A robot that can flip burgers behind the scenes is one thing. But somehow, a robot that can take on a wide range of front-of-house roles normally held by humans still feels a little space-age. However, a voice-activated, cloud-enabled service robot called the Sanbot Elf Robot seems to be making that possible. Canada-based Autonetics Universe recently acquired the rights to distribute the robot, which Nation’s Restaurant News reports can be programmed to take on such roles as greeting guests, taking orders, and sharing promotions, as well as serving as food runner, cashier and even security guard. The service robot is already used widely in Canada and Japan — the company says there are currently 100,000 in use — and it’s not difficult to see how such technology may appeal to U.S. operators struggling to manage labor costs. (Well, aside from the $13,000 price tag.) McDonald’s is currently testing robotic technology used for frying, taking drive-thru orders and cooking chicken and fish, so front-of-house applications may not be far behind for major brands.
When you hear the terms “crops” and “climate change” in the same sentence, it’s generally not good news. But perhaps for that reason, entrepreneurs are developing tech to change it. Keep your eye on Calyxt, a company that, the Spoon reports, uses a higher-tech, more efficient form of genetic modification called CRISPR, to improve the nutrition and pest-resistance of crops, while also making them grow faster and bigger as climate change becomes a more significant challenge for producers. Calyxt, whose parent company is the French pharmaceutical company Cellectis, has developed a soybean with fewer unhealthy fats and is now working on a high-fiber wheat.
If your restaurant shows games or other live events on television, you are likely aware of Tunity, a company that makes it possible for people in fitness centers, sports bars, hotels and other venues to use their smartphone to listen to audio from muted televisions showing live events. The company was onsite at the National Restaurant Association Show to promote its testing of a new feature that may help restaurants target guests with special offers based on their viewing preferences. So, as Nation’s Restaurant News reports, if one of your guests is an L.A. Lakers fan, Tunity’s app can help you send a push notification to entice the person to watch the Lakers’ next game with you — and get a free beer or other offer in exchange.
The age-old nuisance of technology is that as soon as one gadget or tool comes out to address a business challenge, there’s a new one ready to do the same job faster, better and cheaper. A new example of this is Dash Now, one company (among a number of them) that says mobile phones serve as more convenient payment vehicles than tableside tablets in restaurants. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that the company, which plans a July launch, will let guests use their phones to pay a check by scanning a QR code listed on their receipt. During the payment process, the guest is asked to provide feedback about their experience — much like the prompt you receive on your mobile phone at the end of an Uber ride.
Imagine being able to cater to your guests’ food preferences and sensitivities — all without having to train employees. AI is making that a reality for restaurants. One example is THE.FIT, which can help restaurants personalize menus and even show a person what he can or can’t eat due to allergies or other dietary restrictions. The idea is to make guests’ experiences so customized that it’s just as easy for them to eat out — and order more of their favorite foods — as it would be to prepare their ideal dish at home. The Spoon reports that to use the technology, customers simply scan a QR code on a restaurant menu via smartphone, select their dietary requirements and then the technology will generate a new menu based on the person’s preferences. The tool already knows the ingredients on a restaurant’s menu and what someone following a specific diet (e.g. keto) can and cannot eat, then saves those preferences for the next time the person dines with the restaurant.
It may still sound futuristic, but as artificial intelligence (AI) applications appear in the restaurant industry, you will want to ensure your technology can adapt to enable them. As DineEngine reports, there are a number of AI-enabled enhancements making it possible for operators to improve sales and customer relations. Are there hiccups in your ordering process? A chatbot or virtual assistant can lead someone through placing an order, suggest food based on the person’s preferences and never forget to upsell profitable additions. They can also handle customer inquiries and orders at any time of day or night, so instead of a staff member taking time to discuss a catering order during your dinner rush, your chatbot can iron out the details overnight.
Facial recognition technology has become a trend to watch in restaurants this year. While it may sound Orwellian, its potential for streamlining the payment process and loyalty programs is difficult for restaurants to ignore. A number of quick-service restaurants around the country have begun using biometric facial recognition to profile each customer’s order history, demographics and loyalty points. The technology appears to be best suited for the quick-service space at the moment but as rollouts occur across categories, note the effects (positive and negative) it has on customer experience.
If you’re currently adjusting your approach to managing labor challenges, repetitive kitchen tasks or the overall experience you provide guests, a number of tech companies are working on solutions to help. At the recent food robotics summit ArticulATE, leaders of these companies sounded off on what’s in the pipeline, and as SmartBrief reports, a key theme of discussion was finding ways for technology to blend seamlessly with human employees and guests, while freeing up employees for more creative tasks. The formula isn’t the same for every restaurant. While there is technology available that can automate burger flipping and fryer operation (Miso Robotics), baking bread (Wilkinson Baking Company, among others), serving guests (Bear Robotics) and delivering food, finding the right kind of automation for your business is about understanding what is best for developing your employees and serving guests. As the CEO of Creator, the restaurant in San Francisco that uses robots to make the perfect burger but has not automated the taking of orders, said: “Our goal is not to be the world’s most automated restaurant, our goal is not to have as few people as possible -- the goal is to have the best experience possible.”
The purpose of restaurant apps is evolving. According to research from App Annie, Gen Z, as compared with other generations, is 30 percent more engaged in apps that aren’t about gaming and other forms of entertainment. Instead, they value apps that are key to the mobile checkout process and help to keep them loyal to and engaged in a brand. Last year, Americans overall spent 140 percent more time in food and drink apps than they did during the two years prior to that. While there are certainly more apps joining the market that help account for that growth, operators are also becoming more savvy about guest engagement. Connecting with consumers and elevating their level of engagement is less about having an app that entertains and more about providing a simple, relevant, customizable experience whether the person is accessing the restaurant online or in person.
Finding and retaining talent is a perennial challenge for restaurants, and the millennial generation’s reputation for favoring flexible work arrangements stands to make things more difficult for the industry. So instead of fighting the inevitable, why not embrace it? If you’re able to adjust your labor model to accommodate a regular influx of temporary or even one-time staff of various skill levels (and particularly if you’re located in a metropolitan area) technology is quickly making it possible for restaurants to fill staffing gaps with skilled people. A recent report from Bloomberg Businessweek offered up the example of Pared, a staffing app founded by two tech and restaurant veterans that enables operators to fill last-minute staffing needs. What began as a Bay-area resource for finding dishwashers and prep cooks has since expanded to new cities (they aim to be in all major U.S. metro markets by next year) and to roles including servers, baristas and oyster shuckers. Operators are able to request various levels of experience as well. While some operators have found the app costly — a skilled worker can walk into a restaurant for one night and make a higher hourly wage than a longtime cook — they acknowledge that insurance, taxes, overtime and hiring costs make apps like Pared a viable alternative to hiring staff. As Wade Moises, executive chef of Rosemary’s in New York noted in the report, “Thinking about Pared now, I’m not sure if I should fire my whole staff or quit myself.”