When you walk into The Melt, a Bay Area-based grilled cheese chain, you head straight for the counter. There's no need to peruse the menu board—your grilled cheese order has been placed and paid for using the restaurant’s app.
An employee scans the QR code on your phone, which contains the details of your order, and within minutes, your sandwich, soup, and soda are ready to go. No muss, no fuss.
While few restaurants are as automated as The Melt, tech is taking over restaurants and bars across the country. Large restaurant chains are developing apps, and mom-and-pop shops are embracing mobile payments.
Fast food speeds up
The Melt could be viewed as a pilot program for the future of fast-casual restaurants, which have already perfected the assembly-line process of creating burritos and burgers.
The chain, which opened the doors of its first location just a year and a half ago, is built on tech. From its CEO, Flip Video founder Jonathan Kaplan, down to its proprietary sandwich-making machines, The Melt is rooted in tech.
The company has expanded to 14 retail locations in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and it plans to have 500 stores open nationwide within the next five years.
The premise is simple: a uniform grilled cheese experience that can be recreated at any of the chain’s locations or trucks. The company uses technology both to cook and serve the sandwiches perfectly every time, said Paul Coletta, The Melt’s chief marketing officer and general manager.
The Melt’s sandwich presses combine infrared and radiant heat to produce crispy, gooey grilled cheeses within 60 seconds. You can place an order on The Melt’s mobile site or smartphone app. Then take the QR code along with your order details to any of the company’s stores or trucks at any time.
“Most fast-casual or quick-serve order and pay technologies require that you identify the store and time prior to placing your orders,” Coletta said. “We do not. The reason we do that is control and convenience.”
The Melt is planning to further incorporate technology in the areas of personalization and loyalty, Coletta said, but the company isn’t ready to launch new products just yet.
Despite The Melt’s tech DNA, the company doesn’t market itself as a high-tech chain, and only about 5 to 10 percent of orders happen online, Coletta said. Once the company starts promoting the online ordering and QR codes, as it plans to soon, Coletta expects that number to jump to a quarter of all orders.
Not every restaurant has the need for complete automation. Café Grumpy, a New York-based coffee shop with two outposts in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn, adopted Square’s then-beta Register system in 2011.
Square was once known as a low-cost way for farmer’s market vendors and food trucks to take credit cards. Both the card reader and software are free; Square takes a 2.75 percent cut from each purchase, or a monthly payment of $275. Now, brick-and-mortar restaurants are also embracing the company.
Square announced this week that San Francisco-based coffee chain Blue Bottle Coffee Co. will use Square at all of its locations, beginning with the Bay Area and New York.
Café Grumpy owner Caroline Bell wanted to phase out her clunky cash register and free up counter space. She also found that using Square created more space for her employees and customers to interact.
Customers at first were interested in the iPad that Bell plugs her Square card-reader into. You use the tip of your finger to sign your receipt, which is e-mailed or texted to you.
Now regulars are beginning to use Square Wallet, which lets you sync your credit card to the Square Wallet app. Bell can see on her iPad if a Square Wallet user walks into the café, and they can simply say their name to pay for their coffee. Bell verifies their ID by checking the photo they’ve uploaded to the app.
Café Grumpy was one of 20 small businesses to recently win $10,000 in a Square Wallet contest that encouraged more customers to use near-field communication (NFC) payments at their favorite restaurants. Bell plans to use the money to invest in a redesign of the company’s website.
Slow but steady
Restaurants have been slow to adopt new technology, cautiously waiting to see if people actually want to scan QR codes, pay with NFC technology, or order food from an app.
But people are interested, according to market research. An October report from food industry consulting firm Technomic indicated that more than half of the consumers want restaurants to incorporate new tech, particularly gadgets or apps that make it easier to order or offer discounts.
Those in the Millennial generation are, as expected, the demographic most receptive to new tech at restaurants. Younger diners are most interested in restaurant apps and touchscreen ordering.
Tablet menus aren’t common yet, but several high-end restaurants have begun using tablets to manage their extensive wine lists, including Lark Creek Steak in San Francisco and Aureole in Las Vegas.
Will we ever reach the point where our favorite restaurants get so technical that servers are replaced by robots? Doubtful.
“If technology is done well, the consumer doesn’t notice the technology, they notice the benefits of the technology,” Coletta says.
“It’s like framing a piece of artwork. The job of the frame is to make the artwork pop, not to notice the frame.”
This story, "Take your smartphone to lunch and let it pay for you" was originally published by TechHive.