Why Restaurants Shouldn’t Build Their Own Mobile Apps

Technology use among restaurants is seeing fast paced growth, and restaurant operators are beginning to understand the importance of mobile and tablet technology to improve their top and bottom line.  According to Hudson Riehle, Senior Vice President of Research for the National Restaurant Association, use of technology is expanding among all age groups.  No, it’s not just teens who want to use the latest technology for their dining experience.  Our customers report even consumers in the 65+ age bracket enjoy using iPad menus to choose a wine or beverage for their meal.

Of course with the increased focus on technology for dining, there are a wealth of options for operators to consider.  From paying on your mobile phones to loyalty/reward programs to iPad and tablet menus, there are endless apps to choose from and startups vying for the attention of restaurants.  While many operators are joining existing platforms, we occasionally see some going alone and building their own apps.  There are a few cases where building your own app (or having software developers build an app for you) may make sense, but by and large it doesn’t, and here’s why:

Restaurant Operators Core Competency Isn’t Technology

In reality, building an app is easy.  Your neighborhood kid in high school may be able to build an app for your restaurant.  Building and maintaining an app that really adds value by improving the dining experience, is easy to use (for your staff and customers),  secure, reliable and delivers the functionality you really need; that requires expertise in both hospitality and technology.

The benefit of using an existing platform rather than building your own or having one built for you, is that the app developer has the technological expertise.  They know what technologies to use.  They understand user interaction and user experiences.  And, they have experience and knowledge from working with many operators to know what works well and what doesn’t.  They’ve found the strange use cases and quirks that you won’t find until after you’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and are six months into your project, and they have a broad view to understand how to solve these challenges.  Operators sometimes like to think their organization or brand is so unique that they need their own solution, but many more times than not that turns into a failed IT project, with a lot of wasted time and money on a product not many people like to use.

Technology Changes Rapidly

Another issue I also see is operators not thinking about the long-term costs and implications of building their own app or having one built for them.  Technology changes extremely rapidly.  The best programming frameworks, the devices, the operating systems, are changing every few months.  In September, Apple released iOS 8 and suddenly thousands of apps no longer worked on iPhones or iPads because of the changes.  Or when Samsung releases a new phone, will your app work on the hot new device? If you rely on your own software team or outsource the work, are they keeping up with these changes to ensure your app works on the latest technology?

If you build something to meet your needs now, will it really meet your needs 12 months from now?  Do you know how the hospitality technology industry is changing and what you’ll need to keep up, or will your app always be lagging behind?  These are the considerations you need to keep in mind when deciding whether to build your own app.  It’s not just an upfront cost, it’s the cost to maintain and improve the software over time.

Apps are Opening Up to the World

With the proliferation of mobile apps, consumers don’t want to install hundreds of apps on their phone anymore.  If they come across an app they won’t use often, they simply won’t install it.  Consumers are keen to preserve the app real estate on their devices.

Mobile apps are also now opening themselves up to be part of broader platforms.  We’re moving away from the app silos as the industry shifts to using open APIs.  APIs are ways for different apps or web services to communicate with each other.  This allows your app to not only talk to your POS and other internal systems, but improve your customers’ experience by communicating with other services.  For example, Uber, the popular car service, now has an API that allows you to request a ride in any app.  Imagine your customers from one place can pay their bill and have a black car requested to pick them up so it’s waiting right when they exit your restaurant.

Choosing the Right App Platform For Your Restaurant

I can continue listing the benefits of using an existing technology platform for your restaurant, but I think you get the point.  No matter which route you take, be sure you consider the following:

  • Has the app developer worked with other restaurants like mine?
  • How frequently is the app being updated, both with new features and to improve performance and security?
  • Does this app really help me accomplish my business goals or is it just something shiny and new?

Last month I posted some considerations in how to choose an iPad wine menu app.  While I was specifically addressing iPad and tablet-based menu solutions, the article provides some important points for any restaurant mobile app.

Josh Saunders