How restaurants are collaborating to reimagine the CX of patio dining

Toronto's Distillery District offers a taste of what the restaurant sector and other industries have to do to survive amid COVID-19

My in-laws, who are among the only people within the “social circle” my family has maintained since the outbreak of COVID-19, offered to let our three children stay over for a few days, and my wife and I wasted no time in going out to eat.

Like everyone else, we’ve been hunkered down indoors for months, with only the occasional take-out order to change things up from home cooking. We live in Toronto, and had not yet reached the point where people were allowed indoors at restaurants, but with summer there were plenty of patio options available — including one I’d never experienced before.

Our city’s popular Distillery District —which converted old factories into a series of boutiques and galleries — boasts half a dozen high-end restaurants we’ve enjoyed in the past. When we stopped by there in late July, however, we found not a series of isolated patios but what was essentially an enormous group patio — with 250 tables and enough to accommodate approximately 1,000 guests.

What we soon discovered, however, is that several of the Distillery District’s restaurants had collaborated on an unusual restaurant customer experience that may be a sign of what will become common before long — at least until the winter months set in.

I’m documenting the journey here as part of 360 Magazine’s ‘Voice of the Customer’ series to provide some ideas and consideration for CX professionals in the food sector as well as other industries. With that in mind, this shouldn’t be taken as a traditional restaurant review, but more of an exploration of the elements that develop an experience beyond the taste of the food itself.

The Arrival Experience

This is a nervous time for diners, and the Distillery District has offset that by using large umbrellas and large barrels that create a vaguely European ambience while also conferring a sense of safe distance and privacy between tables. This is accented by public art scattered throughout, and plenty of plants.

We had no prior knowledge of what the patio experience offered prior to arriving there, and noted that there were signs on tables indicating you had to be assigned your seat by a hostess, who was stationed behind a sort of podium at one side of the closed-off street.

She gave us some options of where we could sit (it wasn’t crowded), and let us know that regardless of what restaurant was nearby, we could order from several restaurants in the nearby vicinity.

Once we were at our table, however, we weren’t sure how to place an order. My wife went back to the hostess and she explained at we could only order digitally through our smartphones. That’s when we realized there were QR codes on the tables that would bring up a web site with consolidated touchless menus from four different venues.

My wife struggled with her Android device to get the site to appear through the QR code and had to type in a URL instead. The site design, however, was simple and easy to compare and contrast dishes. We realized that we did not have to limit ourselves to choosing from the menu of one venue, but could mix and match and place orders through a single checkout process.

CX pros: Besides the inviting atmosphere of the patio, the concept of the consolidated menu added some welcome variety to what we had expected. It was nice enough just to be eating out, but creating a sort of digital buffet of Distillery District cuisine felt more engaging and creative than ordering from a venue on its own.
CX minuses: It’s possible the Distillery District business association has been marketing this concept, but I have never seen or heard anything. The hostess was friendly but the process was not made entirely clear to us. More obvious signage — maybe near all available entrances to the patio — would have been good to make the concept clear.

The Dining Experience

My wife and I placed our orders on our respective devices. We sat back and waited, but not very long.

After less than 15 minutes, a staffer from one of the restaurants came running out — yes, running — with a bag of food in hand. She smiled as she arrived, confirmed which of us had ordered the food in question and explained that some of the other things we had ordered would be coming separately from the other restaurants.

This process repeated itself. Those bringing out the food looked happier to be bringing us food than any pizza delivery person I have ever encountered at our home.

The packaging in which the food arrived was not cheap or flimsy but large enough to maintain a sense of delicacy in how the food was presented — almost as good as it would probably look if it was served on a proper dinner plate. Everything arrived within less than ten minutes of each other, so we had our full meals before us without anything getting cold. There were plastic utensils and enough napkins that we did not need to ask for more. The drinks were all in cans (I never realized you could drink margarita in a can), which avoided the need for glasses.

CX pros: The choice and flexibility of the web site meant we were able to pair items that might normally have never gone together. The speed at which the food arrived was greater than almost any good restaurant I’ve experienced, with the appetizer dish we had decided to share arriving first, just as in a normal restaurant. Given that the food came in not only packaging but bags, we could choose to leave the patio with any leftovers easily, but the nature of the environment was such that we felt freer to linger than we would in a high-end restaurant that is counting on tables to turn over more frequently. The fact we’d pre-paid also made it more liberating to end the experience.
CX minuses: Despite the summer heat there was wind blowing, and with no place to put the plastic bags aside they threatened to drift off where where I tried to stuff them in the chair next to me. We had been told we would have to clean up after ourselves, which was fine, but it was hard not to feel guilty about the single-use plastics we had been given.
Unlike a normal restaurant, there was no point at which staff from any of the restaurants came by to see if we were enjoying the food. To add anything after the main course, like coffee or dessert, would have meant taking out our phones and going through the whole ordering process again, which feels surprisingly more onerous than being asked and served. I realized belatedly that I had no idea where we could use a restroom, which required making a third trip back to the hostess to be guided to some nearby options.

The After-Experience

As we left, we saw a staff person cleaning down nearby tables that had also recently been vacated. We put our packaging in the recycling and garbage containers and walked away. That was it.

I felt like turning back to our hostess and waving, but this felt as unnecessary as doing so at the end of a Zoom call. The collaborative nature of the patio experience detracts from the sense that a single brand cared we were there.

Operationally, everything seemed to work flawlessly, and was impressive given the different restaurant teams involved. There was also a sense, however, that this whole thing is rather provisional — not something the restaurants would ever have willingly done had the pandemic never happened.

If anything, the Distillery District showed how multiple brands — even those who are normally considered competitors — can offer an experience greater than the sum of their parts when they collaborate. I wondered what kind of similar concepts might be executed among a group of retailers, or providers of services in the automotive or wellness space.

If more of these experiments happen, brands will need to be more conscious and intentional about the after-experience. Some of those restaurants could have dropped a card or other material in the bag that encouraged us to stop by again with news of upcoming menu selections. They could have sought permission to text or e-mail us with a thank you and offer for a discount or promotion in exchange for a return visit. There needs to be feedback mechanisms established — maybe not a survey but maybe a button that could be pressed if an app were used instead of a web site, or a link from the site to the various restaurants’ social channels.

The biggest missed opportunity? A prompt to gift the experience on to someone else. We decided, the next day, to buy a digital gift certificate out of gratitude for our in-laws, but we might have thought of it sooner if the restaurant collective had suggested it in any way, and made the process more turnkey.

Given that these are new forms of traditional experiences, gifting (or at least encouraging the sharing) of the experience will be crucial to educating the larger public and probably more effective than traditional marketing. Restaurants are already a highly valued provider of experiences, but this kind of thing could be the icing on the cake. 

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