We previously shared a software as a service (SaaS) toolkit with you, detailing every type of software small businesses might want to use to boost productivity and compete with big business.

In the restaurant industry, the software choices available to you are a little different. With ever-changing menus, guest requests and modifications to manage, and tables to juggle, non-specialist software often doesn't cut it.

But restaurant software often comes with a hefty price tag that's difficult to defend when margins are under pressure from so many other directions.

The right restaurant software more than justifies its cost, however. In this article, we'll look through the most popular types of restaurant software, and where they might fit in your toolkit.

Click the links below to jump ahead to a section that interests you.

Point of Sale | Booking/Reservations | Accounting and Payroll | Marketing | Shift Planning and Attendance | Website Design and Management | Tasks, Safety and Compliance

Point of Sale

The first addition to our software toolkit is the point of sale (POS) system. Point of sale systems act as a digital till — a place where employees can process transactions electronically.

Today's point of sale systems usually come packaged with a whole host of other features, and often form complete restaurant management systems. The software providers may also sell hardware like tablets and printers which are used along with the software.

Big names in the market include Square, iZettle, Epos Now and Lightspeed.

System features might include:

  • Table management
  • Customer loyalty accounts
  • At-table service
  • Inventory management
  • Analytics/reports

What does it cost?

Given the range of options available, it's very difficult to put a price on a POS system. Typical cost structures look something like this:

  • Tablets/main POS terminal. This usually takes the form of an Android tablet or iPad. Providers often sell this hardware or you can buy your own. Suitable tablets typically range in price from £150-£400.
  • Other hardware. This includes stands for tablets (£50-£150), cash drawers (£25-£50), chip-and-pin card machines (£30-£70) and receipt printers (£120-£300). You may be able to pair hardware you already own with your new point of sale system.
  • Software. Some providers don't charge for the main software directly, but others charge a monthly fee (usually £20-30) which usually increases per additional till.
  • Extra features. Functions outside of the core features like employee management or table management may cost extra per month. This can be charged per employee or per till.  

How to choose

All these options can be overwhelming. For a small, independent restaurant that requires only a single till, opt for a lightweight solution like Square. It's worth researching your hardware options thoroughly before buying, particularly if your software provider is encouraging you to buy hardware through them.

Don't forget to consider the tech-savviness of your staff. If they aren't confident with technology, choose a system that places an emphasis on user-friendliness above all else.

It's also worth looking at the integrations that each product has — they might link up with accounting software, HR software, or delivery platforms, for example.

What's the catch?

Almost all the options available on the market will leave you paying for features that you won't use. Some providers will also try to tie you into expensive long-term deals, or require you to buy hardware from them upfront.

You're also reliant on their systems holding up. Because pretty much every modern POS system is cloud-based, a service outage from your provider will leave you unable to take payments and access all the other features. It's definitely worth asking potential providers about their 'uptime' — i.e. the percentage of time the service is fully operational — and details of previous outages.

Key questions to answer:

  • Which POS features do we actually need?
  • Will the system generate significant time savings?
  • How will it affect customer service and employee productivity?

Booking/Reservations

Avoid double-booking tables by ditching handwritten reservations books and clunky spreadsheets and instead using booking software built for restaurateurs.

You have a couple of different routes to choose between. First, opt for a system that's part of a broader restaurant management system or POS software. Alternatively, sign up to a system that's primarily reservation-focused, like OpenTable Connect or ResDiary.

If you feel that you don't need a heavyweight POS, a booking system can take all the hassle out of managing reservations for a relatively low cost.

Providers often advertise your restaurant through their own site and also supply a 'widget' that acts as a window into their service which visitors to your website can fill in without having to leave your site.

Other features vary by software provider, but they may include:

  • Pre-paid reservations/deposit management
  • Securely store customer card details (eg. for charging cancellation/no-show fees)
  • Automated confirmation and booking reminder emails for guests
  • Table management
  • SMS and email marketing

What does it cost?

OpenTable is the big name in the market and charges £25 per month for its OpenTable Connect service, plus £2 per cover for each OpenTable reservation.

Elsewhere, ResDiary charges a monthly fee of £69-£225 (depending on the number of reservations made), plus a one-off fee for setup. Tock's pricing plans range from $199 (£150)-$699 (£536) per month.

When these sites accept deposits or pre-paid reservations, they often take a fee (usually 1-3%) to cover payment processing costs.

How to choose

What's the main problem you're currently having with reservations? It might be a high number of no-shows, or booking mixups, or perhaps customers asking if they can book online rather than over the phone or in person. Look for a system that will solve or ease this problem, and also meet your other business goals.

It'll be easier for you to work out which system is the best fit for your company if you note down stats like:

  • Your average table size
  • Number of reservations taken each day/week/month
  • Percentage of no-shows and late cancellations

You can then estimate the cost of paying for each system, and weigh them against their respective benefits.

What's the catch?

One of the unintended consequences of accepting online bookings is a potential increase in no-shows, at least for some restaurants. After all, clicking a button to reserve a table is far less personal than calling — so guests are less likely to show up, and may not even tell you if they're cancelling.

The impact on no-shows will depend on numerous factors. We recommend measuring no-show rates before and after adopting the software to see the difference. Given that some software will let you take deposits and even retain credit card details, you may find that no-shows actually go down.

There's also been concern in the industry about the commission-based pricing model these systems often use — restaurants lose direct bookings and get charged extra for the honour. It's similar to the setup for many hotels and online travel agents like Booking.com.

Key questions to ask

  • Do I need a full restaurant management platform or just a booking system?
  • Will this system prevent no-shows, or increase their likelihood?

Accounting and Payroll

Bookkeeping is seldom an enjoyable experience for restaurant managers — grappling with spreadsheets is time-consuming and prone to error. Accounting software aims to streamline processes and automate data entry wherever possible. Most of today's accounting systems are cloud-based and run in your internet browser instead of requiring you to download software.

Top names in this market include Xero, Sage, Quickbooks and Freshbooks.

Features typically include:

  • Invoice creation (i.e. for suppliers)
  • Accounting reports and analytics
  • Auto enrolment pension scheme management
  • VAT submissions
  • Payroll

What does it cost?

There's plenty of competition in the market, and a wide range of lightweight solutions designed for single-site businesses.

Generally you can expect to pay £10-30 a month for small business accounting software. Some providers may charge extra for payroll and other features. However, most providers offer discounts for the first few months.

If you're in the UK, it's worth noting that many accounting software providers are offering special discounts in the build-up to the new Making Tax Digital regulations, which will legally require all VAT registered businesses to automatically submit VAT info to HMRC based on their VAT records from April 2019.

Now's the perfect time to scope out your options and start trying out software.

How to choose

Most products on the market are similar. Our advice is to draw up a list of features you require (eg. MTD ready, user-friendly, cloud-based, payroll, mobile apps, invoices, 24/7 support etc.) and approach several providers with them.

See how many boxes each provider ticks, and get a quote from each of them. It's a competitive market, so don't be afraid to haggle a little, or at least see if you can secure a longer free trial.  

It's also worth asking others in your network of their experiences with accounting software.

Choosing an accounting system is an important decision to make — don't commit to any long term contracts or annual payments until you're certain the system is right for your business.

What's the catch?

Accounting software is generally less flexible than a custom-made spreadsheet. You will probably have to adjust your processes to fit with the new system. It might also be tricky to link accounting software with your POS system if there's no integration between them.

Key questions:

  • Should we work with an accountant to handle all or some of our finances, or just use software?
  • What are the issues with our current accounting setup?

Email Marketing

There are a number of ways to engage with your customers online, but email is by far the most common — and arguably one of the cheapest — methods around.

But with every email you send to your customers effectively serving as an advertisement for your brand, it's important that they not only look professional and suitably on-brand, but also reach the right audiences and drive people to your website.  

You could do all this by learning how to code and creating your own professional email templates. But it's far simpler to take a cue from thousands of other businesses and sign up for a web-based email marketing service instead.

There are a variety of platforms out there to choose from, each with its own strengths and unique toolsets. Features you'll find in the vast majority of email marketing services, however, are:

  • A wide variety of highly customisable email templates
  • Ability to drag and drop text, images, logos and more, with no coding required
  • Email scheduling, and the ability to create tailored mailing lists
  • Analytics — track and monitor open-rates, link clicks, and more

What does it cost?

The price of entry for these platforms will vary depending on the size of your business, and most charge on a per-recipient basis.

Mailchimp is probably the biggest name out there when it comes to email marketing. It's easy to use, highly customisable, and can be used for free so long as you have fewer than 2,000 subscribers on your mailing list. After that, plans start from just $10(~£8) per month.

Similarly, GetResponse prides itself on being incredibly user-friendly with its simple, drag-and-drop interface. It isn't free (costing upwards of £10 per month) but does come with a free 30-day trial so you can decide if it's right for you.

Finally, MailerLite is one of the easiest platforms to get to grips with, boasting both free (providing you have fewer than 1,000 employees) and paid options, starting from £10 per month — with no limit on the number of emails you can send out.

How to choose

Ultimately, the platform you choose will depend on the number of customers you plan to email, and your overall marketing goals.

While all email marketing services will allow you to send professional-looking emails, others will also allow you to generate things like website pop-ups (to net new subscribers) and landing pages (to link to from your marketing emails). Others will focus on analytics data, and allow users to do things like split-testing their emails to gauge how different copy, designs, and calls to action affect user engagement.  

Finally, something you may want to consider is whether you need your email marketing platform to integrate with other platforms — for example, your blog or POS system — that you use. If you're happy just to send out the occasional offer or newsletter, and don't need an all-singing, all-dancing system that tracks buyer journeys from start to finish, then you'd probably get by just fine with one of the free options.

What's the catch?

Unless your business remains relatively small, there's a good chance you'll end up having to pay a monthly fee for your email marketing software. Many businesses are also moving away from email marketing, instead choosing to focus on social media and chatbot technology, but these can be more time-consuming and costly.  

Key questions to answer:

  • How frequently will we reach out to customers via email?
  • Do I have the technical prowess to design my own professional-looking emails?
  • Would analytical data gathered from these emails be of value to my business?

Shift planning and attendance

In the restaurant industry, staff are your most valuable and most expensive resource. Shift mix-ups, frequent lateness and employee no-shows not only cause chaos, but also carry significant costs.  

Rota planning software provides an efficient solution to your staff scheduling woes, allowing you to plan, edit and distribute rotas all in one place. Time and attendance software automatically builds timesheets based on clocking in and out data. No more paper timesheets.

Often employee scheduling will be included (or available as an added extra) in a point-of-sale system, but standalone, specialist employee scheduling software is also available.

Specialist rota software usually has more features than POS scheduling systems. These features might include:

  • Copying and pasting entire rotas across weeks and months
  • Automatically notifying employees when rotas are published or shifts are edited
  • Allowing staff to arrange shift swaps within the software (subject to manager approval)
  • Tracking and recording leave and other absences
  • Automatically populating timesheets
  • Mobile/on-site clocking in
  • Reports and analytics based on attendance data
  • Employee apps

What does it cost?

Specialist rota planning software varies in cost between providers. Some offer limited free tiers, but fully-featured versions usually start from £1 per employee per month, with time and attendance usually costing extra.

You'll need to weigh up these costs against the savings associated with reduced shift mix-ups and the time your manager(s) might save planning and updating rotas.

How to choose

For rota software to be effective, you need all your employees to be confident using the system to check the rota, book leave, and arrange shift swaps. Therefore, we recommend looking for a system that's as user-friendly as possible.

When trialling the various options, pay close attention to the level of support you receive, and the effort made by the provider to understand your business's specific needs. If they're reluctant to engage with your specific use case, look elsewhere.

What's the catch?

Scheduling software costs money, and you can technically build and manage your rotas using spreadsheets (though that does require plenty more time and is less flexible when you're required to make last-minute changes).

Also, you may need to purchase new hardware for clocking in and out — typically a tablet that costs anywhere between £100-200, plus any additional stands or locks you require.

Key questions:

  • Do we need a time-tracking system, or just a rota planning system?
  • Which rota-related tasks are the biggest time drain for our business, and how can rota software help?

Website Design and Management

Social media may have made websites a little less essential for small businesses, but a well-designed site gives your business its own slice of the internet over which you have complete control.

Today, you can build your own website with little to no programming knowledge. Tools like Squarespace and Wix do the hard work for you, providing customisable templates that you can fill with your own images and text.

Features may include:

  • Customisable website templates
  • Mobile-optimised design
  • Free hosting (so your website is 'live' on the internet and can be visited by others)
  • Built-in security/malware protection
  • Custom domain names (ie. yourrestaurantname.com)
  • Extras like email and social media marketing

What does it cost?

To secure a custom domain that doesn't have any adverts, you'll probably need to pay about £10-15 per month. To get the best price, you'll have to pay annually instead of monthly.

How to choose

All the big names have free trials or free website builders available for you to play around with. You won't be able to use a custom domain or remove their ads from your site, but you'll gain a clear idea of what it's like to use these tools.

Once you've built a basic website, try out certain tasks that you'll need to complete on a regular basis, like updating your menu, or replacing food photos with each season. This'll give you an idea of what it'll be like to manage your website going forward.

What's the catch?

You'll be paying a monthly fee to display content that you could post on social networks for free. And if you ever want to switch to a different website platform, you may well have to start from scratch.

Key questions:

  • What content would we include on our website? (e.g. menus, video, booking widget, photos)
  • What would constitute a success? (e.g. number of website visitors per month, bookings made through the website)

Safety, Compliance, and Task Scheduling

Keeping a restaurant running smoothly and safely requires repeating plenty of routine tasks every day. While your seasoned staff know these routines inside-out, newer staff may forget to complete key tasks — potentially leaving your guests without cutlery or condiments, or your chefs using dirty equipment.

Software can play a part in kitchen safety, compliance, or merely simple task scheduling. For restaurants with multiple sites, it can also be used to maintain consistent standards across each location.

Solutions vary in complexity, from powerful restaurant-specific solutions like Trail to simple, general tools like Google Keep. Here are the types of features to look out for:

  • Cloud-based checklists
  • Set task reminders
  • Share task lists in the cloud
  • Attach photos to specific tasks

What does it cost?

Google Keep and other simple checklist apps tend to be free or bundled in a wider office package.

How to choose

There aren't many restaurant-specific solutions on the market that are suitable for smaller restaurants - you might be better off using a simple checklist app like Google Keep or Microsoft OneNote alongside a traditional printed-out cleaning schedule. Trail look to be releasing software for single site restaurants in the future, so it's worth keeping an eye on their website for more details.

What's the catch?

Checklist software like this holds little value if even a single employee chooses not to use it. All your staff must have access to the system, and use it.  Setting up these processes for the first time can be difficult, and may end up causing more confusion.

Key questions:

  • Do we plan to expand to multiple sites in the near future? Would setting up processes in advance be beneficial?
  • Do our team struggle to maintain a consistent level of service and keep up standards in the kitchen?

Your essential toolkit

There are many other types of software that we haven't mentioned here, such as HR, social media, and recruitment tools.

However, the categories we've detailed above form the basis of your restaurant's software toolkit — you might not need all these tools, but it's nice to have them — or at least know what they're capable of!

If you're new to business software, we recommend taking it slow — try out one product that solves your biggest headache, see how it works, and measure its impact. You can then evaluate other processes and the role that software could play.