Tech, Please: Should It Be An Accent Feature?

Technology is a significant presence on the restaurant landscape–but does it take top billing or is it primarily an accent feature?

Millennials’ preferences and priorities are influencing the way restaurants are designed, built and operated.

Successful restaurateurs understand the importance of staying in touch with ever-changing and constantly evolving consumer preferences. That is particularly critical today, with the growing influence of tech savvy millennials–who have very different expectations for their dining experience than their parents’ generation.

From what’s on the menu, to how you order it, to the overall design and aesthetic sensibility of the space, millennials’ preferences and priorities are influencing the way restaurants are designed, built and operated. Restaurant designers and architects need to be particularly cognizant and responsive to the ways in which technology is (and is not) influencing restaurant design and operation. Accounting for these changing preferences and emerging trends–all while balancing the owner’s vision alongside well operations and functionality requirements–take both a skilled hand and a sophisticated understanding of how to accommodate conflicting priorities in the restaurant design process.

Technology and experience

Some hospitality companies have begun replacing employees with machines when possible (kiosk ordering, table tablet ordering, etc.) creating real uncertainty about how such an economic model will fare in the years ahead.

However don’t expect to be placing your tableside order with robots anytime soon, as the implementation of iPad menus dropped off about as quickly as it caught on. Diners simply weren’t interested. If anything, we are seeing a pushback with less technology–particularly in restaurants in the hospitality space. Hand-crafted is back in vogue (witness the growing popularity of the craft cocktail), and many restaurant concepts are embracing a retro, “old-school” approach that is more service oriented–focusing less on technology and more people and interaction.

Technically speaking

While technology might not be quite the dominant force in dining some may have predicted just a few years ago, there’s no question that tech still plays a prominent role in restaurant design and operation. Restaurant technology these days has about a three-year lifespan–that is very different from as recently as a decade ago, when restaurants could purchase a handful of big screen and consider themselves set for many years to come.

Ultimately, technology is not an authentic experience–it’s an ephemeral one.

Today the AV component is also significantly costlier than ever before. The basic features haven’t really changed, but there is much more demand for very high end sound and picture quality. Sound quality is something that has become more of a priority in recent years. Restaurants have been used to bringing in professional lighting designers for a long time now, and AV is moving in that direction. Consider that the tech infrastructure of a restaurant used to be a cable box and a TV on the wall. Now you need a full server rack in a closet or extra room, as well as integrated wiring and speakers. Restaurant tech today cannot be an afterthought: it has to be integrated during the design and development process.

Now trending

The influential and much-discussed Millennial generation continues to wield outsized influence in the restaurant world. To millennials, an authentic experience is key; inauthenticity is a killer. Millennials are generally willing to spend money, but you have to deliver the experience and make it worth their while. From a design perspective, that authenticity and higher-end materials and experiential environment comes with a higher price tag. There is more attention paid to the crafting of materials, with reclaimed wood and items that seem to have their own story growing in popularity. Technology is more powerful, but less obvious, design not to stand out, but to blend in. Detail-oriented design and repurposed materials are a big deal, and contrasts also play well: mixing a reclaimed wood table with a fine, hand-stitched leather booth, for example.

Vision and Value

The ability to work with an owner to realize their vision can go a long way toward helping to elevate the guest experience. The best restaurateurs are really passionate about customer experience and have a clear vision of what they want. The job of a professional restaurant designer/architect is to manifest that vision–to coordinate all the moving parts and bring it all to life. Technology is one of those moving parts, but it has to be thoughtfully balanced. If a restaurant overspends on tech (without adjusting its budget), the quality of the finishes is what suffers.

Ultimately, technology is not an authentic experience–it’s an ephemeral one. Tech is more important then ever, but it is still primarily a complementary piece of the restaurant puzzle: a way to improve service and experience­–not define it.