Over the past decade, the rise of the celebrity restaurateur helped the food service industry realize that technology had become just as critical to a restaurant’s success as menu building. Foodies had begun turning to social media not only to get a preview of the cuisine, but to get a sense of the ambience and experience of the restaurant as well as its chef’s personality. Before long, scores of diners were using digital platforms as their primary mode of discovering hot new spots.
In 2014, Ben Leventhal co-founded Resy, recognizing an opportunity to use technology to revolutionize the reservation experience the same way it had been used to help diners discover and connect with restaurants. The company found near-immediate success by offering restaurants back-end management software that allowed diners to make reservations directly, eventually growing to serve over 5,000 restaurants in 600 cities. He sold It to American Express in 2019 and continues to oversee operations as Vice President and General Manager of American Express Global Dining Team. As part of our Office Hours live Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram, we asked Ben to share his insights and perspective on the hard-hit restaurant experience and share his thoughts on how restaurants can push forward.
1. The future of the dining experience that we’ve all come to know and love faces uncertainty as we emerge from the crisis. What are your thoughts on where the dining experience goes after this? Does it change drastically or revert to normal? Will it face new ‘challenges’ from eaters who prefer the comfort of ordering in?
I don’t see the dining experience we’ve come to know and love changing drastically on the other side of this crisis. We’re not going to be reprogrammed to the point that we don’t crave restaurants, and the moments of joy and kind of entertainment they provide. It’s going to take some time for restaurant culture the way we knew it to come back, and we are, sadly, going to see a lot of restaurants close along the way. But my hope is that in the long run the industry comes back better than ever. If there is one silver lining of this crisis, which has been truly horrible for the industry and continues to be, is that the restaurant model was already broken and the pandemic has presented an opportunity to reset. If you asked most operators on February 1, 2020 how things were going a lot of them would answer, “I’m doing great! … I’m surviving.” My hope is that this period opens the door to innovations and improvements that allow restaurants in the future to not just survive but to really thrive.
2. Some estimates suggest that 85% of independently owned restaurants may close because of the disruption caused by COVID-19. If those numbers are accurate, what does the restaurant-as-a-business landscape look like in one year? In five?
There is certainly going to be a contraction of the industry as more independent restaurants are forced to close. The longer it takes for business levels to resume, the greater the number of restaurants that will have to close. For those that find a way through and come out on the other side, they are going to have to do a lot more than rely on the restaurant-as-a-business model. I think there is a ton of potential for restaurants that can think of themselves as premium lifestyle brands, meaning that they sell their particular, curated style of luxury — in many more ways than food on a plate within the four walls of the restaurant.
Leveraging social media and digital marketing is now table stakes. Restaurants need to capture and connect with their diners wherever they are, and use these platforms to tell people how they are operating at present.
3. Major disruptions like COVID are often watershed moments for technology adoption across industries – many businesses are forced to take risks on new tech out of necessity, and the successful ones end up popularizing technology trends. As we emerge from COVID, what trends do you see unfolding at the intersection of dining and technology? How does it change how we eat?
This is true, and even though dining has been stagnant these last several months we have had a surge in inbound interest in our technology, from restaurants who didn’t previously buy-in to our platform or others. Taking reservations digitally is more important than ever as restaurants have limited tables and need to maximize them. Our platform can also differentiate table types so diners know before showing up at the restaurant if their table is outside, inside, etc.
We developed new tools around safety protocols that help operators create confidence with their customers, and signal to them that it’s safe to come back -- these include our Capacity Monitor Tool and Mobile Waitlist, both of which have gained quick traction.
We have also been building product for the longer term, based on what we think the dining landscape will look like. Resy At Home is something we have a ton of conviction for -- it’s centered on the idea of connecting to consumers outside the restaurant. For many restaurants, enabling at home dining is something that will be 50% or more of their total business.
4. Over the course of the last decade we’ve seen the rise of the celebrity restaurateur, driven mainly by exposure from TV and social media. With so many businesses activating digital strategies to get in front of their customers during lockdowns, do you think restaurant owners – namely ones who don’t have a ‘celebrity’ presence – should borrow some branding and exposure concepts from the big successful personalities to stand out?
Leveraging social media and digital marketing is now table stakes. Restaurants need to capture and connect with their diners wherever they are, and use these platforms to tell people how they are operating at present. Consumers want to support their favorite restaurants and the people behind them, but restaurants have to take the time to tell their story and promote themselves.
5. What insight would you leave with the aspiring chef or businessperson who wants to get into the restaurant business? Where would you recommend they place their energy for opening and operating in the new normal?
This is a business built on passion, perseverance and incredible dedication to hospitality, and the simple act of making people happy through a dining experience. If that resonates with you, and you’re ok with a ton of blood, sweat and tears, then I say, Go for it!