Technology and Restaurants
Adapting technology to meet specific needs of restaurant owners may be easier than expected.
By Janice Hoppe-Spiers, Senior Editor at Knighthouse Media
Technology is the future of the food industry. Anticipating disruptions before they happen and figuring out how to remain innovative and creative by adapting technology to an individual situation will be what sets companies apart from the competition.
During the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show 2018, “SuperSession: The Future of Restaurants” focused on how the continual evolution of disruptive technology provides an opportunity to transform operations and enhance the guest experience. Renowned futurist Daniel Burrus led the conversation about technologies set to disrupt the restaurant industry.
“Rather than say, ‘I want to change my brand,’ and eliminate all you’ve built, elevate your brand based on the direction the future is going,” Burrus says. “Are you going to be disrupted or the disruptor?”
Burrus spoke about the importance of understanding the difference between a future truth and opinion. “You know it when you hear it. Start speaking in future truths and not give an opinion,” he says. “If you give me an undeniable truth about the future and what we can do with it, so when we are talking about facial recognition, robotics and automation, don’t adopt but adapt it to your unique situation. You can all do that or not – you have that choice.”
Sarah Lockyer, senior vice president, Winsight Media and Restaurant Business, says technology has taken over everything and according to a survey conducted by the NRA, a majority of restaurant owners don’t feel comfortable with where they are in technology and think they are lagging rather than leading. Part of this is because of cost, but it’s also because of a lack of knowledge and fear of where they go next.
“It doesn’t have to be that scary,” she says. “Tech can start out small. The basics like food quality and cleanliness have to be there, but a lot now are looking for WiFi and mobile ordering/payment that are becoming things that are rising to the top of the priority list when younger consumers dine out.”
Mobile apps and social media continue to be important for brand recognition and ease of ordering. Self-service kiosks are growing in importance for millennials and the younger generations. “Thirteen percent have used a self-service kiosk and 20 percent are 18- to 44-year-olds,” Lockyer says. “Millennials are not only using them, but they want to use them.”
Kiosks work well in limited-service restaurants like Wendy’s and McDonald’s, which are building at a fast pace because it increases efficiency, reduces labor and throughput. Full-service restaurants continue to use the tabletop tablets for ordering and to pay the bill.
“Chilli’s has been the most successful with Ziosk,” Lockyer notes. “Customers really like it because they have a big picture to look at and games that kids can play so parents can order another drink. You see higher ticket orders and customers want to return to the restaurant based on the experience technology is providing.”
Takeout and delivery is the hottest topic today with 49 percent of consumers aged 18 to 34 ordering food to-go more often than they were three years ago, Lockyer says. “It’s time to get onboard,” she adds. “There are so many ways to approach this and it’s important to evaluate what you do in this space. The younger generation wants and needs it.”
Another key takeaway from Lockyer’s presentation was to understand when to go all in. How do you know? When technology is additive, your customers demand it and your brand believes in it. “Every restaurant operation should be asking, ‘When do I do this?’” she says. “Don’t do something flashy just to do it. Don’t try to be ‘me, too’ or jump on a trend you don’t believe in.”
Masters of Automation
Cali Group is a pioneer in developing innovative technologies for the restaurant and retail industries. CEO John Miller says the company owns CaliBurger, a fast-casual burger chain based in southern California, to demonstrate the technology Cali Group develops in the industry. “What we have done successfully is look at operational issues and come up with ideas to fix and execute those ideas and bring new products to market,” he says.
Three years ago, Cali Group started looking at automation to solve the major issues every restaurant faces: rising labor costs, high turnover and lack of consistency. “The key is to have consistency and with humans doing the work there’s inconsistency,” Miller says. “There will always be a role for people in the kitchen, but there are redundant tasks that can be automated.”
Today, its test kitchen in Pasadena, Calif., is highly automated and there have been no humans working on the grill for months.
Cali Group also recently launched its face-based payment pilot program at CaliBurger in Pasadena that enables the customer to pay with a glance at the camera without needing to swipe a credit card. The new system requires a two-step authentication process, so in addition to smiling at the camera, customers will also need to enter a 3-digit CVV number from their credit card to process the transaction.
After the facial recognition system has demonstrated it’s more secure than swiping credit cards, Cali Group plans to eliminate the entry of the CVV number and only require a smile to authenticate the transaction. “We recognized the need for a platform or gateway that can be used universally by consumers and retailers,” Miller says.
During the NRA Show supersession, Miller demonstrated how the POP IQ software is used at a kiosk. “Our vision of the future is that everyday life will be dominated by the use of face to authenticate identity,” he says. “Plastic credit cards, parking lot entry permits, gym membership barcode scanners and concert tickets will disappear, and there will be a universal platform that consumers subscribe to and merchants utilize to authenticate identity.”
Bear Robotics CEO John Ha came into the restaurant industry from the technology world as a technical lead at Google and adjunct professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. “I had the opportunity to open my own restaurant and I thought it was a brilliant idea – if I bought it I could sit at the bar with my friends and have a fun time,” he remembers. “The reality was really harsh. Managing a restaurant is not a joke. I had to cover dishwashing, serving, managing people and I learned quickly what it means to run a restaurant.”
Despite the hardships, Ha says it is all worth it when he sees empty dishes coming back because he knows he served his customers well, which empowers him to endure all the hard work. “As a tech guy, I thought automation is the answer to make things better,” he adds. “We are under labor shortages and minimum wage is rising, which is huge pressures for owners and operators.”
Enter Penny, an AI-driven running and bussing robot from Silicon Valley. Her mission is to improve a restaurant’s environment for customers, employees and owners so the human co-workers can shift their responsibilities to providing special touches that result in excellent customer experiences.
“Penny doesn’t want to be micro-controlled,” Ha says. “She sees the environment and can learn the restaurant layout, table numbers and kitchen to self-navigate and make the best decision to find her route. Or she can say, ‘Excuse me.’”
Penny works in Ha’s restaurant, Kang Nam Tofu House in Milpitas, Calif., by aiding the servers rather than replacing them. “We can’t eliminate the human touch in restaurants,” he says. “Automation is going to save the hard labor part of the employees’ jobs so they can do the more valuable work.”
Since Penny started, Ha says his customers have reported better service because the servers have more time to spend with them. “We have served more than 10,000 customers and the tips have gone up by 18 percent,” he adds. “Our servers are less tired and they can cope more easily during the busy times. When the product is mature and the server can depend on the robot, tips go up, more customers return and revenue goes up.”