Order up! The digital dining revolution

Digital adoption is redefining how we live, work, play – and even how we eat. From apps that assist you with fine wine recommendations to McDonald’s self-serve kiosks, digital innovation is helping refine and shape every aspect of the food service industry.

Whether you’re looking for recommendations for a once-in-a-lifetime meal, money off a tasty working lunch, or to simply chill out on your sofa with some noodles, there’s already an app for that.

Solving the decision dilemma

Let’s start with the basics. Whether it’s showing love for places you’ve had a great experience, finding somewhere special to eat in an unfamiliar town, or checking the rating of a cafe before heading inside, most of us have used TripAdvisor at one time or another. Conceived back in 2000, the site has evolved to become an important part of hospitality and food service.

With reviews, ratings and recommendations so important in the industry, particularly for small businesses, TripAdvisor is not without its problems. Fake reviews (good and bad) are rife, and some top-rated establishments don’t even appear. Some restaurants will push harder for reviews than others. Some will have much greater footfall. For one reason or another, the Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlinpoints out that many great restaurants never make it anywhere near the top of TripAdvisor. The site’s main problem is subjectivity. Everyone has different taste, and so everyone will have a different experience.

Issues aside, as an early adopter of user-generated content and a pioneer in taking food service digital, TripAdvisor paved the way for many of the latest generation of food sites, tools and apps.

For those with specialist eating requirements, there are plenty of apps to help you find somewhere to suit your tastes. In the healthy eating space, Tasteful lets users search for restaurants and menus based on their personal diet preferences, with options including paleo, veggie, vegan, low carb and gluten free. Halla helps you find the dish you’re most likely to enjoy while you’re there. In the US, apps like Food TrippingInBloom and Clean Plates help conscious consumers locate stores and eateries that cater to their specific dietary requirements and grab healthy meals on the go.

Making and managing bookings

Sometimes the simple ideas are the best. Once you’ve decided what you fancy eating, apps like OpenTable and Quandoo let you easily make restaurant bookings online. For diners this means no waiting for the maître d' to answer the phone, the ability to change bookings quickly, email reminders and points towards free meals. For restaurateurs it means smoother operations, improved hospitality and the chance to attract more diners.

Keeping it moving

Tackling everyone’s least favourite part of eating out, a host of new apps let you quickly pay for your meal on your phone and take the stress out of splitting the bill.

The international symbol for “please bring us the bill - the “air signature” gesture - could soon be a thing of the past. Dine & Dash by Barclaycard lets you check in at your table with a single tap, order, eat and go without the painful wait for the bill. Currently being trialled at a select restaurant, we could see apps like Dine & Dash and similar like become the norm over the next couple of years.

If you’re paying separately, we have contactless to thank for making the payment journey faster. Introduced to the UK by Barclaycard in 2008, the technology recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and last year 37% of all debit card transactions in the UK were contactless.

Enhancing the experience

For those watching their calorie intake, apps like EatFit help take the guesswork out of eating out - showing hungry gym bunnies local restaurants they can enjoy without wrecking their diet. Failing that, you could always enter the dishes you’ve ordered into a calorie-counting app like MyFitnessPal. This was created to track diet and exercise to “determine optimal caloric intake” helping users towards their goals. Choose from the vast bank of foods and eateries in the app’s database or enter the ingredients manually.

If wine quality is important to you, the Delectable app lets you snap and upload a picture of the wine you’re drinking, for expert opinions, ratings and reviews. A similar app exists for vegans - helping diners verify whether their drinks are vegan.

Do you know what guajillo chilli is? What about girolles or kimchi? According to recent research from Barclaycard, 90% of British restaurant-goers admit they aren’t always familiar with the ingredients on menus and 25% are too embarrassed to ask waiters to explain. To help diners figure out what’s what when eating out, Barclaycard Payment Solutions (BPS) is testing a new prototype app – ‘Transplater’ – which serves up images of unfamiliar ingredients with descriptions so diners can make informed choices before they order.

The gig economy

Thanks to the likes of JustEat the concept of ordering food online is nothing new. Having recently beat key competitor Hungryhouse, JustEat changed takeaway night forever, allowing app users to easily order food without having to pick up the phone. The last couple of years have seen that concept level up, with the introduction of several gig economy innovations offering flexible work and designed to appeal to the most laid back food lovers.

Expected to dominate the market in the next couple of years, UberEATS lets city-dwellers order food from their favourite restaurants and pick it up curb-side - all via their Uber accounts. Deliveroo offers a similar service, keeping it eco-friendly with their riders transporting your feast in their signature mint-green gear. While such apps are best suited to cities at the moment, we’re seeing more and more ‘giggers’ appear in towns all over the place.

Running the joint

Food service innovation isn’t all about the diners. Designed with hospitality in mind, Barclaycard’s Smartpay Hub is a new one-stop-shop. The electronic point-of-sale solution provides merchants with everything from staff scheduling and stock management, to monitoring their business’s performance. Not only does it take payments from customers but the detachable tablet can help them to reduce costs, save time and grow their business.

What makes a great innovation in the food industry?

With so many apps to take you from amateur to connoisseur, it’s clear that novelty value will only get you so far. People want apps and services that add real value to their lives, making the process faster and giving them more time to spend as they wish and more energy to invest in their experience. Make the wait time and the process as smooth and easy as possible for your customers and they will return time and again, even if it’s digitally through their mobile device.