At the recent Restaurant Leadership Conference, Technomic’s Joe Pawlak had some good news about key segments of the restaurant industry (and less-great news about another) – namely that business for quick-service and fast-casual restaurants had returned to pre-pandemic levels, but fine dining was still three years away from a full recovery. To be sure, the technology that has kept businesses going during the pandemic has been a closer fit for limited-service restaurants. However, many of the tech tools that have been used to elevate efficiency and hospitality these past two years still apply to full-service restaurants, albeit in different ways. In a recent episode of the webcast Restaurants Redefined from Modern Restaurant Management, three industry professionals weighed in on how they see technology evolving for restaurants after the pandemic – particularly for full-service restaurants. At the front of the house, for example, technology can help ease some of the friction points. What if a restaurant could use geofencing technology to identify when a guest arrives and get a jump on preparing their favorite appetizer or having their usual wine on the table as they sit down? While a full-service restaurant might not want to use a QR code for guest ordering, offering a code (or other app-based option) for paying the bill when the guest is ready to depart could improve the overall experience. Empowering a server to offer a refund or other check adjustment on the spot as needed via tech tools can also boost service. At the back of the house, technology that minimizes human interaction – ovens, grills and other appliances that don’t require much human oversight – will help free up staff to elevate guests’ experience at the front of house. Finding ways to adapt the technology available – not so much to minimize human contact but to improve the human contact that full-service is known for – might just help hasten the recovery of these businesses.
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.
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?
Amid the labor crunch, restaurants have been facing a lot of upward pressure on their wages lately. As of May, 30 states, the District of Columbia and forty-five localities have set minimum wage rates above the federal level. But at the same time, many restaurants likely are not making best use of the tools they have on hand to better manage their labor costs and gain as much as possible from them. According to research from TouchBistro, 39 percent of restaurant operators are not using their POS to view labor reports. These reports can help you identify when you are overstaffed in your kitchen and dining room, which staff are successfully upselling most frequently and making customers the happiest, and which staff may be stealing from you. All of this can ensure you always have the right number of people on hand for a shift, that you’re rewarding and developing the right people, and that you’re quickly identifying sources of theft. It may even give you some wiggle room to raise your wages.
As restaurant business rebounds and operators look to stabilize costs, adopting tech to help with labor management and fluctuations can help contain unexpected expenses – and reduce the staff frustrations that can lead to turnover . Make sure your labor management software is up to the task: It should help you forecast your sales and develop accurate staffing schedules based on those forecasts. Beyond that, it should allow employees some freedom and flexibility to swap shifts or request time off – all while requiring minimal involvement from management.
Even in more normal times, there is often waste lurking in a restaurant’s labor structure. You might have too many or too few employees on hand to serve customers or close for the night, or simply have too many occasions when your staff have idle minutes between tasks. Using tech to manage your labor isn’t about replacing your people with machines, but about accumulating evidence to demonstrate what labor is required to complete various tasks and then ensuring you deploy the ideal number of people to execute those tasks. You may feel that after many years running a restaurant, you have a good gut feel for how many people you need and when – but you might be surprised by the hidden waste that tech can reveal to you. (Noodles & Company learned recently via the use of HotSchedules, for example, that having five or six employees handle closing-shift duties was taking one hour, while the same duties took just 45 minutes when they scaled the number of closing-shift staff down to four people.)
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.
If there were ever a year to ditch the paper, this would be it. From your inventory management to your menu to your employee training, tech tools are helping operators eliminate paper processes and their inefficiencies. Perhaps the biggest benefit of making the switch is real-time management: Knowing your inventory shortfalls as they happen can help you adjust your digital menu to substitute an item or promote a new special on the spot. Being able to inform your staff of day-to-day changes in operating procedure electronically – and ensuring compliance in real time – is especially crucial now as COVID-19 infections affect how restaurants can serve guests. Ask Team Four how you can eliminate any paper processes that are holding you back this year.
The restaurant industry is one of extreme ups and downs – in labor expenditure and availability, sales and costs. But what if automation could bring predictability to your operation by supporting staff in certain areas or ensuring safety during the pandemic? Expect to see more of it in both the back and front of the house as operators manage changes in service right now. While automation may still seem futuristic in restaurants, it had been on the rise even well before the pandemic: Oxford University research predicted that 90 percent of quick-service restaurants would become fully automated within the next decade or two. There are ample applications beyond quick service too: Restaurants are now using it to reinvent the traditional buffet for the current environment. Of course, the costs of conversion aren’t insignificant but should factor into your longterm recovery strategy as you also consider the costs required to recruit, pay, insure and train employees on an ongoing basis. Once the technology and insurability of self-driving cars and delivery drones solidifies, automated delivery is likely to become more commonplace for restaurants too. How can tech automation – whether through emerging robotic innovation or even automated tools currently available to you on your POS or mobile app – improve your balance sheet?
What if running a profitable restaurant became less about analyzing databases and spreadsheets and more about following AI-generated directions? That’s increasingly becoming a reality for some restaurants. In a recent roundup from Modern Restaurant Management about major disruptions to expect in the coming decade, AI applications were among the major changes industry insiders expect. David Bloom, chief development and operations officer for Capriotti’s, sees increasing potential for video to work hand-in-hand with AI – using facial recognition to identify guests and connect them with loyalty programs, reducing theft by video monitoring, and improving employee performance by monitoring their actions and providing on-the-spot upselling and service advice. #restauranttech