The pandemic is shaping the future of fast food restaurants | QSR Media | QSR news for Australia's quick service restaurant industry.

The pandemic is shaping the future of fast food restaurants

By Simon Foley

This year marks 100 years since the first real fast food restaurant in the world opened its doors.

Walt Anderson and Billy Ingram had the idea of selling small, square hamburgers for five cents apiece. With $700 in capital they opened their first White Castle restaurant in Wichita, Kansas in 1921 and started the fast food revolution.

The pair gifted the industry some innovations that remain with us today. Their easy-to-eat burgers were dubbed ‘sliders’, which still feature on menus everywhere. In 1929, White Castle started selling their sliders “by the sack”. The concept of ‘carry-out’ or “take-away” fast food was born.

Since then the titans of fast food, from McDonalds and KFC to Dominos and Subway, have all brought their own innovations to the quick-service restaurant (QSR) market, including the drive- thru, self service kiosks, mobile apps and home delivery services.

But the arrival of Covid-19 triggered a wave of innovation in QSR that, by necessity, has changed the nature of the fast food business. At Fingermark™, we have seen unprecedented demand over the past year for our products, which range from our EyeCue™ drive-thru optimisation system to our restaurant kiosks and smart digital displays.

From the US to Australia, the UAE to New Zealand, our customers have faced the same challenges in trying to run their businesses while accommodating social distancing requirements and fluctuating demand resulting from stay-at-home orders. The last year has tested the resilience of the industry, but also created a prime opportunity for rapid innovation that promises to enhance the customer experience for fast food lovers everywhere.

Here are four key trends that we see defining the next decade of QSR innovation:

1. Order however you like: Let’s face it, until early last year, stepping up to the counter, using a kiosk or heading for the drive-thru were the big three ordering channels for fast food consumers. Now the QSR industry has to accommodate a wider range of options, including QR-code based apps, click and collect and curbside pick-up services. The customer experience now needs to be seamless across all engagement options available to customers.

2. Restaurants will get smaller: Before the pandemic, many diners opted to eat in, unwilling to sit in drive-thru queues or deal with mobile ordering and home delivery apps. Covid-19 saw dining in ruled out as an option and the QSR industry stepped up, improving drive-thru efficiency and simplifying home delivery, and click and collect services. Those service improvements will see alternatives to dining in continue to grow in popularity. That means less restaurant real estate for diners and more space devoted to multiple drive-thru lanes, curbside pick up areas and even walk-up windows.

3. The app is everything: Smartphone apps have been a feature of the QSR industry for years, but didn’t really take off in the way apps for airlines, banks and entertainment services have. That changed in 2020, when the app became a crucial channel for restaurants to engage with their customers. An app can now serve as a virtual menu, ordering channel, customer loyalty account and a means of organising curbside pick-ups and deliveries. Research from Deloitte also suggests that consumers are willing to pay a small premium for app-based ordering, such is the appetite for using digital channels.

4. Food delivery and the rise of the ghost kitchen: Covid-19 saw delivery services like Uber Eats experience a surge in demand, which forced the industry to tighten its game when it came to the logistics involved in offering speedy deliveries from restaurants to people’s homes. The emergence of ghost kitchens, where delivery-only meals are prepared, has allowed restaurant chains to focus on creating a better home-delivery experience. That’s unlikely to change as we leave the pandemic behind us.

The bottom line is that the events of the past year have changed forever the way in which people purchase and enjoy fast food. People are demanding more control over how, when and what to order and how food is delivered to them.

That’s an opportunity for the industry to embrace, with innovation at the forefront.

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