Flatbreads and fancy truffle mac-and-cheese aren't the only new trends in casual dining. The basics -- get seated, place your order, wait for your food, and pay -- haven't changed for ages. But for the first time in basically forever, that's all going into upheaval in 2015 -- and you're going to love it.
Technology is finally catching up
If you've ever worked in a restaurant, you know the secret to higher profits and happier customers is getting them in, served, and out fast to make room for new guests.
According to restaurant consulting firm Baum + Whiteman, technology will be "particularly transformative in 2015" and will be responsible for "upending the way dining works."
Maybe your transactions already make up part of of the 16% at Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) that are paid for by smartphone, or maybe you're part of the 40% to 45% of Domino's Pizza (NYSE:DPZ) or Papa John's (NASDAQ:PZZA) customers who order delivery using the companies' apps.
That basic concept is spreading now into casual restaurants and includes everything from ordering to entertainment. As Baum + Whiteman stated in this slideshow put together by Restaurant News, "Tables turn faster by eliminating downtime, during which little happens and customers start fidgeting."
The firm even sees a page being taken out of the casino playbook that includes facial recognition software to get patrons their drinks in crowded places. Screaming "John" or "Jennifer" and having five heads turn in Starbucks may soon be so 2014.
Let's take a look at five restaurants that will step up their efforts in tech in 2015. First up, Starbucks. According to CEO Howard Schultz in the latest conference call, "Starbucks is today an uncontested leader in mobile." Next year, the chain will launch "Mobile Order and Pay," so your super-customized mocha latte is hot and waiting for you the second you show up and already paid for, similar to the pizza delivery apps. Waiting in line will soon be old school.
In a word, the first thing Domino's, Papa John's, and Starbucks are noticing is "loyalty." Once a customer uses an app once, even just to pay, that customer tends to come back for more and skips the mom-and-pop competitors.
All of these advantages could be particularly important for an always crowded place like Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG). Earlier this year during their January call, Chipotle execs discussed experimenting with mobile pay in some markets.
Co-CEO Steve Ells said the company anticipates that the new point-of-sale systems to accept mobile would cost only a few hundred dollars per restaurant. CFO Jack Hartung added, "There is a lot of activity going on in mobile payments, and we want to be part of that." With the most recent call, Hartung envisioned a move toward digital ordering as well, with revenue from that channel contributing up to 10% of overall sales.
Then you have Chili's, which is almost there already. The Brinker International (NYSE:EAT) chain plans to complete the installation of table tablets in all of its domestic locations by the end of this month. Guests can order drinks and desserts, play games, and pay their bill. Brinker is finding that guests spend more, get out sooner, and leave happier. DineEquity's Applebee's is also on-board with installing tablets at the table. The next phase Brinker is looking to roll out is connecting with smartphones.
Two more examples are sports-bar chains Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD) and BJ's Restaurants (NASDAQ:BJRI). You've heard of call-ahead seating, right? BJ's Restaurants is now rolling out app-ahead seating, complete with ordering and paying capability all from your smartphone or tablet.
Imagine your party of four shows up just in time for the big game, and four pints of beer and a variety of appetizers preordered from your home are already there waiting for you.
Buffalo Wild Wings is wild about what it's rolling out as well. Right now its in-house tablets offer just games and trivia, but the plan is for the ability to order and pay in every company-owned location by the end of next year and in 75% of the chain systemwide.
No longer will you have to take your eyes off the big game and try to flag down a server in a crowded, noisy atmosphere -- you'll be a click or two away from getting your pint glass or wing basket refilled. Try finding that at a mom-and-pop sports bar.
If Domino's and Papa John's are any guide, technology could start a new boom for the large casual-chain companies. The two pizza giants have been seeing an absolute explosion in sales the past few years thanks to digital ordering and payments. Don't be surprised if casual, fast-casual, and even quick-service dining sees a further uptick or revival in sales with these tech upgrades.
Nickey Friedman owns shares of Buffalo Wild Wings. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, BJ's Restaurants, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Google (A and C shares), Netflix, and Starbucks and owns shares of Apple, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Google (A and C shares), Netflix, Papa John's International, and Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.