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These Startups Want To Reduce Wait Times By Making Restaurants More Efficient

It’s occasionally possible to enjoy waiting around for a table at a restaurant. Usually there’s champagne and a comfy seat involved. But for most of us, the words “wait time is about 20 minutes” conjure images of crowded restaurant lobbies with bad acoustics and sometimes peanut shells on the floor.

A company in Virginia wants to fix that problem. Last week, Waitbusters Dining unveiled Digital Diner, an all-in-one restaurant-management platform for front of house. As its name suggests, the main focus here is using tech to shorten, if not altogether eliminate, wait times for eat-in customers.

Appropriately, then, most of the platform’s features contribute to that goal.

Pre-Dining: Restaurants can embed a widget into their website and social media pages that makes it easier for guests to book tables. While this doesn’t seem too different from, say, OpenTable, there’s definitely time, and therefore money, restaurants will save by being in control of reservation features.

Once they book a table, guests “get in line” from their phones and receive updates without having to actually be in the restaurant lobby or carry one of those buzzing pagers around. The restaurant, meanwhile, can send SMS messages with updates and any sudden changes. Especially impatient guests can even pay a small fee to “skip” the line. The latter is not a bad way for restaurants to make incremental revenue, and it will be interesting to see if more platforms adopt this feature as technology advances.

At the Restaurant: Part of what makes it so easy for a restaurant to communicate with diners via this platform is Digital Diner’s table-management features. An auto-server interface makes suggestions to the hosts about where to seat guests. These suggestions are generated from pre-determined factors. For example, maybe that party of six needs space for a wheelchair. Or perhaps the Jones family dines with you frequently and likes the four-top table by the window. It’s a small improvement, but as anyone who’s worked front of house knows, not having to guess and debate seating on a busy night saves a lot of time for everyone.

After Dinner: All the while, Digital Diner collects data on guest behavior (getting in line, canceling, walkouts, etc.), analyzes it, and makes suggested actions for restaurant owners and managers based on the analysis.

There are three pricing options right now: $129/month when you sign up for monthly; $119/month for six months; and $109/month for an annual subscription. When you think about the fact that a set of 30 pagers alone can cost a restaurant thousands of dollars, widgets might be the better option for many places, especially smaller establishments. It’s also worth thinking about how much money a restaurant is saving by streamlining wait times and lessening the chance that people will get fed up and leave before they’re seated.

Digital Diner is, of course, one of many, many products out there trying to become the ultimate solution for the digital-age restaurant. To highlight just a few:

Toast is one of the best-known ones, and they just integrated with hospitality marketplace Harri to make their all-in-one restaurant-management platform even more three-dimensional. In the case of Toast, “all in one” refers to the entire restaurant setup—everything from tableside ordering and payment hardware to measuring staff productivity to splitting a check. Their types of plans run the gamut: full service restaurants and food trucks alike.

Meanwhile Airbnb now allows consumers to make restaurant reservations through the app, building on its investment in reservation platform Resy. The company has slowly been diversifying into dining the last couple years, and so restaurant reservations make sense as Airbnb becomes more of a full-service travel and dining sharing economy marketplace.

Compeat focuses on workforce management and other back-office concerns, like accounting and inventory. The platform makes it easier to manage how much gets spent on employees, whether you’re following the correct labor laws, and minimum wage analysis. Of all the solutions out there, this one is definitely one of the most comprehensive, particularly when it comes to centralizing and streamlining the enormous amount of information restaurants have to have about laws and regulations.

Not all in one but equally fascinating is a self-ordering kiosk from Nextep that uses facial recognition to remember guests. When customers place an order, they are asked if they’d like to save it via phone number or facial recognition. Right now Asian-food restaurant Wow Bao uses the technology to speed up their already speedy order process. Cool as it sounds, though, the company is also being sued right now over use of biometric data.

Which brings up a question the restaurant industry inevitably has to face: Who owns all this customer data, and what can restaurants legally do (or not do) with it? Any tech enthusiast knows this isn’t an easy question to answer. And as more and more of these systems come to market, the data issue will probably get more complicated before we make some sense of it.

For now, however, enjoy not having to wait for 45 minutes in the lobby of your favorite sports bar to get table on a Friday night. That alone is enough to make me want to see the restaurant-tech space continue evolving.

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