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Serve it up... The restaurant industry is trying to bolster the order-and-takeaway side of the business. Digital ways have helped with gaining customers and retaining them, but a lot more still need doing. Image Credit: AFP

Across the Arab world, food – whether dining out or ordering in, whether it’s a taste for local or international cuisines – dominates conversations every day. However, with the rise of mobile devices and social networks, food conversations are not just limited to the dining table.

In fact, the smartphone has evolved into a cornerstone of dining experiences, with restaurants and consumers alike accelerating their presence in the digital sphere. This has become even more relevant with the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis, where restrictions on business and public movement have meant the physical presence of customers at restaurants is limited.

New ways show up on the table

With a “menu” available on every smartphone, the confluence of technology and dining preferences has meant that people are putting phones before forks – discovering, researching, photographing and even sharing their food before they decide and dig in. In times of COVID-19, food-related content on Instagram has skyrocketed driven by people’s willingness to stay and cook at home.

It doesn’t stop there. Phones are an essential part of the journey after the dining experience as well. People now make sure they leave a review on either Facebook and Instagram, on the online delivery app, or on the restaurant’s own app, and thoroughly describing their experience from start to finish.

This has led to restaurants building their operating model around technology to not only drive customer acquisition, but also create an unparalleled ecosystem of trust where they can talk directly to their audience.

An inside-out transformation

Just as the restaurant and food industry shifted from traditional dine-in experiences to drive-thru, it has increasingly witnessed a multitude of trends over the past few years. Large restaurant chains are cutting down on physical space as diners prefer ordering in. This also led to the emergence of cloud kitchens, which are able to scale up - and down - as required, but with an operating model that is embedded on technology.

In fact, the $35 billion food delivery economy is expected to grow tenfold to $365 billion by 2030.

Get the digital wallets out

Supplementing this technology-led experience is the rise of digital wallets, unlocking additional convenience for customers. According to e-marketer, nearly 40 per cent paid for a fast food or fast casual meal via an app or digital wallet. These forms of contactless payments are gaining more importance in times of COVID-19, with increased customer awareness about precautions.

In this era, restaurants have a unique opportunity to be omni-present, driving footfall and dine-in customers, while scaling deliveries for those who prefer to eat at home. A kickstart

With data as the backbone for people-based marketing, markets are able to leverage social media platforms, easily connecting with the world’s largest food community to increase awareness, drive consideration and increase loyalty for their food experiences. Utilizing restaurants’ own customer data along with advertising allows restaurants to directly target people based on demographics, interests, behaviors and location to raise awareness and boost mobile app downloads, sales and offer redemptions.

Shaping brand recall

In a world where consumers are regularly engaging with brands, it is imperative restaurants stand out with their communications.

The world’s most popular fast-food chicken restaurant chain, KFC, for example, used Facebook to drive messages around customer safety and contactless delivery. With the outbreak of COVID-19, KFC also realized that it was imperative to move fast and reassure employees and consumers of their safety. It launched a new contactless delivery service to cater to emerging social distancing practices and ensured consumers felt comfortable while ordering in.

The restaurant industry was one of the early adopters of technology to enable customer experiences. As the impact of online, especially mobile increases, the dividing line between digital and physical worlds will blur even faster, making it business-critical to create measurable mobile friendly engagements.

- Anna Germanos is Head of CPG, Retail and E-commerce for Middle East & North Africa, Facebook.