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The restaurant industry has changed dramatically in 2021. With COVID-19-related restrictions impacting in-person dining in many states, restaurants are looking at another muted holiday season. But holiday parties don’t need to be your only fourth-quarter money maker; some innovative shifts in your restaurant software strategy can set you up for a solid start to the new year.

These are our top tips for leveraging your software tools to set your restaurant up for success into 2022.

Assess Your Assets and Your Needs

You likely use some type of restaurant software already. Many restaurants have a love-hate relationship with their software tools. From point of sale (POS) to accounting programs, they can be tricky to learn and may not cover all the tasks you need. This frustration is not always the apps’ fault.

Many restaurant owners and managers don’t have the time to learn all of their systems’ functions, and they rarely have the time to keep up to date with new developments when the software they use adds new tools. But this first step is essential if you’ve been running flat-out all year to keep your business afloat. Before you make any moves to purchase new software, look at the systems you already have.

Many restaurant POS brands spent 2021 rapidly developing new online ordering and delivery tools, customer relationship management, kitchen display systems, inventory management and even employee scheduling solutions. A POS you have used for five years may have developed tons of new functions to grow your business and save you time.

Consider what tasks you rely on software for and note the daily tasks you could use more support with. Do the tools you currently use solve your pain points, solve them partially or create more work? Do the tools you use for accounting, sales tracking, employee performance and inventory tracking all communicate with one another? If they don’t, is that because they lack the capability or because you haven’t integrated them? Would scheduling a training refresher help you make the most of your software?

Many restaurant software tools are offered on the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. They tend to offer more than one subscription tier with varying functions. Do the tools you use have the ability to support you better at a higher-tier subscription? Or are you paying for tools that do much more than you need? If the latter, could you downgrade to a less expensive subscription tier?

Set aside time to call your account representatives or customer success managers and recalibrate your current subscriptions to suit your needs. Be honest about what you need and what you will you use. Conversations with users are how restaurant software companies develop new solutions and fix bugs. Your insights are valuable to them.

Your rep will likely tell you about system updates or new tools that may better serve you and may even offer you promotional pricing (especially if your contract is up for renewal soon). It never hurts to ask if they can offer you a better price or lower payment processing rates. Every penny saved can help boost your bottom line.

After you’ve assessed your existing software, you’ll want to consider additional add-ons.

Add In-House Online Ordering Channels

Between 59% and 63% of customers prefer to place delivery orders directly through restaurants rather than third-party apps. A full 98% of customers used digital ordering over the past year and a half, and 70% of customers actually prefer to place orders digitally versus in person.

All of this points to establishing in-house online ordering channels. If you don’t already have them, now is the time to start. If your restaurant is located in a place with lots of wintery weather you’ll want to consider adding delivery as well. Customers are more likely to place an order for your amazing burgers if they don’t have to brave a snowstorm to pick them up.

There are several ways to offer this service. If you use a cloud-based POS system, your POS provider likely offers an online ordering module. In fact, some app-based POS systems include an online ordering site for free, or for less than $15 per month. Alternatively, you can choose from several excellent restaurant website design platforms specializing in custom-branded online ordering sites for restaurants.

Some of these website design platforms charge a monthly subscription fee. Others only charge a per-order fee and processing fees for online payments. Sometimes you can even find a free online ordering tool, though these free sites don’t always include the ability to accept online payments.

Online Ordering Platforms for Restaurants

Leverage Loyalty Programs

Customers love loyalty programs. In a recent study, 69% of respondents said loyalty programs encouraged them to pay more frequent visits to restaurants. The National Restaurant Association found that repeat customers account for up to 64% of a restaurant’s business. Turning first-time customers into regulars is an excellent way to build long-term success.

Nearly 80% of consumers think loyalty programs should provide immediate benefits rather than tracking points. This is good news for restaurants. It’s much easier to control your costs when offering a free appetizer or complimentary dessert than losing 100% of the revenue on a steak because a customer applied all of their loyalty points on one meal.

Almost every POS currently on the market offers some type of loyalty tracking. In most cases, you can customize your system to track points and award a dollar or percentage discount. Alternatively, you can reward loyal customers with one-time rewards when they reach a certain level of points. If your POS does not offer loyalty tools, or you don’t like the options, there are also freestanding loyalty apps such as Lunchbox and TapMango that integrate with several different POS systems.

Add Waitlisting Tools

When you need to manage occupancy in your restaurant, a waitlisting tool can be a lifesaver. If you’re currently using a reservation tool and getting burned by no-shows, a waitlisting app can free you from taking reservations. Sure, you can still use a paper and pen to take down customer names and cellphone numbers, but if you’re short-staffed, who will call waitlisted customers when a table is available?

Today’s waitlisting apps automatically text customers with the click of a button. Simply add customers to the waitlist as they arrive, or you can opt to allow customers to add themselves to your waitlist before they show up. Most waitlist and reservation tools are freestanding, however, many cloud POS systems integrate with more than one waitlist app.

Like the other software mentioned, you can find free waitlisting tools—though most charge a monthly flat rate that can range anywhere from $24 to over $200 per month. If you need a comprehensive reservation solution, most popular restaurant reservation systems such as Resy, OpenTable, and Eatapp also include waitlist tools.

Examples of Restaurant Waitlisting Tools

Appeal to Your Staff With a Scheduling App

Smart scheduling apps that push schedules to your employees’ smartphones were once a rare sight but nowadays, restaurant workers nearly expect you to have one. Not only does a scheduling app save you hours of manually building schedules each week, but it also logs all of your staff’s time off requests and availability.

You won’t have to keep track of shift swap requests written on Post-it Notes or wait until you’re in the restaurant to approve a shift change. Scheduling apps allow you to receive alerts to your smartphone so you can make schedule changes from any internet-connected device and track your labor costs as you build schedules that ensure you stay within your labor budget. These are not just tools for large, multilocation restaurant groups. Several scheduling apps such as Homebase or 7Shifts offer free tools for restaurants with small teams.

Get To Know COVID Vaccine Tracking Apps

Many states have rolled out COVID-19 vaccine tracking apps. New York currently offers the most sophisticated app, the Excelsior Pass, which comes with a business-facing scanning app. New York restaurants can use a smartphone or iPad to scan customers’ QR code vaccine records and the Excelsior Scanner app will tell you if the vaccination record is valid or not. This is a valuable tool in New York City, where proof of vaccination is required for indoor dining. The scanning app is free to download from the Apple App Store and Google Play.

As of November 2021 Arizona, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia and Washington D.C. are all partnering with MyIR Mobile. This app does not support scannable QR code vaccination records currently, but they hope to include this feature soon. If your restaurant is located in one of those states—and requires proof of vaccination for indoor dining—keep your ear to the ground for updates.

Bottom Line

A winter without holiday parties doesn’t need to be bleak. Taking the time to assess your current restaurant software strategy will help strengthen your business in the months to come. The greatest strategies include giving customers and employees the access they crave, converting first-time customers into repeat guests and planning to manage COVID-19-related dining restrictions in your area. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to shore up your software strategy; virtually every tool we mentioned here has free options or free trials to get you started.