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Quick question. When was the last time you dined inside an upscale restaurant? For me, it was March 15, 2020. Yes, I remember the date — over six months ago thanks to COVID-19. An experience that I would have at least once or twice a month with my family or friends became non-existent. With the world around us, we have all become more casual ourselves: comfy clothes to work, virtual vs. in-person meetings and curbside and/or delivery as our preferred methods (for now) when we need a night off from cooking.

And the way restaurants interact with customers has shifted in dramatic ways in a short period of time. Many upscale restaurants didn't have things like text-to-order, curbside pick-up or ordering ahead via an app on their radar before the pandemic. Yet seemingly overnight, they've leapt a few years into the future without skipping a beat.

Reinventing to create a broader reach

Small businesses are known for their dedication and determination. Katie's Pizza, a restaurant in St. Louis with two brick and mortar locations, is no different. They were at the forefront of adopting curbside and delivery for their customers when faced with the limitations of the pandemic. 

Not only that, they have grown a huge fan-base around the country and elevated their business model by starting a frozen pizza delivery service in the continental U.S. during a pandemic. Pivoting from two local locations to a robust direct-to-consumer e-commerce experience wasn't easy, but it was an essential move to thrive. The added bonus is they can now cater to their customer's "craveability" on a national scale.

Driving operational efficiencies

Another approach adopted by many local restaurants is limiting the menu in order to be able to continue providing the quality they are known for. Theme nights and family dinners allow businesses to focus on seasonal offerings using their employees and supplies in the most efficient ways possible. While most have opted for ordering via a responsive website or mobile app, some have taken to QR codes. 

Once the step-child of the digital world, these QR codes provide an easy and economical way to bring menus to the individual devices of customers to help avoid the potential spread of germs. They can also function as table numbers or offer customers the ability to order from their seats. Less printing and, in-turn, savings is the added bonus.

Bringing new experiences to the consumer

We're all itching to get back to normal, whatever and whenever that may be. Another restaurant, Bulrush, allows people to experience their tasting menu from their cars, all powered by a constant outpouring of video content you can watch from the comfort of your own mobile device throughout the evening. An experience that would normally happen at the table is still able to happen but at a much safer distance. 

Another restaurant has taken their show online and teaches fans how to make their own potstickers. You sign up online, ingredients are delivered to your home and you have a virtual cooking class with the chef. When else would that have happened? 

Now is the time to find unique ways to connect with customers that may have not been as open to digital experiences, because they are a safer way for people to connect to familiarity.

Crafting a seamless curbside experience

Businesses are doing the best they can to try to reach their customers from 6+ feet away. And the best thing is to learn from some of the bumps along the way and always look for innovative ways to improve the customer experience. People are yearning for what brings them a sense of normalcy, whether in food, experiences or a Target curbside run (guilty). 

At first, customers might have been patient to wait 45 minutes for an order. But the improvements that are being made have taken us back to the expectation of the order being ready when you say it will be — and when customers want it. Don't have dedicated parking to direct your customers? We've been inspired by some of the restaurants requesting you flash your brights or text a phone number that's printed on their window large enough to read from your car. You could even use these methods to test interest and then shift to a higher-touch approach, such as geofencing your customers so that their experience can be as frictionless as possible.

When restaurants, big or small, aren't getting the same foot-traffic they once did with customers eating on their own terms, then they have to bring the quality they are known for in ways none of us probably ever imagined. 

Investing in more robust app experiences, embracing new customer experience tactics and re-imagining all of the unique possibilities that can be delivered through technology are only a handful of ways to stay engaged with those that keep businesses afloat: loyal customers.