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Mobile apps: A must-have for restaurants

Push notifications and data collection are two key benefits of mobile apps

Maria Topken is director of client leadership for Sunrise Advertising in Cincinnati. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Restaurant Hospitality.

There was a time, not that long ago, when it seemed like a cute idea for a brick and mortar business to launch a website. Today that idea seems quaint, since websites are as essential as storefront signs.

The same evolution is taking place with mobile apps for restaurants. These began as fun options, but are quickly emerging as must-haves for the industry.

But, wait, "I already have a mobile-optimized website," you say.

That's good, and mobile web is certainly an important part of an overall mobile strategy. But it should be regarded as a component of your mobile presence and not the be-all and end-all.

Mobile apps offer distinct advantages over mobile web, most notably in the area of push notifications and the ability to engage with your customers in a more personalized manner.

For example, if your business generally is slow from 2–4 p.m., you can send messages inviting customers to stop by during these times for half-price appetizers or drinks. Or, let's say you have a typically busy period — dinnertime, for instance — that on a particular day is unexpectedly slow because of inclement weather. You can entice folks to brave the elements by pushing out a real-time promotion offering special discounts for that night only.

Another benefit of having an app is that you can geo-fence ads around your restaurant. Imagine that you see some empty seats and have no immediate prospects to fill them. You can push messages to people who are in the immediate vicinity of your restaurant: "Walk in our door in the next 15 minutes and receive an appetizer on the house when you order dinner."

An app also allows your best customers to be the first to know about new items and services. Guests love being privy to exclusive information.

In addition to promotions and engagement, an app will let you collect priceless data. You can segment your customers and send targeted messages to entice frequency. Also, cross selling becomes easier. If you see that chicken is my meal of choice, you can alert me when you have a new chicken dish or a special offer on my favorite.

From the consumer's perspective, it's not all about money-saving promotions. Most of your customers — Millennials, in particular — now expect you to have an app. Our phones are with us 24/7. They are the digital era's version of the Swiss Army knife.

People want to place orders via an app. It's great for them because they can skip the line, and great for you because tickets tend to be higher when customers order this way. And the app can track purchases, making loyalty rewards easier to see and obtain.

The best apps allow customers to pay directly from it, so it's always a good idea to make sure it easily syncs up with your POS system. "Easily" is the key word, because a buggy payment process could ruin an otherwise positive experience, leaving a figuratively bad taste in customers' mouths instead of the literally good taste of your food. 

For those picking up curbside, the app lets customers alert you that they have arrived. The customer gets to stay in the car — a big plus for moms with young kids in tow!

Customers these days now want to offer their opinions with reviews, creating an army of very effective brand influencers if you treat them right and provide good value.

There are so many advantages to having an app that we're going to look back on the app-less era and wonder how businesses survived. That day is coming sooner than you might think.

Maria Topken is director of client leadership for Sunrise Advertising in Cincinnati. She can be reached at [email protected].

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