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Businesses embrace technology to evolve in a post-pandemic world

Kimbal Musk, CEO and co-founder of The Kitchen Restaurant Group. (ABC News)By TAYLOR DUNN, KATIE MULDOWNEY and HALEY YAMADA, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — In a time of social distancing and contactless encounters, businesses are turning to technology to adapt.

Kimbal Musk, CEO and co-founder of The Kitchen Restaurant Group, had closed his restaurants for months after the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States. Now, as they begin to reopen — he said about half have done so already — guests will be having a completely reinvented, contactless dining experience, via a new app called Next Door On Demand.

The app, named for one of his restaurants in Boulder, Colorado, allows restaurant-goers to have a nearly contactless experience with the ability to order and pay via their smartphones.

“I’ve always loved the idea of ordering from your iPhone and I’ve been thinking about it for years,” Musk told ABC News’ Rebecca Jarvis on Nightline. “When COVID hit and I dealt with the question of safety for our team, I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is a time to build it.’”

Building the app during the COVID-19 pandemic presented its own challenges. Musk worked with a team of software designers from around the world, mostly through the videoconferencing platform Zoom, to develop the technology.

“It was actually awesome. We were trying to figure out time zones, to figure out who’d have to stay up the latest. But it was fun. I mean, we had fun doing it and knowing that we didn’t have any else to do. So let’s innovate.” Musk said.

He’s not alone in that innovation. With millions of Americans out of work and new COVID-19 cases rising in 15 states, more and more businesses are betting on technology to encourage employees and customers to return, changing everything from the way people work to the way they live and communicate.

“There is definitely a lot of, to put it lightly, a lot of changes happening all around us and specifically when we look at technology…there is certainly going to be a lot of change in innovation, resetting the industries that were affected negatively,” Christine Tsai, CEO and founding partner of venture capital firm 500 Startups, told Nightline.

But as innovation solves the most pressing problems today, it begs the question of whether it will also create problems for the future. Musk says the hardest part of creating the app was considering the user experience at a restaurant.

“We want our guests to feel that they are connected to people. Restaurants are about restoring yourself and going in and meeting, connecting with a server. Getting to know your family or friends or whoever you’re with, and so we really wanted to ensure that hospitality stayed in the restaurant experience,” he said.

Musk is the younger brother of Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and founder of SpaceX, both for which he serves on the board. The pair was born and raised in South Africa but eventually made their way to California’s Silicon Valley, where they co-founded the software company Zip2, which was later acquired by Compaq in the late 90s. Kimbal Musk says his older brother has always been a sounding board throughout his life.

“[Elon has] helped me all my life. And in 2008, the car industry essentially collapsed and I helped my brother get through Tesla’s survival there. And I’m now I’m getting advice from him on how to get through the restaurant industry… Our version of a nuclear bomb just went off in our industry,” Kimbal Musk said. “How do you get through it? He’s a good cheerleader for me.”

Kimbal Musk hopes other restaurants will utilize similar technology, and said he plans to scale his new app technology for other independent restaurants that want to make their own app.

“We’re working with a partnership with a young startup out of Silicon Valley that’ll focus entirely on independent restaurants to build technology like this for them in a very cost effective way,” said Musk.

Since the pandemic began in March, over 100,000 small businesses have permanently shut down, according to researchers from Harvard Business School. Eighty-five percent of independent restaurants are at risk of closing by the end of the year, according to the Independent Restaurant Association. Many have turned to services like Doordash and Seamless to stay afloat.

Angie Mar, executive chef and owner of The Beatrice Inn in New York City, had to completely shift her business model in the midst of the pandemic.

“We had to completely do a 180,” she recently told Nightline. “We pivoted to take out and delivery, which we had never done before… Our takeout business is doing well, but, regardless, it’s a fraction of the amount of money that we were making before.”

Like restaurants, other industries have also been forced to embrace technology. The travel industry, which counts itself among the hardest industries, saw U.S. airline passenger volumes drop 75% compared to this time last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Hotels, another crucial aspect of the travel industry, have felt the impact as well.

Earlier this year, Marriott, one of the largest hotel chains in the world, had closed roughly 2,000 of its global locations. Although over 90% of the company’s hotels are back open today, during the peak of the pandemic in April, the company saw revenue per room drop 90%.

With New York City in the fourth phase of its reopening plan, the hotel giant is using its Brooklyn Bridge location as an early adopter of its mobile technology. Via the Marriott Bonvoy app guests can check-in, check-out, order room service and toiletries and even open their room with a digital key.

“Well, obviously we are in the teeth of the [pandemic] still and we’re obviously wrestling with it in different parts of the world,” Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott, told ABC News’s Rebecca Jarvis on Nightline. “So, what we’ve done quickly is say, ‘Let’s make sure we’re getting the safety, cleanliness protocols in place that are essential in a time of a pandemic like this,’ which means more intensive guest room cleaning between guests, social distancing in the public spaces, shields and the like in the public spaces — probably less food and beverage service.”

As many of these industries implement new technologies to adjust to the “new normal”, there is still the looming question of whether or not jobs will return. Over 50 million people have filed for unemployment in the last six months and some wonder if technology will replace jobs lost during the pandemic.

As uncertainty continues to surround the trajectory of the virus and the timeline of a potential vaccine, industry experts are cautiously preparing to accept the new normal.

“There is no going back to pre-COVID because that doesn’t exist,” Tsai said. “We’ll have already gone through this experience of being in this global pandemic and a lot of the challenges in society and technology in these industries are now exposed.”

“The guests are really happy with On Demand kind of experiences,” Musk said. “What you don’t want to do is turn this into a fast casual experience or a fast food experience. … This is not fast food. So, I think balancing that is important. But from a guest convenience and guest happiness perspective, and from a team safety perspective, it’s pretty hard to imagine going back.”

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