Six Lessons We’ve Learned About Digital Restaurant Experiences

Published On: October 6, 2020

Digital commerce has seen exponential growth since March 2020 and it is here to stay. For restaurants, mobile apps and digital ordering have become lifelines for consumers making mid-pandemic purchases. All signs indicate that they will continue to be critical components of the consumer experience. 
In an effort to help restaurants understand emerging consumer behaviors, Fishbowl examined consumer sentiment (based on social review data) and identified six key trends: 

  1. Service is the top driver of guest satisfaction in reviews. 
  2. Digital experiences are an extension of restaurant service.
  3. Guests expressed dissatisfaction with digital ordering as off-premise dining grew.
  4. Consumer expectations have changed since March.
  5. Bad digital experiences are like bad service staff – they make customers defect.
  6. Optimized digital marketing presents restaurants with opportunities for growth.

Analysis: Fishbowl examined 734 of the 1500+ brands in our social data inventory to assess consumer feedback related to digital ordering. We selected brands with a minimum of 5 reviews during the time period 1/1/2020-7/31/2020 that range in service style, including Casual, Midscale, Upscale/Fine, Fast Casual and Fast Food brands. Reviews containing mentions of mobile app and online orders were isolated for analysis.

1. Service is the top driver of guest satisfaction in reviews.

The five topic areas that most directly impact brand value are service, food, price, ambiance and beverage. Service is the most common mention in reviews during this time period, followed closely by food (see Figure 1). Even with the recent uptick in off-premise dining, service remains a critical factor consumers view their experience with digital ordering platforms as an extension of service

Service is the primary attribute of restaurant experiences mentioned in reviews (2020).

Figure 1. Service is the primary attribute of restaurant experiences mentioned in reviews (2020).


2. Digital experiences are an extension of restaurant service.

The concept of service is not confined to the in-store experience. Digital ordering platforms much more than a transaction engine – they are a direct extension of restaurant service. Mobile apps and websites provide an important opportunity for connection. The quality of this interaction directly impacts guest experience, even when it is virtual. 
When guests dine in, there are many opportunities for staff to make good impressions with friendly, attentive and memorable service. There are fewer opportunities when guests place an off-premise order. The two primary points of interaction are both aspects of service – placing orders and receiving them. If either of these interactions are flawed, the service is viewed as negative and brands miss a critical opportunity to build positive engagements with their guests.  

3. Guests expressed dissatisfaction with digital ordering as off-premise dining grew.

Fewer guests dined out in March and April, so the overall number of social restaurant reviews dropped. However, the increased use of off-premise dining options led to an associate increase in mentions of mobile apps and online ordering. 
In the spring and early summer of 2020, consumers began mentioning online and off-premise ordering more regularly in their reviews. 
Reviews in late March and early April focus on convenience and accessibility of off-premise options. Complaints were not significantly higher than earlier in the year.

  • “I was grateful and relieved that a nearby sandwich shop remained open to save trips to the grocery store during lockdown.” 
  • “Sometimes all you need is a cheesy burger. Grateful that [they are] still open curbside.” 

Curious about how your digital ordering experience measures up?

Learn more about our Price Optimization, Menu Optimization, and Competitor Auditing services.

4. Consumer expectations have changed since March.

However, by late April we see negative sentiment around digital orders beginning to rise (see Figure 2). As dependence on online ordering increased, consumers began to focus on the problems they were encountering.

  • “As usual the mobile app was down.” 
  • “I placed an order through the mobile app because this restaurant seems to always get orders wrong and was hoping a mobile order would make it more accurate.”
  • “This place needs to get it together! I understand we are all in hard times, but if you are going to be offering in app ordering you NEED to get it right. I literally don’t understand how every single time I’ve gone  (don’t ask me why I go back every week) I get a completely different order. This is a joke.”

One key area of concern appears to be the gap between a functioning app and order fulfillment. Apps and in store POS systems are not integrated, staff is not familiar with app functions and order fulfillment is cumbersome. 

  • “I explained to them I’ve tried to process the transaction several times and it won’t let me.  I asked for help and they said there was nothing they could do.” 
  • “After placing my order on the mobile app, this place refused to give me my food, that I paid for, because they stated “we can’t see it on our order screen.”” 
  • “Really terrible service today. I ordered my food through the app. I pushed I’m here when I arrived. Yet I still had to wait an additional additional 25 minutes to actually get my food. The workers were struggling to figure it out. Unfortunately your staff is not equipped to handle mobile orders.”
Negative mentions related to digital ordering rose sharply in late April, May and July 2020.

Figure 2. Negative mentions related to digital ordering rose sharply in late April, May and July 2020.


5. Bad digital experiences are like bad service staff – they make customers defect.

Negative experiences with mobile and online apps frustrate customers. Some reach a tipping point and report that they will not use the digital platform to order in future. Guests who are too dissatisfied to order online opt out – and revenue slips. 

  • “OVER THE App during covid19. Tried several times, not working for all the options we need! Return to regular ordering. You are losing orders! Can’t even call to talk to a person. Super lame!” 
  • “We used the app to order 4 different items. They got two of the four wrong. One of the wrong orders could have had serious consequences [due to] food allergies. Never again.”

These experiences don’t just impact off-premise orders – they put overall brand loyalty at risk. Dissatisfied reviewers sometimes say that they will discontinue use of the app and often cite specific competitors who will gain their business. 

  • “I drove 20 minutes from home 40 minutes total to support a local restaurant and they thanked me by telling me their app didn’t charge me for a slice of cheese and I have to pay for it!  I don’t mind paying for what I purchase but this is ridiculous. It will be Shake Shake from here on out since Burger 21 does not show appreciation for my business during this difficult time.”
  • “No priority line for mobile order customers. Had to wait 20+ mins just to go inside the store and pick up my mobile order. Employees were rude. Might as well go to Starbucks and get faster friendlier service.”
  • I ordered on Saturday April 25th at 6:30 pm. I’ve ordered 100 cheesesteaks here over the last few years. Always good. This time it was the worst I’ve ever had! When I called the store all’s the woman could say was “ok thanks” an hung up. Guess it’s gonna be Jersey Mikes from now on.”

Loyalty has already been disrupted by Covid as many patrons left old standbys behind in favor of brands who provided digital apps and off premise solutions. Brands should pay attention to this issue to protect against further erosion of their customer base. 

6. There are opportunities for growth with optimized digital ordering.

Consumer behavior changed quickly and, in many ways, permanently. Reliance on digital commerce spans many industries, and is especially critical to restaurant sustainability. Although these changes have presented restaurant operators with many challenges that had to be addressed in record time, this shift also brings tremendous opportunity.
Digital ordering not only provides a bridge for safe and convenient transactions, it also deepens the connection between brands and their guests. This paves the way for restaurants to transform the way they use purchase data to individualize their communication, enhance the guest experience and convert occasional guests into loyalists. Opportunities for personalized messaging and enhancements to the order process can quickly turn digital ordering into a highly valuable venue for guest connectivity – and profitability.  It all starts with a strong digital experience – clear, simple, functioning mobile apps and websites that lead to seamless communication and execution by restaurant staff.
Not sure if your digital platforms are optimized?  Fishbowl can help evaluate your current program and ensure that your brand is positioned for success. We can also perform an analysis like the one above, giving you insights into your own brand and competitor set to examine your guests’ perceptions and preferences.  Contact us today via the form below to arrange a consultation.


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