Not so long ago, the term “restaurant automation” conjured thoughts of futuristic robotic burger flippers and waitstaff. But the past year has made the term take on new meaning. Restaurants in greater numbers are using automation to put a wide range of tasks on autopilot – such as onboarding, food preparation, and data collection and analysis. Adopting automation in this form addresses key pandemic-related pain points: training new staff, preparing food quickly and safely, and perhaps most importantly, collecting and analyzing data in a way that helps you make wiser decisions about everything from your menu, to your inventory, to your promotions. A recent report from The Spoon describes how two such automated systems, Galley and SousZen, collect and analyze data over time, then make recommendations to help restaurants adopt new behaviors and processes in the kitchen.
The new pandemic-era guidelines that restaurants must follow may help protect health and safety, but they can also slow down service: More frequent handwashing and cleaning, fewer staff on hand at once, and a decline in shared work surfaces can add time to food preparation. Is your kitchen equipment earning its keep by helping you adjust to these changes? This year could be time to swap out single-use tools and appliances for smaller, multifunctional ones – and if you are in the market for an oven, consider a smart oven like a cook-and-hold oven that you can set and forget, or a smart combi oven that can cook using convected heat, steam or both. In addition to helping restaurants manage labor costs, maximize available space and remotely monitor cooking, these kinds of appliances can save energy and also track safety.
As we wind down the year (and one for the history books at that), take a moment to review where you are as a business – and what changes need to happen for it to keep pace with the rapidly changing times. As the Spoon reported recently, digital sales will comprise 54 percent of all quick-service and limited-service restaurant sales by 2025, according to research from Incisiv. That’s a 70 percent leap from where we were before the pandemic. If your restaurant has been delaying the adoption of tech – particularly to help streamline guest ordering and fulfillment – it’s no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have feature that will help your restaurant survive. Talk to Team Four about how you can take small steps to adopt technology to bring more efficiencies to order management in 2021.
What kitchen tasks do you wish you could automate? Even if you haven’t contemplated bringing in a robot – or some kind of technology to help with repetitive tasks – a growing number of brands are doing so as a result of the pandemic. As a result, they are creating efficiencies that are likely going to give them a competitive advantage down the line. New research from Research Nester found that the market for cooking robots is likely to grow more than 16 percent between now and 2028 – and have a market valuation (now $86 million) of $322 million by 2028. The good news is that as automation becomes more widespread, it could also become more financially accessible for smaller operators.
Could ghost kitchens become more the rule than the exception in the wake of COVID-19? It’s difficult to argue with the numbers. Automated kitchen technology systems are demonstrating how kitchens can churn out dozens of dishes per hour with minimal assistance from staff. (Kitchen Robotics’ newly released Beastro robotic kitchen, which claims to be the “world’s first robotic dark kitchen,” was designed to handle the planning, preparation and delivery of up to 45 dishes per hour – and only requires assistance in the plating of dishes and the refilling of feeders, the company says.) At a time when it’s difficult to not only find labor but also to quickly shift gears and guarantee safety if and when an employee becomes sick, the automation of kitchen tasks could be worth the investment – or at least some exploration. (In case you missed it, U.S. Foods launched a ghost kitchens program recently to help operators create new revenue streams.)
New research from the CDC reported that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were about twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than those who tested negative. While it’s obviously not welcome news for operators eager to reopen indoor dining rooms, perhaps it will provide some operators with the justification they are looking for to adopt more technology for the long term. This report from The Spoon predicts that the time may have come for restaurants to look beyond some of the piecemeal solutions they have been implementing to provide a contactless experience for customers – and adopt more robots to facilitate such tasks as meal preparation, food running and dishwashing. As winter arrives and operators anticipate challenges around COVID and labor, such an approach may just offer a long-term safety net.
The pandemic has underlined the need for restaurants to perfect their off-premise dining experience – and embrace technology that can help them accomplish that. Now is a good time to observe what solutions early adopters are implementing as part of that effort – and what may or may not be feasible to try in other concepts. Burger King, for one, recently unveiled a restaurant design concept to streamline the collection of food. Restaurant Technology News reports that in the new model, which will be built in select cities next year, customers who order via mobile app can notify the restaurant upon their arrival and get a designated parking spot, or collect food from a coded food locker at the restaurant. The most noticeable change in the model is a taller (but smaller) restaurant footprint – the kitchen and dining area are suspended over an expanded number of drive-thru lanes, and a conveyer belt system delivers food to the vehicles waiting below.
The pandemic has forced restaurant operators to consider new revenue streams. Robots may help open some doors. Salad bars and buffets may not be operating as they were, for example, but could a robot offer a similar product – and operate in a context removed from a sit-down restaurant? Candace MacDonald, cofounder and managing director of hospitality consultancy Carbonate, told Modern Restaurant Management that companies like Salad Station are using robotic vending to serve up salads in new locations – and at the same time, are likely reaching new customers. Could you envision offering menu items through robotic vending via a grocery store or hospital cafeteria?
Back in June, the National Restaurant Association named virtual gift cards on a list of restaurant tech tools that it predicted would best support the industry’s recovery from the pandemic. Virtual gift cards – as opposed to the plastic ones that clutter a person’s wallet – make contactless, fast payment possible, so they’re well suited to these times. Further, since more than 70 percent of gift card recipients spend more than the face value of their cards, according to research from Givex, they can help lift check totals. Are you offering and promoting virtual gift cards on your website, app and social media platforms?
As restaurants have taken steps to keep business running, operators have embraced radical reinvention: transitioning from fine-dining establishments to takeout providers, from selling deli sandwiches to groceries. How can you fortify your restaurant for the future? Now is the time for considering ideas that may have seemed crazy just last year. The restaurant industry advisory Aaron Allen & Associates found that 82 percent of restaurant positions today could potentially be automated. Though they stressed they aren’t suggesting the human element of restaurants be removed, their findings do provide reason for operators to assess how technology brings efficiencies to not only restaurant categories but to other industries – and anticipate what they may have to do in the future to compete.