Operations

At the National Restaurant Association Show, technology moves to the back of the house

Robots were everywhere. But much of the technology focus was on improving profitability and simplifying operations as costs increase and recession looms.
AT&T Business
The Connected Spaces program from AT&T Business showed that a margarita maker was not on as it was being cleaned. / Photo by Jonathan Maze

Dan Diaz worked with the point-of-sale provider Toast until 2020, when he was laid off as the pandemic wiped out much of the restaurant business.

So, he and eight others, all former restaurant people, got together to start F3 Technologies, a company that provides IT services for small-scale operators. Today, the company has 74 workers, and among its offerings is a program that helps operators count traffic into their restaurants, a technology that can help them know how many people are coming in and when, so they improve labor scheduling.

“If you’re not being efficient with your labor,” Diaz, the company’s CEO, said at the National Restaurant Association Show on Saturday, “then you’re not staying open.”

Sure, focus all you want on the fancy robots, such as one that makes boba tea or the AI bartender that will make you an Old Fashioned, or the robot waiters that seemed to have multiplied this year.

But much of the technology on display at the McCormick Place in Chicago was designed to improve operations inside the restaurant, by simplifying tasks or giving operators options to save on labor or even find labor.

Given the industry’s post-pandemic labor challenges and profitability concerns, not to mention the potential impact of a recession, such investments may be more important than ever.

“Labor has been an issue perennially in the restaurant industry,” David Henkes, senior principal with Restaurant Business sister company Technomic, said at the show on Saturday. “It’s going to continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future.”

One option on demonstration at the Show was Poached, an online, on-demand staffing marketplace that can connect restaurants with workers. Restaurants that need short-term staffing help can tap the website, where workers who may want or need extra cash—or want to control their schedules more—can choose shifts as a cook or a dishwasher, server, bartender or other role.

Plenty of vendors at the show boasted technology designed to simplify management cut costs. Companies such as TransAct Technologies boasted about their products’ ability to simplify operations in the back of the house. The company offers BOHA, a cloud-based program designed to automate management of various tasks inside the restaurant, such as management of routine food safety and operational tasks.

AT&T Business, along with Microsoft, offered a system called Connected Spaces that enabled restaurants to monitor their equipment inside their kitchens, even if that equipment did not have Internet access.

That system monitors equipment such as refrigerators, coffee machines, cooling systems or margarita makers, enabling managers to do everything from ensuring the cooler door is closed to monitoring a cooling system over several months to ensure they work efficiently.

At the show, a margarita maker was shut off for a period for cleaning. The system showed that it wasn't producing energy and warmed to 66 degrees, which was too warm for the icy drink. 

“Some pizza managers in a pinch can crank up the temperature of an oven so it heats the pizza faster but hurts food quality,” said Mickey Haynes, principal architect and practice lead, internet of things for AT&T Business. “The sensors can prevent that.”

To be sure, there were plenty of technology offerings designed to speed service up front, but even then much of that was focused on saving labor costs. And not all of it uses robots or AI.

There was Flash Order, a digital-ordering company that at the Show was showing off its drive-thru program, which uses QR codes stationed along drive-thru lanes so customers can start making their fast-food orders on their phones while they’re waiting in line—though there are also apps that work with Apple CarPlay or even Tesla. The idea is to get the customer to perform as much of the ordering as possible, and even pay their bill, before they get to the window—though an employee can still finish the order if it is not fully placed by the time they get there.

So it takes much of the ordering process out of the system, along with payment, while keeping employees as a backup. “If you’ve ever called into an automated call center, you know you always want that employee there as a backup,” said Weston Hafen, who works in business development with the company. It works like that, he said.

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