Predicting Customer Expectations for the Restaurant Experience in 2017

As 2016 winds down, people are already looking to see what next year brings. For restaurant owners and GMs, this means finding out which trends will be sweeping across the industry. It’s true every restaurant has its own niche with its own marketing needs and its own customer base.  But there is one thing for certain–technology and the ever coveted “experience” are going to be playing a larger part in the day to day operations than ever before. In addition to these two budding trends, increasing demand for healthier choices and flavors from around the world are also on the customers’ expectation list for 2017.

Technology is the vital edge that small, independent restaurants need to compete against some of the larger chains. The numbers don’t lie. While the future of the restaurant business as a whole looks promising, the number of independent restaurants dropped by three percent as the big chains grew by 1%. While it’s true that most diners prefer eating at a nice local place, they will more often than not err on the side of caution and stick to the chains. These choices in eateries are less about loyalty and more about consistency and simplicity. So to compete, the little guy needs to develop a robust marketing strategy.

Technology’s role goes beyond having a website with hours and location and actively engaging customers on review sites. This shift is moving towards a day to day hands on approach. A growing number of clients have come to expect some form of direct interaction, and that interaction is centered around mobile apps.

But the trends aren’t all technological, quality and “taste” is also on the list of customer demands for 2017.  Here are some of the major trends on the horizon. 

Loyalty Programs

Loyalty programs are nothing new, but what is new is how they’re being implemented. More restaurants are forgoing the old punch cards, and switching to a mobile app to handle customer loyalty. The main draw is that it’s easier for the customer and the restaurant. Customers don’t have to keep track of a business card, and the restaurants get data and can better track their customer’s spending habits. A mobile app with a loyalty program will tell an owner exactly when a client comes in, and what they ordered. All a punch card shows you is that a customer ate there X number of times, assuming they cash it in and don’t lose it.

Healthy Alternatives

Not every restaurant is geared towards a healthy lifestyle. A mom and pop pizza joint or a diner specializing in gourmet burgers is serving comfort food that is far better for the soul than the heart. That said, even those places can offer some healthy alternatives.

Healthy choices go beyond having an obligatory salad or two on the menu. The healthy dish has to be as good as anything else on the menu. It should be as much of a mouthwatering choice for the health-conscious customer as the specialties are for everyone else. The last thing you want is your patrons leaving feeling like they were left out for not ordering the triple bacon cheese-monster burger.

For decades, the general idea behind the science of restaurant food was to find ways to give it the longest possible shelf life. Stories about pink slime burgers and GMO hysteria have pushed many diners away from the idea of processed food. Instead, they are opting for fresh and organic.

Mobile App Ordering

People still dine out while on the go, and they want to spend as little time and effort as possible ordering their meal. This constant go, go, go lifestyle will only pick up as the economy continues to rebound. Mobile apps compliment this lifestyle better than anything else out there. All users need to do is tap a few buttons on their device, and their order gets made. This simplicity doesn’t just apply to take out. People can use their apps to order lunch, and by the time they make it to the restaurant, their food is ready. It saves both the diner and the restaurant time since there is no waiting for the food.

Note that ordering through a mobile app is not the same thing as ordering via a website. Web sites require logins, are less streamlined, and don’t offer that instant and quick access to the ordering process than an app does.

Exotic Spices

One effect from the foodie craze is the surge in popularity in exotic spices like berbere and tsire. It isn’t just the entrees that diners want to have an extra flare. Having these spices show up in desserts and cocktails is also becoming a trend. The spice trend also creates a synergy with the healthy eating trend since many of these exotic spices are considered “super foods” that many of the health conscious seek out.

The Experience

About 40 percent of consumers, especially millennials, would rather have an experience than buy a physical good. Included in the experience column is eating at a restaurant. A dining experience doesn’t mean that a quiet family diner has to turn into a three-ring circus, but your restaurant does have to offer something to get the patron in and keep them coming back. 

The best advice is for restaurants to keep being themselves without trying too hard to be something. People can see through that sort of act, especially millennials. Sell what you are, and create value through quality. Sticking to the local and individual charm differentiates you from the big chains and smaller competitors.

Mobile Reservations

Like with mobile ordering, people want things simple. If all a patron of your restaurant has to do is click a few buttons to make a reservation, they are much more likely to do this than they are to call. An app-based reservation system is also more efficient for the restaurant.

Hold the Cola

Soda consumption in the US has dropped every year for the past decade. People are more health conscious and want to avoid the high amounts of sugar found in most colas. The traditional alternative was diet soda, but those have also declined in popularity. Attractive options that people are asking for in restaurants are flavored sparkling waters and ready-to-drink (RTD) teas.

Push Notifications

How many times have we looked up from our busy lives, and realized that we haven’t eaten at one of our favorite restaurants in months? By the time we manage to head out that way and remedy the situation, we find out they closed. It’s a sadly familiar story, but push notifications can rewrite it and give diners and restaurants the happy ending they want.

Push notifications, when they aren’t overdone or spammy, are an excellent way to engage with customers. They can see notices for things like lunch specials or special events during happy hour. A restaurant that has a constant flow of new menu items, like a variety of craft beers, can use push notifications to let people know when an old favorite comes back, or something new goes on tap.

Enhancing the Experience

The bottom line is this, a dining experience enhanced with the convenience of technology tops the list of customer expectations for the up and coming year.  However, the new generation of diners have a need for the right now; they also have a taste for the unique.  Some of the patterns, like an increased demand for exotic spices, coupled with some healthy options should be placed on your radar as well.  Without a doubt, 2017 has a lot to offer your business, just make sure you can provide your customers what they want so that they keep coming back.