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SuperSession: Get ready for the tech revolution

The future of restaurants is here

Disrupt or be disrupted. Restaurant operators, like most businesspeople, have been hearing this warning for the past few years, but most don’t know how to respond. Monday’s SuperSession at the National Restaurant Association Show aimed to help arm uncertain industry leaders with insights from a panel of experts discussing The Future of Restaurants.

In his opening remarks, moderator Daniel Burrus, futurist and author of “The Anticipatory Organization,” said he’d rather restaurant operators not say they’re going to use technology to change their brand, but to elevate it.

He distinguished “hard” trends from “soft” trends—hard trends are those that are based on fact, like demographics, the presence of government regulations and technology innovations. “The good news is that you can see them well before they hit,” he said. “You can make a choice on how to respond.” Strategy based on certainty is not as risky, he noted.

He challenged businesspeople to shift from adapting to trends to anticipating them in advance.

Research suggests that restaurant operators are not comfortable with that yet, according to Sarah Lockyer, senior vice president of content for Winsight Media and Restaurant Business. She said that operators feel they are lagging when it comes to technology and innovation, not leading, and that they’re fearful in a lot of ways.

She suggested starting small. “Make sure you have menus online; make sure your website is optimized for mobile,” Lockyer said. Younger consumers consider these basics to be absolutely necessary.

She also said that technology and service don’t have to be at odds—technology can enhance service as well as the guest experience.  She also recommended that operators think about what a new technology can bring to their brands. “Don’t do something flashy just to do it,” Lockyer urged. “Make sure your brand demands it. Make sure your customer demands it.”

Interestingly, a developer of a robot that can replace runners and bussers said essentially the same thing. John Ha, CEO of Bear Robotics, discussed the rationale behind Penny, the robot his company developed. He found there were two types of front-of-the-house staff: those who were efficient as food runners and those who were good at engaging customers and providing great service. In busy periods, there was only time for running. If a robot does the running, the servers can always focus on the guests.

“We can’t eliminate the human touch in restaurants,” Ha said. “We don’t want to dine in a factory.”

Even he was surprised when the results came in. Since he started using Penny in his restaurant, sales are up by 8% and tips are up by 18%. “Servers are less tired and can work on service even through the busiest times,” he said.

Another restaurant using robots is Cali Burger, but this chain uses them in the kitchen. A robotic arm called Flippy cooks burgers, then passes them to a human employee to dress them for customers. John Miller, CEO of the chain’s parent, Cali Group, told the audience about other technology they are developing as well. The company created a gaming platform that lets customers compete in a Minecraft game, with the action appearing on a large screen in the restaurant.

It’s also testing self-ordering kiosks that use facial recognition. The screen recognizes the frequent customer, can pull up previous orders, and even let them pay with their faces. “We want to see our customers like Amazon sees their customers,” Miller said.

The company is also working on artificial intelligence that will use weather, local events, social media chatter, and other data to predict traffic and purchasing patterns.

The future of restaurants, according to these panelists, is upon us.

This post is sponsored by The National Restaurant Association®

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