give voice to the public's desire to criticize and praise (Yelp) or reveal our inner photographer (Instagram). Making reservations at restaurants was always notoriously frustrating — would they answer the phone? Would they be rude or unaccommodating? Would you have to wait on hold? OpenTable fixed that frustration.
If you're going to spend time and energy and money developing an app, make sure it's actually solving real problems or giving folks an outlet they don't already have. Giving me a fancy way to do things in your restaurant that I could already easily do is not the future. If anything, it just makes companies seem out of touch.