Restaurants pushing digital orders in the labor shortage could mean diners asking for more food because they don’t feel judged by servers, an expert says

Restaurant server US
Digital ordering could lead to customers placing bigger orders – and restaurants getting more profits.

  • Diners feel less embarrassed asking for bigger meals when ordering digitally, an expert told the WSJ.
  • Restaurants have turned to apps or QR codes for ordering during the pandemic and the US labor shortage.
  • “People order more and the tables turn over faster, because they can get their orders and they can get their bills sooner,” Deepthi Prakash said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Restaurants are rolling out ways for customers to order digitally, which could lead to diners placing bigger orders because they can hide their embarrassment from servers, one expert has said.

When customers order digitally, rather than through a server, they’re more likely to choose the food they really want, Deepthi Prakash, global director of product and marketing at advertising agency TBWA Worldwide, told The Wall Street Journal.

This is because they don’t have to worry about servers judging them, she said.

“People order more and the tables turn over faster, because they can get their orders and they can get their bills sooner,” Prakash, who previously worked as a restaurant experience design consultant, told the publication.

This could therefore create bigger profits for restaurants.

Read more: These 9 food tech startups are capitalizing on the labor crunch with tools that help franchisees hire or automate the restaurant workforce

During the pandemic, restaurants have been pushing dine-in customers to order using apps or QR codes printed on menus or glued on tables. Starbucks is encouraging customers to order in advance on their phones for drinks-to-go, while Taco Bell is pushing digital kiosks and is even rolling out a new restaurant format based on mobile ordering.

Close-up shot of a tabletop sign holder with a sign reading "Parada, New Peru" with a QR code visible at the Parada Kitchen Peruvian Restaurant in Walnut Creek, California, February, 2021
Restaurants have been pushing customers to order using apps, QR codes, and kiosks during the pandemic.

As mobile and drive-thru sales soared during the pandemic, Starbucks customers placed fewer orders – but they were more expensive, Insider’s Mary Meisenzahl reported. This is down to a mix of customers placing bigger orders and getting more modifications.

“I feel like there’s an aspect of shame when you’re standing in front of a register, you have to look at a person and tell them all the things you want in your drink,” a former Los Angeles Starbucks barista told Insider.

Starbucks baristas said that customers often ask for weirder and more complicated drinks when they order via its app. This includes bizarre TikTok-inspired drinks or beverages with excessive modifications, such as an iced latte with 12 shots of coffee and five shots of hazelnut syrup.

Digital ordering could help keep revenues up during the labor shortage

Starbucks was one of the first restaurants to widely roll out mobile ordering.

“There’s nothing else like it,” David Bagley, managing director at Carls Marks Advisors, told Insider. “They’re doing something that really every other restaurant should have done years ago”

Many chains are lagging behind Starbucks on mobile ordering, but are finding other ways to drive digital orders.

Even before the pandemic, rising wages in the restaurant industry meant that chains like McDonald’s had been turning to kiosk ordering to keep down staff costs, Andrew Lapin, a lawyer specializing in retail at Robbins, Salomon, and Patt, told Insider.

And restaurants are currently scrambling to find workers amid a huge labor shortage across the US, which could make digital ways of ordering, like through apps, kiosks, and QR codes, even more attractive.

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Starbucks workers say the chain’s mobile ordering is out of control – leading to in-store delays, rude customers, and the pressure to make TikTok-inspired drinks

A Starbucks employee wears a face shield and mask as she makes a coffee in Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on May 12, 2020.
Customers are increasingly asking for heavily modified drinks.

  • Starbucks workers say the chain is letting too many customers place orders on its app.
  • They say some stores don’t have the capacity to keep up with demand.
  • Starbucks also allows unlimited drink modifications via its app, which staff say they’re sick of.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As well as racing to bring down drive-thru times and navigating maskless customers, Starbucks workers are facing another challenge: mobile orders.

Customers have turned to the Starbucks app during the pandemic because it allows them to order in advance and without any face-to-face interaction. Some baristas say this has left them swamped with mobile orders, which now make up more than a quarter of its US transactions.

“The whole mobile order system is really bad,” Nat El-Hai, a former Beverly Hills Starbucks barista, told Insider.

Read more: These 9 food tech startups are capitalizing on the labor crunch with tools that help franchisees hire or automate the restaurant workforce

Staff told Insider that the chain is letting too many customers place orders on its app and it doesn’t have enough staff demand, causing delays for in-store customers.

A Starbucks spokesperson told Insider that this was “not illustrative of the customer and partner experience in a majority of our stores.”

Mobile orders start trickling through as soon as her North Carolina store opens at 5 a.m., barista Sarah Ann Austin said. One former New York barista said most of their store’s sales were mobile orders, and that they could get more than seven a minute during busy times.

El-Hai said her store would often be swamped with walk-in and drive-thru customers and was “chronically understaffed.” She said staff were told they couldn’t turn mobile ordering off, however.

A former barista from Long Beach, California, said that before the pandemic when the store was too busy, management sometimes used to turn off the point-of-sale system used for mobile ordering and pretend that the server was down.

Customers expect rapid service and heavily modified drinks

Customers get an estimated collection time when they order on the app. A Starbucks spokesperson told Insider that this helped to stagger arrivals based on how long drinks take to make.

But El-Hai and Austin said that many customers placed their app orders on their way to the store and didn’t give enough time for staff to prepare their drinks. They were angry if they had to wait, the barista said. Some customers even placed orders on the app after arriving at the store, El-Hai said.

On the other hand, some customers were very late to collect their orders, but would “get mad” if the baristas had thrown their drinks away, El-Hai said. A former Los Angeles barista said staff sometimes had to remake drinks if they were cold or had melted by the time customers arrived.

At times, the app sometimes didn’t update when ingredients ran out in the store, meaning people would order drinks that couldn’t be made, El-Hai said. Mobile-order refunds could only be carried out on the app, which could be slow, “and people get really upset with you,” El-Hai said.

“It’s not set up the way it needs to be,” Stephanie, a barista in British Columbia, Canada, said. She told Insider that sometimes the app didn’t reflect when the chain’s collectable coffee cups were out of stock.

The Starbucks spokesperson said: “The app shows what is available in each location and the stores turn it on and off. It is accurate and it says what it has available.”

The workers also said that customers were taking advantage of the unlimited modifications available through mobile ordering. One shift supervisor in Maryland said some customers added modifications “just because they’re there.”

They added: “People can make drink combinations that not only aren’t intuitive but also just don’t make sense.”

El-Hai shared a photo with Insider of a drink she had made for a mobile order customer who had asked for 12 shots of coffee, alongside five shots of hazelnut syrup, in an iced latte.

They added that staff were sick of making so-called “TikTok” drinks, which are inspired by viral trends and not limited to mobile orders.

Other workers told Insider that these drinks slowed down drive-thru times and made customers angry when they weren’t made perfectly. They said that the company should cut down the number of modifications allowed.

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