How to Create the Best ‘New Normal’ Dining Experience With Data

Pandemic-era dining ushered in new elements of a night out. Masks, pop-up tents on outdoor sidewalks, extra space between fellow diners and touchless service quickly became the norm for food service.

At the same time, restaurant owners adopted new processes that allowed them to continue to serve customers during the pandemic. But with restrictions easing and some diners eager to get back to the way things were, do restaurateurs abandon these innovations? Or have these innovations become standard expectations in a new reality?

The answer lies in balancing the dining experience with new realities of safety and satisfying customer expectations. When done correctly, innovations like QR code menus and data-driven loyalty efforts can turn customers who are eager for a “back-to-normal” night out into regular diners who embrace a new era of restaurant experiences.

What Diners Expect in a New Era

Trends show shoppers are generally ready to return to in-person experiences — in stores, restaurants and beyond. Nearly a third (32%) of consumers said they expected to spend more of their budgets for holiday gift shopping at in-person locations, and polling from early November shows 68% of consumers are comfortable dining in-person again — a near record high for sentiment since the peak of the pandemic.


But just because diners are ready to spend and eager to eat doesn’t mean they’ll automatically have a great experience when they return to dining rooms. The experience will be unfamiliar to many and, if executed poorly, it could keep diners from returning. The key is experimentation — iterating on what works and discovering what doesn’t as diners return — and making better use of data and information about how your customers operate in the new normal.

New Technology, Classic Experiences

So what does dining experimentation in the “new normal” look like? How do you design experiences that bring diners back for more? Is it possible to get all diners used to digital menus and contactless payment? These considerations will help paint a better picture of what’s possible.

  • Follow QR code best practices. The QR code itself isn’t new — in fact, the technology had a rocky reputation among marketers until the pandemic made QR codes useful. Naysayers argue QR codes ruin the “magic of dining”, but the flexibility, added functionality and cost savings make sense for restaurant owners. In the last 18 months, QR code downloads have increased 750%, and they are helping diners view menus from their phones and pay their tabs by scanning their receipts instead of the hands-on traditional methods.

    But getting this process right is critical, and it isn’t always easy. QR code menus, for example, can’t just be PDF counterparts to paper menus. They need to be dynamic, functional and reflect current kitchen inventory. Since most QR menus rely on a third-party software provider, it’s critical to do your homework to make sure your partner offers the features and functions your diners expect.
  • Rethink loyalty. Loyalty programs also deserve a fresh look as diners choose to dine in more often. Acknowledging that diners want to limit their physical contact, loyalty program leads should take advantage of quick adaptations like eliminating physical loyalty punch cards or getting rid of physical email list signups.

    But a changing world also brings changing expectations about what makes a loyalty program worthwhile. From the additional data that is collected through loyalty programs, QR code menus or advanced reservation systems, a richer and more valuable picture of each diner begins to emerge. These advanced systems allow you to compile all sorts of data about regular customers, helping you create new experiences at-scale. For example, based on the merging of that data, diners could have their favorite drink ready for them the next time they sit down for a meal at your restaurant. Servers could be armed with information to ask if they want to have “the usual.” Or your head chef could feature a special version of a dish the restaurant knows is popular with a large group that has reservations for the evening.

    These types of experiences are the true way to build loyalty and a love of your brand. The “free dessert on your birthday” gimmick is fun, but with a more personalized view of the customer, you can craft loyalty programs that allow diners to earn the relevant perks and rewards they want and position your brand to exceed their expectations and win their hearts.
  • Use data for dining experiments. With more data available now than ever, where do you begin? Small tweaks to the customer experience, both digitally and in the dining room, are a good place to start. What levers increase engagement with your loyalty flow, and from there, which ones are impactful in obtaining their sign-ups? What is the impact of the deals you are offering? Are there opportunities to draw larger crowds via different offerings? How does that vary based on geos? And when it comes to the QR code menu, what is the impact of photography, placement, pairings? There are so many questions that can be answered through experimentation.

Forward-thinking restaurateurs are embracing the future as diners reconcile themselves to new dining realities. They are using data, technology and experimentation to learn about their customers and uncover what matters to them in this changing landscape. From there, they are taking action and making data-driven decisions. With this data and advanced technology at your disposal, you can put a new caliber of dining experiences on the menu for customers and convert occasional diners to regulars.

Gregory Ng is an experienced executive with a history of visionary ideas and successful implementation. In his nearly 25 years in the business, he has created innovative solutions leading to digital and cognitive transformations for the biggest high-tech, retail and financial brands in the world. As CEO of Brooks Bell, Ng oversees strategic growth, agency operations and customer experience as we continue our work to help companies better leverage their data, technology and people to solve digital challenges, streamline operations and learn about their customers.

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