The restaurant industry was one of many that seemed poised to lose when the COVID-19 Pandemic struck, forcing dining rooms to close and affecting business at several establishments that weren’t equipped to offer delivery and curbside pickup options. However, chain restaurants and others who saw an uptick thanks to digital orders are eager to continue capitalizing on their success, with more companies than ever launching loyalty programs with the hope it will keep consumers coming back for more.

With orders made on digital platforms surging 124% in the year which ended in March, chains are more eager than ever to keep consumers coming back in a field that is crowded with competition. The way they intend to do that is through more loyalty and rewards programs through mobile apps, CNBC reports.

“With Covid-19 and consumers’ shift in behavior, we’ve really seen a giant uptick in it, from the biggest brands that were kind of holding out, I’d say, are now launching programs to keep consumers returning and keep that loyalty,” Elle Kross, director of client strategy for travel, hospitality and food services at digital marketing firm Movable Ink said.

The loyalty programs are likely to fuel consumer habits—driving them to visit certain establishments more often than others and run up higher checks each time as well, Aaron Allen, the founder of restaurant consulting firm Aaron Allen & Associates, also said.

Among the companies offering these programs and seeing success are Starbucks, Panera Bread, Domino’s and Chipotle, all of whom launched programs prior to the pandemic. In the last year, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Burger King also unveiled loyalty programs, with McDonald’s and Jack in the Box also planning to unveil programs within the year.

Part of the attractiveness of the loyalty programs is the convenience of ordering with the tap of a finger, and more payment options, but also the kind of rewards and lack of loyalty tiers most utilize. Not only do most users tend to accrue points at the same pace, but the apps also allow companies to learn more about their customers' habits—and better target them with marketing offers, deals and new menu items that they are likely to order as a result.

This information will likely help restaurants like McDonald's, Wendys and Burger King as they all continue to invest in the ongoing chicken sandwich wars, which sees them competing with other chains like Chik-Fil-A, Popeye’s and KFC as they try to reign supreme and win over customers with their offerings.

In 2021 alone, announcements about new chicken sandwich offerings have come from McDonald’s, with a new Crispy Chicken Sandwich; Burger King, with a hand-breaded chicken sandwich served on a toasted potato bun and served with deli pickles and a signature sauce; and Chik-Fil-A, with a spicy sandwich on a multigrain brioche bun, with Colby Jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and creamy cilantro lime sauce.

Even Costco seemed to be trying to get into the game, though the members-only wholesale club isn’t likely to try and heat up its stake in the competition with a loyalty app since customers already pay to shop.

McDonalds Representational image showing a McDonald's sign. Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images