May I Start You Off With Some Apps?: Restaurants Put Mobile Strategy on the Table

Mobile Restaurants

The foodservice industry isn’t well-known for embracing technology, but today’s restaurants, particularly quick-service ones, are diving headfirst into mobile and demonstrating that a little innovation can go a long way toward customer satisfaction.
Burger King is rolling out a mobile app to allow customers to place orders, redeem coupons and pay with their smartphones. In the fast casual category, dining chains including Panera, BJ’s and Chili’s are also embracing mobile and reaping the rewards.
Seeking a competitive edge in the mobile race, McDonald’s just opened a new office in San Francisco geared toward digital innovation. They’ve already nabbed engineers from PayPal, Facebook, AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft Xbox to design the products, services and campaigns that they hope will drive customer engagement, particularly on mobile. They’re also testing out mobile payments in the U.S., following an international rollout.
Whether you’re in the foodservice industry or not, there’s plenty to learn from this growing trend among restaurants of using mobile to boost customer satisfaction, employee productivity and business success. We took a look at the restaurants that are leading the way in using mobile to improve operations and better connect with customers.

The Special Sauce for Store Productivity

A long line at the cash register might seem like an analog problem, but technology could provide a solution. Retailers who use mobile to reduce service bottlenecks can ultimately serve more people, more quickly, improving the customer experience.
One of the early players in mobile, Panera, has invested $42 million in technology upgrades to allow customers to order and pay by smartphone or via in-store iPads, in an effort to speed up ordering, boost sales and gather customer data to steer business strategy. Shorter wait times, Panera predicts, will be the difference between keeping a customer happy and watching them walk across the street to dine with a competitor.

Swiping Toward Customer Satisfaction

When you think beyond the sales transaction, a whole new world of opportunity to engage customers opens up with mobile. Dining staff have a critical role to play in defining the customer experience, but they can’t be everywhere at once and, at peak times, service can sometime slip. That’s where mobile comes in.
With an eye to creating an experience that beats out the competition, Chili’s is rolling out table-top tablets with apps that allow customers to order and pay for food, leave feedback and even play games or read the news at the table. Not only do tablets at the table speed service, they add a layer or entertainment to make the dining experience more enjoyable. The restaurant chain will also use data gathered via the tablets to improve store operations and boost performance.

Embrace the “MVP”

With mobile earning a spot on the priority list for several of the largest restaurants chains in the world, the impetus is on latecomers to get in the game quickly and nimbly. We’ve advocated for the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach before, and as the industry is still in the early stages of the experiment, it’s a particularly effective way to get apps out in the wild and start exploring how consumers respond.
BJ’s recently launched a mobile app that allows customers to order ahead, pay by phone and nab “prefered status” on the waitlist. The most impressive part is they were able to do this for a relatively low up-front investment (“in the tens of thousands”) using an agile approach to development and iterating based on customer feedback. Early results show customers using mobile are already leaving higher tips. Sounds like a win to us.
BJ’s is a great example to follow, particularly for those who can’t out-compete a multi-billion dollar company like McDonald’s on development resources.

The Customer is Always Right

What customers do is just as important as what they say, and with mobile, restaurants can capture data on both fronts. This translates into valuable insight that can improve everything from staffing to service to menu options, by catering to what a specific store and its customers really want. In other words, it translates into productivity and profit.
One thing the companies described above have in common is that they’re not just doing mobile for the sake of it; they’re in it for the data. Early results are turning up positive, but it will be essential for these companies to hone their analytics over time and constantly adapt their strategies. Its important not only to understand how customers behave in the store, but also how they’re interacting with the mobile apps themselves.
Whether the investment is large like McDonald’s and Panera or relatively small like BJ’s, it’s time for businesses to put mobile in their customers’ and employees’ hands. With the right strategy and approach to analytics, the investment will pay off.

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  1. In Brazil we have another case for restaurants, using Appcelerator, called “Instaurant” ( It´s really the next generation, and Titanium is the root to turn it viable.


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