It’s no secret that the COVID-19 crisis is destroying the restaurant industry.
Hospitality dies when customers won’t leave their homes, and no amount of Grub Hub delivery will replace the dine-in experience, the workers it supports, or the money it generates.
While the crisis may be temporary, it isn’t stopping landlords from demanding rent for unused space, and it may continue for a year or more before serious return to what we all believe is normal interactive human activity. But what if the pre-COVID normal is gone forever?
The restaurant industry is changing before our eyes and many of those changes, especially technological shifts, may be here to stay. When we all go back for our next bowl of ramen will we be entering a touchless, cashless eating space driven by automation and AI?
Restaurant and technology writer Rom Krupp thinks so. He has identified three intriguing trends in last month’s Restaurant Technology Review. The first is in-restaurant adoption of ‘bring your own device’ strategy that allows customers to interact with the establishment without needing to handle menus or money. We are becoming accustomed to ordering and paying from our phones, so why stop at the café door?
“For health and safety reasons, customers are using their phones at the table to browse the menu and pay for their food. They’re not just for ordering takeout and delivery anymore.” Krupp writes. “Mobile ordering was already a fast-expanding phenomenon, but the stay-at-home orders that affected most of the U.S. population for March, April, and May of this year have accelerated mobile ordering and bring-your-own-device adoption at record speed.”
And if menus and money can pass disease, so can packaging, and the pandemic crisis has accelerated adjustments here that may remain. Krupp states, “Since the wide-scale adoption of third-party delivery services, we’ve seen companies developing packaging that can carry food with less spillage, keep it hot for longer, and prevent it from getting soggy. Concerns around coronavirus have pushed restaurants to be even more transparent and careful with packaging—labeling and individually packing every item to show that nothing’s been touched or opened between the store and customer’s doorstep.” Packaging can be a shorthand for taking greater care in all aspects of bringing food to customer, whether at table, car or home.
Krupp’s final trend is how automation can create contactless cooking and serving. Kitchen video screens are moving out of the quick serve restaurant category to assure less touching of paper by multiple hands. Digital table/reservation managers also free up employee time and minimize customer contact, while providing the benefit of estimating wait times to suggesting optimal seating arrangements based on time and party size. Kiosks either at tables, like many airport restaurants, or for initial ordering and payment, like at Panera Bread, allow diners to interact with the restaurant without human contact. Keeping an antibacterial wipe on hand would help the process in a pandemic.
Inventory systems reduce human interaction (and human error) in necessary back-room ordering and storage functions. Companies like Rubicon are upgrading waste management options to keep food out of landfills. Even food preparation is ripe for automation, from sous vide precision closed bag cooking to automated hot and cold drink makers and dispensers. Krupp writes, “Another example is 3D-printed food. Take pasta-making. It is a very labor-intensive process, and yet you can’t charge much for a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese. 3D-printed pasta, however, removes the labor aspect, which can increase profit margins substantially and free up kitchen staff for other tasks.” It also reduces human touches in a sensitive environment.
We are not yet seeing the robot revolution in bussing, waiting, and restaurant table delivery despite my army of robots prediction. But artificial intelligence and machine learning are the future of restaurant technology. A clear indicator is the purchase of AI company Dynamic Yield last year by McDonalds. According to restaurant industry journal QSR Magazine, “Dynamic Yield is a big bet on machine learning—the idea that it’s not just a passing fad, but will become the backbone of customer service and marketing for restaurant chains everywhere.” McDonalds is integrating the predictive technology of Dynamic Yield into all of its restaurants and expects to use this acquisition to become “so good at anticipating and catering to consumer behaviors and desires that it would force other competitors to evolve or fall by the wayside.”
The Dynamic Yield tech also upsells directly to customers, so employees are freed from the aggravating refrain of “do you want fries with that” or “can we supersize that for you?” McDonald’s CEO expects this technology will pare 30 seconds of each drive-through order.
Other technologies could soon appear in your favorite restaurant. Imagine how much your wait staff will resent the customer that buzzes the server’s wearable device when the table needs something or wants to talk to a manager. The Presto wearable could offer just such an experience. Caliburger is using facial recognition from kiosks in Pasadena and Philadelphia, and other restaurants have installed this technology. (Should the restaurant need a warrant to run face recognition on you? You decide.) Soon your favorite restaurant could see you coming, make you an offer, and pre-order your favorite meal, paying for it based on your face. The same activities are also available using your voice to order over your Amazon Echo. Or the bistro can even deliver dinner to your home by drone.
Restaurants can benefit from a wide variety of tech trends. Fast casual chain Honeygrow has been testing virtual reality training for its workers. With VR onboarding programs, workers “can take a 360-degree tour of the facility, watch other employees in action, and test their skills in simulation games. With VR onboarding, trainees don't have to touch the food or even be in the restaurant to learn how to do their job. There is less pressure on them to avoid mistakes and managers have more time for their other responsibilities.” Some restaurants have moved to Bluetooth temperature monitoring sensors which can record safety information for the health department without the need to rely on personal participation in the reporting.
All of this tech, from AI to VR, may be coming to a café near you. The restaurant business was at the cusp of a technology revolution in how food is prepared and served. The COVID-19 crisis, by placing worker and customer safety in the foreground of business considerations may push the industry into a new era.