Wanting to implement the latest and greatest technology to differentiate
your establishment is normal, but will your customers accept it?
By Janice Hoppe-Spiers
Competition in the food and beverage industry continues to intensify and technology is what operators use as their differentiator. “Technology is the new battleground,” Technomic Managing Principal Joe Pawlak said during the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Hotel-Motel Show 2019. “Our point of view is that technology, from the front- to the back-of-the-house needs to keep in mind the consumer. Does it have a benefit to the consumer? Than move forward. If not, does it make sense to implement?”
With more than 700,000 restaurant locations, consumers have never had more choices than they do today. In addition, supermarkets, convenience stores, healthcare and senior living facilities are all competing for stomach share. Driving traffic is paramount and figuring out how to get more people in seats, spending more and coming back is on everyone’s mind.
“The big challenge today is declining traffic; we need to get more butts in seats,” says McDonald’s Chief Engineer, Restaurant Solutions Jeff Cook during the NRA Show 2019. “As an operator, where do you start? Start somewhere small like tablets, electronic receipts and other technology like self-driving cars, which may be a bit in the future, but this gives you a peak into the technology to invest in in the near-term and more far-fetched investments.”
Consumers are more accepting of technology in establishments, says GP Pro Segment Insights Leader Abhijeet Jadhav during the NRA Show. “Rising prices and oversaturation continue to be a headwind, and there are a couple big headwinds around the labor crunch, which is a big issue,” he says. “Technology can be one way to address some headwinds. More than ever before, consumers are ready to adopt technology, accept it and are open to operators accepting technology in establishments.”
Direct Consumer Benefit
When looking to implement any new technology, experts advise weighing the benefits to the consumer versus just implementing it because you think you have to. “You as the person in charge of your company need to make sure you have systems in place that will support introducing a new philosophy and point of view,” Arby’s Operations Manager and Equipment Engineer Mark Screven says. “Understand and define your current state and propose where you want to go with automation. Where does it fit into your system? No matter how great or innovative it is, it won’t have the impact you think it will have without someone in the organization that will be the champion to introduce technology and automation into your systems.”
Cook says there are four rules to winning at the automation journey:
* Do you have the basics right? If you’re establishment is not changing the filters or ice than automation is not for you.
* What can you do to make your establishment a great place to work? This will define where you need to go and determine if electronics will ease the burden of human pain.
* Start small. Think of the little things like a programmable thermostat or condiment dispensers versus squeeze bottles.
* Bite off little chunks before trying to automate an entire preparation line and the journey will be more successful.
When it comes to implementing automation in the back-of-the-house, processes need to be standardized and repeatable. This helps improve speed of service and accuracy. In 2014, Deepak Sekar founded Chowbotics to make food preparation fun by automating tedious, repetitive tasks with robotics. Sally, the world’s first fresh-food making robot, serves customizable, made-to-order salads, snacks, breakfast bowls and grain bowls. “Robots can be used for things like improving food safety,” he says. “A robot does not get sick, cough on food or transfer infection to others.”
Chowbotics’ Sally the Salad Robot makes salads from ingredients in separate cylinders contained within the machine, preventing cross-contamination from the consumer. The company’s goal is to reduce instances of norovirus in the food industry significantly. It also plans to increase its robot’s capabilities after raising $11 million in 2018.
While consumers will give more leeway in a QSR environment, they expect human interaction in a full-service restaurant. “Look at where you are on your journey to understand where automation makes sense for you and understand what consumers and crew members will allow,” Cook says. “They will make or break you, and if they don’t accept it, you will fail.”
When should you invest in technology? Screven says there needs to be a system of introduction. “You can’t choose something that looks exciting,” he adds. “You need to define your system and what will work within the system. Conduct a feasibility study – will there be a positive or negative impact with what you are trying to do – and then go from there. The technology might be great, but may not be a great business investment today. It’s all based on individual assessment.”
Consumer demographics should also be considered when investing in new technology. Pawlak explains that by conducting consumer research and knowing when a consumer expects human interaction is key. “If a consumer would rather talk to someone than be handed a tablet to order at a full-service restaurant, maybe that means it’s not the right thing to do in that situation,” he says. “Find out what’s working and what’s not working. Prioritizing that way makes a lot of sense.”
Remembering that implementing technology won’t look like what you think it will look like in the end, using it in a smart way and explaining what you are trying to accomplish will result in meaningful adoptions. “Don’t automate or innovate just to do it,” Pawlak says. “Indirectly or directly, there has to be a benefit to the customer.”