Competitive Analysis of 4 apps that aid in Customer-Restaurant Interaction
Luke Zaccaro, MI 841

Executive Summary

Purpose
A study of 4 apps was conducted to research various ways that restaurants can digitally interact with their customers. We wish to create a tool that incorporates many of the features of these apps, and that streamlines or enhances the dining experience for both users and restaurants.

Methods
4 apps were chosen for evaluation for their varied ability to accomplish some of the goals we intend to meet with our tool. They were evaluated based on 13 attributes that we feel are important to meeting those goals.

Key Findings:

  1. The tool we wish to create should model most of its menu and ordering style from Panera Bread and BJ’s.
  2. Democratized group ordering will be difficult to attain, but does have a current model as a starting point in BJ’s
  3. OpenTable is a fantastic model to draw inspiration from when creating a reservation and table management system for restaurants.

To determine how study of potential competitors’ can help us drive creation of our tool, we must lay out our tool’s goals.  They are:

  1. Saving Time
  1. Allow customers to place sit-down dining orders online before they get to the restaurant.
  2. Allow customers to place takeout dining orders online before they get to the restaurant.
  3. Allow customers to pay for their meal (and tip servers) from their mobile device
  4. Allow customers to easily split checks
  5. Allows customers to create and join groups where each member creates their own individual order.
  6. Allows customers to submit requests for drinks, napkins, etc at the table, eliminating the need to flag down a server
  1. Find places to eat
  1. Allow customers to search for restaurants
  2. Allow customers to make dinner reservations
  3. Allow customers to read or write reviews of restaurants
  4. Allow customers to read or write reviews of individual menu items

Methods

The 4 tools below were selected because they are successful and/or representative tools that accomplish one or more of our goals. The tool that we wish to create will draw elements and ideas from each of these examples and/or attempt to avoid some of the shortcomings they may have.

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Panera Bread - This app has a good combination of a high rating and varied menu, although the app only offers takeout for ordering. Other apps may be highly rated, like Dominoes, but are generally much more specific in their menus or options. Panera Bread successfully accomplishes goals A2 and A3, and is a good example to draw inspiration from. It does not attempt to accomplish any of the other goals.

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BJ’s Restaurant - While this is another single restaurant app, it is uniquely similar to what we want to create in that it allows for ordering before a sit-down dining experience. It attempts to accomplish goals A1-A5, with varying strengths and limitations.

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Order Ahead - This app is the most similar to what we want to create. It is a universal app that restaurants can opt in to, and allow any customer to order food from them. It accomplished A2, A3, A5, and B1. It is the only app found that accomplished part of both A and B goals. Note on Order Ahead: The app only allows you to search for restaurants in your immediate vicinity, and Eastern Iowa is not part of their network. I used their desktop browser tool, which has the same functionality, but without the iOS interface.

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OpenTable - This app is a reservation system that allows customers to reserve tables at participating restaurants. Users can find places to eat and place online reservations ahead of time. It does not allow users to order food, but it was included because it is an extremely successful example of accomplishing goals B1-B3.

Each of the above apps was evaluated qualitatively on a number of attributes related to our goals. They are:

  1. Detailed information for each menu item
  2. Photos of all menu items
  3. Customized ordering (extra sauce, no mushrooms)
  4. Nutrition information
  5. Order timing
  6. Sit-down vs pickup
  7. Request dining items in real time (napkins, refills, etc)
  8. Table reservation system
  9. Pay through app?
  10. Group ordering
  11. Split checks?
  12. Reviews and ratings
  13. General notes on interface and overall experience

Findings

Interacting with the menu

All 4 apps allow users to read a restaurant’s menu. Panera Bread, BJ’s, and Order Ahead allow customers to interact with the menu and place orders. They do this with varying degrees of detail.

App name

Detailed information for each menu item

Photos of all menu items

Customized ordering (extra sauce, no mushrooms)

Nutrition Information

Panera

Yes

Yes

Mostly intuitive

Basic calorie count in full menu. Full details in individual items

BJ's

Yes, with extra step

Yes

Very intuitive

no

Order Ahead

No - simple one or 2 sentence description

No

Mostly intuitive

no

OpenTable

No - simple menu descriptions - often just a list of contents

No

N/A

no

Panera Bread is the clear winner when it comes to interacting with the menu. This user does not see descriptions until they open an individual item, allowing them to get more information from the pictures when perusing the menu. Users can see basic calorie information for each item, but when an item is clicked on, detailed nutrition information is available. Users can customize options for each item, but the + and - buttons are a bit strange. In the center picture below, a user would need to click the + button to add extra bacon, as there is no simple “extra bacon” button. It’s not bad, but it’s not quite as simple as it could be.

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BJ’s menu is equally inviting as Panera’s. Like Panera, items have no descriptions until you click on one. A description is then shown in a popup window, along with a large picture. This is an extra and unnecessary step. If confirmed, the item’s options open. This is where the description and possibly another picture should go. The options for the add-on items can be selected by simply clicking on the buttons for lettuce, avocado, etc. This is more intuitive than Panera’s options menu, and it is easier to see what you’ve chosen if all choices are visible by button rather than a long vertical list. No nutrition information is given. This is likely a simple function of the kind of food these two restaurants serve - Panera’s food is healthy, and BJ’s is clearly not. If you care about your next meal’s nutrition, you’re not going to BJ’s.

While Order Ahead’s menu interaction is equal to Panera and BJ’s in function, It is decidedly more spartan. Users see no pictures at all, and only see brief one or two sentence descriptions of the menu items. If an item is clicked on, an options menu appears. Customization is fairly intuitive and involves checking bubbles for what you want. However, the lists are long, and you have to scroll up or down to see what you’ve selected, so it’s easy to miss something. The functionality is there, but without pictures, it takes a lot of reading to get the information you want. What makes this app useful is the ability to both search for restaurants, peruse their menus, and order directly from within the program.

OpenTable’s menu descriptions are not detailed, and individual items cannot be clicked on. Restaurants put their menus on the app as more of an indicator of the kind of food they serve. No pictures of menu items or nutrition information is given. OpenTable’s intended usage more or less stops once the customer arrives at the door.

Experience at the Restaurant

App name

When to start preparing order

sit down or pickup

table management reservation system

Pay in app

Panera

ASAP or specific time

Pickup

no

Credit Card only

BJ's

Not until you sit down at the table

Both

Sort of

Credit Card, Paypal, Apple Pay

Order Ahead

ASAP or specific time

Pickup

no

Credit Card Only

OpenTable

N/A

N/A

Yes

N/A

None of the apps offer any kind of “live” experience at the restaurant itself - only one of them, BJ’s, even extended beyond the takeout and payment stage. If customers could request things like refills, napkins, etc through an app, it would eliminate the need to flag down a server, ask for the item, and then wait for the server to bring that item to the table, both parties could be saved a great deal of time. The two pickup-only apps, Panera and Order Ahead, will either begin preparing your order as soon as you’ve placed it, (and paid for it) or at a later time specified by you. This kind of flexibility offers great time savings to the customer, and to the establishment, as they do not need to invest time in the slow process of taking a voice order form the customer. BJ’s allows you to place an order for a sit-down experience, but will not begin preparing your order until you sit down at the table. This saves a little bit of time, as you do not need to go through the process of perusing the menus, ordering drinks, and verbally reciting your order. However, if the food preparation could begin before the customer arrived at the door, the time savings would be much greater. It is thought that BJ’s does not begin your order before you arrive because they cannot guarantee you a table in the dining room. Once you arrive, you must go on the waiting list if the dining room is full. They do not have a reservation system in the app, and are not part of OpenTable’s reservation system. Many reviews of BJ’s iOS app are harshly critical of this kind of unpredictability. Users did not like placing an order, driving to the restaurant, and then having to wait in line.

Groups

App name

group ordering

split check

Panera

no

no

BJ's

Yes, but is very cumbersome

Yes

Order Ahead

By link

no

OpenTable

You can specify how many people your reservation is for.

N/A

Two of the apps, BJ’s and Order Ahead, allow for group ordering, although none of them offer anything approaching a seamless experience. Panera simply takes single orders - the customer can order for others, but must take those orders from other group members manually, and include them on their own. Order Ahead allows group ordering in that a group leader can invite others to make choices by sending them a link. However, this is essentially just asking your group-mates to add to your own order - and you still have to pay for it all, requiring time consuming reimbursements from them. BJ’s comes the closest to true group ordering, but the process is remarkably cumbersome. The group organizer can invite people by email or text to join a group order. (They will need the app) However, the app does not link to contacts, so emails and/or mobile numbers have to be entered manually. The entire order has to be complete before the organizer then sends it. This is essentially the same as Order Ahead - group members can make their own choices within the app, but it’s basically still one large order. The advantage BJ’s has here is that each member can pay for their own meal in the app, so splitting checks is very easy, saving some time for the customer, and a lot of time for the server.

Ratings and Reviews

Only OpenTable has a review system. It is similar to Yelp in that it allows users to read and write reviews of restaurants. This tool is intended to match you with an establishment, and secure your reservation there.

No app that has a systemic review system for individual menu items at multiple restaurants could be found.

Insights

To accomplish the goals laid out at the beginning, we will need to draw from successful apps whose goals align well with some of ours. Panera Bread and BJ’s are great models to draw from in the way the user interacts with the menu. We can design menu interactions that are elegant, visual, and clear in the way that Panera Bread and BJ’s are. We can create a multiple restaurant ordering system like Order Ahead. We can then integrate that menu interaction and ordering with a reservation and table management system similar to OpenTable’s. BJ’s comes close to what we want to create with regard to group ordering, but is not efficient. We feel we could improve on this system by giving each user in a group the option to submit their own orders individually.

Primary Recommendations

  1. Allow restaurants to build their own menus within the app, but those menus should be elegant and minimalist with pictures doing most of the “talking” - most of an item’s information and description should only be available after clicking on it
  2. Offer as many payment options as possible - credit card, paypal, apple pay, etc.
  3. Group ordering should be as democratized as possible, and splitting checks should be easy
  4. Customers should have the ability to read and write ratings and reviews of individual menu items
  5. Integrate the same functionalities of OpenTable with the above recommendations

Low Priority Recommendation

  1. Customers should be able to request dining items (refills, desserts, etc) in the app without flagging down a server