One industry among many that has been hard hit by the pandemic is the restaurant sector. For months, I have listened to brand after brand describe their journey this past year. Always, they stress that the stakes are high. Early on, they noted how customer traffic dried up overnight and they needed to implement online, mobile, and curbside service immediately. Some spoke of IT achievements, like rolling out these digital services in only a matter of weeks. Others had either already implemented those initiatives before the pandemic or had just started.
As each restaurant shared their experience, I was struck by how often the topic of Internet connectivity and restaurant Wi-Fi came up. I hadn’t asked these restauranteurs specifically about Wi-Fi, yet many had something to say.
- “We had to think about how to use all the tech in the dining room outside in the parking lot. We had to change the Wi-Fi frequencies to reach the parking lot. Then we could use our tabletop tablets to take payment. We used our table management system almost like a quarter back.” Wade Allen, Brinker International
- “Just Wi-Fi bandwidth. Being able to have that ‘always on’ component. Even during times that are fuzzy, when you have a lot of guests who are using it for the QR codes menus, while you are also using it to accept orders through online. Make sure you have good coverage for your in-store experience and your operations as well.” Destinee Rollins, Twin Peaks
- “[Connectivity] has to be there and it has to be there all the time. Previously if a restaurant had a brief gap in its comms, things kept on rolling. In this digital world, that doesn’t happen. Having strong connectivity is super important, not just inside the restaurant, but outside as well.” Scott Davis, Shake Shack
- “We had to make a lot of adjustments. We have a lot of metal in our store design, which is not conducive to Wi-Fi.” Scott Hudler, Torchy’s Tacos
There is broad agreement that more digital innovation has occurred across the restaurant industry in the past seven months than in the past 10 years. However, this intense digital transformation has exposed a potential weak link in the restaurant infrastructure. That is, the customer and employee digital experience depends completely upon the quality, capacity and availability of a restaurant’s network connectivity and Wi-Fi.
- 56% of customers say free Wi-Fi is the most important feature diners expect restaurants to offer, according to Hospitality Technology's 2020 Customer Engagement Technology Study.
Prior to the pandemic, restaurants could succeed with a weak Internet connection. If the network went down, they could still complete and process payment transactions manually. That’s no longer the case as establishments -- and even the industry – depend completely on digital engagement.
Here, I offer six tips for restaurants to consider as they complete the pivot to digital operations.
1) Anticipate times of inadequate connectivity. A restaurant’s broadband throughput speeds will vary. The performance stated in the agreement is usually a best case and the actual speed will fluctuate during the day. It’s best to plan for periods of network congestion, high packet loss, and high latency. Software Defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) technologies can apply optimization techniques such as Forward Error Correction (FEC), multi-path replication, and application steering (although they vary widely in their ability to do so). Yet these types of solutions can mean the difference between exceeding customer expectations for your brand. . . or failing to meet them.
2) Increase network availability. If the restaurant’s Internet should fail, you will be unable to receive (much less fulfill) online orders. While most restaurants are prepared for offline credit card transactions, there is no such option as off-line mobile, curbside, or third-party delivery orders. Don’t leave your restaurant’s ability to fulfill orders at the mercy of the Internet. Augment your primary broadband Internet connection with an alternate path connection. For instance, if your primary path is fiber, set up an alternate LTE connection. Ideally, run it in active/active configuration so that both circuits may be used as need.
3) Survey the restaurant’s Wi-Fi coverage for gaps and interference. Achieving adequate Wi-Fi coverage in a restaurant can be complicated. The kitchen is a source of Wi-Fi unfriendly metal surfaces and the machinery may even interfere with Wi-Fi signals. A neighbor’s Wi-Fi usage (e.g., IP Security Cameras) may even impede your Wi-Fi network. Find enterprise grade Wi-Fi solutions that can dynamically detect Wi-Fi interference and change channels. In some cases, you may need to manually tune your Wi-Fi access point (AP) to avoid common channel conflicts. While 5 Ghz Wi-Fi provides higher speeds, 2.4 Ghz provides greater coverage. And some connectivity is always better than no connectivity.
4) Consider purpose-built Outdoor Wi-Fi APs for curbside. While many operations can get away with an indoor AP located near the main entry, to cover the entire parking lot or exterior dining areas, some need to upgrade to directional outdoor Wi-Fi APs. These devices may be more expensive, but it’s important to consider the lost opportunity costs from a customer unable to download your app or redeem their loyalty points.
5) Employ an adequate monitoring and management strategy. On-going operation of guest Wi-Fi requires monitoring usage patterns. Watching usage trends will help you maximize your investment. This is an area with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are making significant improvements. Ensure that either internal personnel or the service provider have the proper dashboards and management tools to monitor and manage your Wi-Fi services.
6) Invest in cybersecurity. Wi-Fi dramatically increases customer convenience and engagement, yet it also exposes the restaurant and guests to malicious attacks. Protect your restaurant and your customers by meeting (at minimum!) the basic Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard (DSS). Do not risk being held liable for all costs associated with any theft—and tarnishes your brand.
There is no question that Wi-Fi access is now part of the customer expectation of the restaurant experience. Consequently, effective deployment of networking technology is nothing short of essential to the industry’s recovery. When the restaurant experience depends on the Internet and Wi-Fi access, managing the network infrastructure can be an onerous responsibility for operational teams focused on customer acquisition and retention, not to mention adhering to changing on-site requirements and regulations due to the ongoing pandemic. To reduce costs and increase service coverage, a qualified managed network services provider can make the difference between undependable Wi-Fi and network infrastructure, and a seamless network experience that supports the hybrid online/on-site customer experience. While the pandemic will come to an end, the digital restaurant experience is here to stay.
About the Author:
Tim Tang is Director of Enterprise Solutions for Hughes Network Systems.