Artificial Intelligence has been carving out a space in restaurants as a means of delegating tasks and saving labor costs. Though AI-supported ordering is still a work in progress (as McDonald’s has discovered with recent tests), AI is also serving as a kitchen assistant that can nudge employees to catch errors early – before they get the attention of an annoyed customer. One company in this space, Agot AI, places cameras over the food preparation line to watch how orders are being prepared. It connects with in-store, online and drive-thru orders appearing on the kitchen display system and will alert an employee in the line if an order is missing, say, the extra packets of ketchup the customer requested. In the process, the information the technology gathers can help a restaurant flag repeat problems in the line and adjust training to better manage them, and even create a rewards system to recognize employees who successfully move orders through the line with accuracy and speed.
There is no shortage of news headlines about the need for restaurants to analyze their data – and to adopt technology that can provide clues about what is going well and what isn’t. But as restaurant operators struggle with labor challenges, adopt new tech to help ease them, and double down on data analysis to better understand performance, it’s important to remember the human element. Specifically, restaurants need to balance their data analysis with a more subjective review of the guest and staff experience. A recent blog post from restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates relayed the experience of the company’s CEO, who had visited a higher-end national steakhouse chain. He wanted to place a $100-plus takeout order, but there were only two staff members trying to serve the more than 60 guests in the bar area. After waiting for nearly half an hour to place his order, he gave up and left. The especially unfortunate part about this anecdote – and what it could mean for the industry going forward – is that the restaurant’s metrics for the night surely didn’t track the guests who left without food, or the staff members who were burning out from the workload or unaware of the people they didn’t have time to serve. According to their data, it may have been a high-performance night. The industry is at a telling turning point right now: Restaurants are trying to find their footing with smaller teams, and in many cases, are finding ways to use technology to squeeze out profits and otherwise make the current business climate more manageable. But while there are clear benefits to these new systems and ways of working, don’t forget to take a longer view and anticipate the consequences you may not be seeing – the ones your tech stack can’t track.
Out of necessity, robotics and automation are finding new places in restaurant kitchens – to help offload mundane tasks and, in some cases, to keep an eye on staff in an effort to minimize errors and maximize efficiency. According to a recent report from Restaurant Dive, technology known as computer vision is gaining ground in the foodservice industry as a means of identifying inaccuracies in orders and notifying staff who can step in and correct them. It also has the ability to gather data about how staff work together, then provide analytics about who collaborates well in which positions. Providers of the up-and-coming technology include Lifestream AI, Presto and Agot AI.
Artificial intelligence is set to transform the front and back of the house – both out of efficiency and, due to the labor crunch, necessity. It can help operators manage inventory, monitor waste, identify staffing inefficiencies, adjust production pacing and direct more targeted menu suggestions to guests. But as futuristic as it sounds, it’s only an extension of (and as good as) the data your business has collected about these parts of the operation. Even if your restaurant has no plans to adopt AI tools, it’s important to be able to collect real-time data to build a stronger base for the decisions your business makes day to day. In practice, that could mean tracking sales of each menu item in real time so you’re aware of which customers are ordering them when, if they’re returning for them repeatedly, and if they might pay more for a premium special or cocktail designed with that item in mind if they receive a targeted offer from you beforehand.
As restaurants strain to manage the ongoing labor shortage, as well as guest concerns over health and safety, technology may be able to provide some relief from the responsibilities associated with those concerns. Jim Balis, managing director of CapitalSpring’s Strategic Operations Group, recently told FSR magazine that robotics and AI can help reduce liabilities associated with safety and sanitation while automating tasks so that hours and staffing can be reduced. There is no risk of a missed shift, for example, and labor costs can remain fixed. Digital tools can help you improve line checks, conduct self-assessments and audits, monitor equipment, and track how well you’re adhering to cleaning and sanitation protocols. This year, more restaurants that are struggling to meet demand amid labor shortages will be turning to tech. When you’re short on staff, which parts of your operation become most vulnerable to health and safety hazards? Could any of them be automated or outsourced to a tech-based solution?
To be sure, the restaurant industry had been heading in the direction of increased automation and decreased labor before the pandemic. But the acceleration of restaurant technology that we have seen in the past 18 months – along with the increase in already-high employee turnover rates in the industry – has only elevated the need for restaurant operators to find solutions to labor challenges and the technology to help manage them. McDonald’s, for one, is tapping into artificial intelligence to manage restaurant labor and to-go service. After testing AI technology in its drive thrus in Chicago this summer (and getting about 85 percent of orders correct), the brand is now partnering with IBM to deploy AI-powered drive-thrus more broadly across the brand. Meanwhile, Starbucks has partnered with Amazon to launch a cashierless coffee shop in New York City, with additional outlets in the works. At a time when labor challenges are so elevated, major chains have become the early adopters of potential solutions to address them. At the same time, they will be managing the growing pains that accompany them, potentially making the transition to such technology more seamless for smaller brands in the future.
Before automation becomes more widespread in restaurant kitchens, look for it to enhance the ordering process. McDonald’s, for one, recently started testing artificial intelligence at 10 drive-thrus in Chicago, the Spoon reports. So far, the locations that have used it have reported an 85 percent accuracy rate on orders, with only one in five orders needing intervention. Ideally, these AI-powered systems can dovetail with a restaurant’s existing systems that track a guest’s past orders and suggest additional items, expediting the ordering process and freeing up staff for other tasks.
Drive-through restaurants have done well during the pandemic. Restaurant Dive reports that the share of trips on Waze to businesses with drive-through options jumped 25 percent between the beginning and end of 2020. It’s not difficult to see why: Drive-through restaurants’ use of smart, artificial intelligence-driven menus allows them to adjust options depending on the weather and to upsell customers with tempting options based on their past orders. Some are now adopting technology that enables guests to order directly from their car while in line, minimizing wait times. But these solutions are not necessarily just in the purview of drive-throughs. When you look at your business and how you get food to guests, where are your bottlenecks? Could you enable processes in your operation that would help you attract traffic from potential guests on a nearby highway, call up guests’ past orders and suggest additions they’re likely to crave, or speed up your wait times by allowing a person to order from you easily before they even arrive?
How well do you know the origins of the food you serve? Restaurants are able to collect a growing amount of information about the items they order – and that can enable much more powerful buying decisions and better management of food supply risks. Beyond fine-tuning inventory needs based on how your guests are ordering and helping you minimize waste, restaurant operators and other companies in the food supply chain are starting to use artificial intelligence to track and contain supply chain risks – say, tracking a recalled product and mining reams of data to identify trends from it or determine whether a specific supplier, distributor, or environmental problem is to blame. The company FourKites, which helps fine-tune shipment tracking for food suppliers ranging from US Foods to Tyson Foods, is one company bringing greater visibility to the supply chain.
Imagine if your kitchen technology could let you tap into the cooking expertise of chefs from around the world. Artificial intelligence is now powering intelligent restaurants like a new one in Naperville, Ill. by Nala Robotics. The company says its restaurant can make “dishes from any cuisine around the world, using authentic recipes from celebrated chefs,” and easily change menus and adapt dishes to any number of customer modifications. Whether restaurants choose to adopt AI in their kitchens or not, these robotic assistants are likely to change what restaurant competition looks like – and what consumers expect from restaurants.