BALTIMORE (AP) — The coronavirus outbreak has crushed many restaurants and forced those that have survived to become more creative. It’s not just about deliveries and al fresco dining. Or about the use of services like Grubhub and DoorDash, whose stock jumped in its first day of trading in one of the red-hot initial public offerings of 2020. More restaurants are allowing their customers to order and pay by phone and are tracking their costs more closely.
The Associated Press spoke recently with Aman Narang, an MIT-educated computer scientist who is president and co-founder of the restaurant payments company Toast, based in Boston. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did the pandemic change your business?
A: Before the pandemic, great restaurateurs were still focused first and foremost on the food and the service within their four walls. But they had to reinvent themselves. I actually think the pandemic is going to create these new behaviors where people can use our app on their phones and not have to wait in line as much. Or you’ll be able to have a smartphone that knows your taste preferences and allergies and knows what you like on the menu. I recently went to Blackbird Doughnuts because I have little kids. We have a feature that tells the restaurant when you arrive so that they can bring the food out. Our customers told us that their guests wanted to order and pay on their own phones when dining at the restaurant. It’s so much more efficient.
Q: It seems like you’re bringing analytics to restaurants so they can have a better sense of what sells and what doesn’t.
A: Especially in this COVID world, a lot of restaurants are streamlining their menus and focusing on things they do well. It’s important for restaurants to understand what people are searching for online. Which menu items sell and which don’t? There’s many ways that restaurants are innovating, with ghost kitchens and making the experience safe. The rise of digital means there is more information about customers that can improve their experience. You can reconnect with loyal guests. If you ask a restaurateur how many people walk through their doors every day, they’ll say about 250, but they know next to nothing about them without the digital tools. These were not things that small businesses were thinking about a few years ago. They are now saying, ‘How can we leverage some of the tech to kind of get our guests to come back more often?’
Q: What do you think will happen to restaurants coming off the pandemic?
A: There’s a lot out there that says small business owners are largely not going to navigate this pandemic. The bigger players are much better positioned because they have the resources and technology to manage this crisis. We don’t necessarily see that in our data. Small businesses now have access to technology that was once only available to larger players. And they’re learning how to leverage it in productive ways.