Could today’s labor challenges turn the tide for robots in the kitchen? That’s what Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of New England Consulting Group, predicts in the recent “Restaurant of the (Near) Future” report in Nation’s Restaurant News. He said while robots will be more common in kitchens in the near future for labor and novelty reasons, they will also offer substantial value when it comes to micro-personalization. He says: “You’ll be able to more easily select exactly what you want and instead of a bunch of people running around the kitchen, a robot will do precisely what the customer asks.” If you look a few years into the future, how might your ability to offer micro-personalization to guests elevate your business? Could automation help take you there?
If you’re unable to fill staff openings – and unwilling to raise prices to make it possible to raise your hourly wage – technology is quickly becoming the alternative restaurant operators choose to manage business. In a recent article in the New York Times, Shana Gonzales, a Checkers franchisee, said she could fully staff her restaurants if she offered $14-$15 an hour, but that would mean increasing prices so much that her customers would be driven away. So instead, she has introduced voice-recognition technology in her drive-thrus that can take orders, accommodate special requests and modifications, and send that information directly to the kitchen and cashier. At the moment, this technology isn’t replacing staff – at least not on a one-to-one basis – but is serving as a support, allowing employees more time for face-to-face customer service. But it’s safe to say that operators who find ways to incorporate automation can operate more smoothly with a slimmed-down number of total staff. What repetitive tasks in your restaurant could be ones to automate?
Maintenance generally comprises between 2 and 6 percent of a facility’s budget – and those costs can climb if repairs are left waiting for so long that they become replacement costs. But like so many elements of restaurant operations right now, repairs can now be automated, enabling operators to more quickly address equipment and facilities repairs as they are needed. ResQ is one company that helps restaurants request a contractor from its network to help address problems related to HVAC, refrigeration, electrical, plumbing, pest control and other challenges, as well as pay for and document the service received, The Spoon reports. ResQ is currently available in just Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, San Francisco and Chicago, but a recent $7.5 million seed investment could quickly add cities to that list.
Restaurants are managing orders from more sources than ever – yet still need to prepare those items at the same time. If they’re short on staff, juggling this and keeping customers informed about their order can be a challenge. But smart pacing tools for order fulfillment can help. As Pymnts.com reports, that could include an automated text to a guest when their food or their table is ready, or a QR code that allows a guest to place an order or pay from the table as they leave.
Robotic chefs may still sound futuristic – but they already have a place in restaurant kitchens. That’s particularly true for restaurants struggling to hire and retain staff, and those eager to get a better handle on food waste (so in other words, everyone). While Spyce claims to be the first restaurant with a kitchen run entirely by robots that can prepare complex recipes, a rapidly increasing number of brands are offloading repetitive kitchen tasks to robotic assistants. And as more venture into this territory, look for prices for this technology to fall. A sign of things to come: This year’s Consumer Electronics Show featured a kitchen robot from Moley Robotics that can prepare thousands of dishes, avoid allergens when requested, or simply guide a person through the steps of a recipe as they prepare it. While the price tag is steep at $340,000, it’s likely to challenge other companies in the space to accomplish similar tasks less expensively in the not-so-distant future.
You have heard about the need to eliminate paper-based systems in your business – and it’s not just about making sure your next inspection goes smoothly. It’s a major time saver across your operation, which comes in handy at a time when you need everyone on a shift to be working at full capacity. Francine Shaw of Savvy Food Safety advises operators to use digital quality management systems for a range of reasons: They allow for the fast and accurate updating of compliance information and instructions (and distribution to employees across all locations when time is critical). They make records easier to search and analyze, providing faster access during a food safety incident and enabling operators to quickly identify trends across locations. Finally, they ensure you’re up to date on safety checks – and that they’re being done correctly so you can step in with training on the spot when problems occur.
Independent restaurants have been in an especially tough position throughout the pandemic, lacking much of the resources and scale of a multi-business organization while also being hardest hit by the commission fees of third-party delivery companies. But as a result, independents are emerging as a segment of the restaurant industry that is ripe for innovation. Business at BentoBox, which helps restaurants build more robust, ecommerce-ready websites, has been booming since the pandemic started. It focuses on helping restaurants harness their customer data – and it has nearly doubled its client list in recent months. Grubhub, in addition, just launched a new web offering aimed at independent restaurants that includes a branded website, as well as the ability to create loyalty programs and promotions, process and manage orders, and view customer names, email addresses and past orders. The company says it is waiving its one-time setup fee for a year and will charge restaurants a $49 hosting fee per month, per location. Then there’s the commission fee if the restaurant opts to use Grubhub for last-mile delivery. Still, it may make sense for restaurants looking for a quick means of updating technology and offering delivery without sacrificing access to data.
The past year has changed how restaurants compete. Restaurant success has become less about décor or even brand and more about how smooth, fast and engaging the process of ordering and accepting food is for the consumer. These changes may be permanent. This QSR magazine report predicts a more tech-focused future for the industry – with less differentiation on price across restaurant categories and more differentiation on the efficiency of customer interactions than there has been in the past. That means it’s become all the more important to have digital architecture and a user interface that presents your food in a compelling way, makes it easy and fast to place orders, enables customization to customer preferences, and includes a reliable “last mile” off-premise solution for getting food to customers.
As the contactless restaurant experience has become the norm over the past year, some restaurant operators may worry about permanently losing the kinds of quality in-person connections with consumers that once helped them build and sustain relationships. As we emerge from the pandemic, how will restaurants be able to deliver personal service in an era where physical distance, minimal conversation and touch-free experiences continue to be encouraged? The good news is that while technology enables more low-contact experiences, it also helps businesses get more personal – and restaurants can use it to build relationships in new ways. To a great extent, consumers have lived their lives online throughout the pandemic. They have become more accustomed to the Amazon experience – being able to order an item in a minimum number of clicks, having the site predict what they are apt to enjoy, and being less suspicious about having companies track the items they buy and enjoy. Some restaurants are literally using Amazon Web Services (AWS) to provide an Amazon-style experience. Using that kind of approach – and there are many services that can provide it – a restaurant with a strong command of its customer data can direct different targeted promotions to people whenever they happen to be in the neighborhood or on the days they are apt to crave a particular order. What better way to deliver personal service than to predict what a person wants before they even know they want it?
What’s the best way for you to get take-away food to your customers? As operators adjust to new, late-pandemic conditions – including a lack of available labor and an increase in potential vendors and tech-driven solutions to provide support – they are making changes to how they handle delivery. Panera, long held up as an example of how a non-pizza restaurant can accommodate in-house delivery, recently announced it would be switching to third-party delivery – at least for now. In the meantime, the food delivery robot is becoming a far less futuristic concept than it ever was, with companies including Nuro, Kiwibot, Tortoise and Starship Technologies rolling out options for last-mile delivery. Those robots also happen to relieve some of restaurants’ labor, food safety, marketing and profitability pressures, so they could make the delivery landscape look a whole lot different in the coming months and years.