The technology reshaping restaurants today wasn’t even the stuff of imagination a few years ago, agreed the future-shocked specialists who inventoried the industry’s state of automation for nearly 900 peers gathered in Dallas. So how, a few lamented, could anyone predict with accuracy what the next few years will bring?
That didn’t dissuade the tech experts at FSTEC from offering their best hopes and speculation. The conference is intended to provide an immersion in the state of restaurant technology. But how can a snapshot be captured when the transformation of the business is a moving image in fast motion?
“We’re in for a pretty wild ride,” observed Paul Brown, the CEO of Arby’s and a keynote speaker during day two of the conference.
Here are some predictions from the conference centered around what that ride might involve.
1. Say to pay
Restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area are testing a new Google service that allows customers to pay for a meal merely by saying aloud, “I’ll pay with Google,” noted Justin Keenen, director of IT for Veggie Grill.
Called Hands Free, the system works off a phone app already available in the App Store and Google Play. Users don’t have to remove the phone from their pocket or purse. Tech at the point of sale detects a selfie on the customer's phone and shows it on the POS system's screen. The employee taking the order checks that the customer is actually the one depicted on the screen and approves the transaction. A receipt is then beamed to the patron's phone.
The next iteration of the system is expected to use a face-recognition camera to automate the verification process.
2. Plainer voice recognition ordering
With restaurants striding for speedier service and less human involvement, voice recognition ordering should be on the industry’s wish list, said Wade Allen, VP of digital innovation and customer engagement for Chili’s. With some forms of service, consumers are already speaking their orders into a device. All that’s needed is a way of capturing it, Allen noted.
His comments came a few weeks after McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook revealed that his charge is already pursuing voice recognition ordering in a drive-thru setting.
3. Next on phones: Fun apps for employees
Smartphone apps allow restaurants to connect in a fun, personalized way with customers. Why not adopt that proven technology to foster similar engagement with employees?
Veggie Grill’s Keenen predicted that a new generation of restaurant phone apps will focus on staff members. He challenged attendees to imagine “a loyalty app for back-of-the-house employees,” with rewards accrued automatically for certain behaviors. The process could even turn the work into a game whereby the workers could run up a score through their performance.
The end result, he predicted, will be an opportunity to have more fun while on the clock.
4. Faster tech changeover
Tech advances have hit the industry at light speed, but the pace will only accelerate, speaker after speaker contended.
“Speed has changed and the learning curve has gotten steeper,” observed Frank Liberio, global CIO for McDonald’s. He asserted that some of today’s gee-whiz tech tools will have a shelf life of six to 12 months.
The prospects for the future, said Arby’s Brown, could be dizzying and nearly impossible to predict. “Why shouldn’t we believe we may be talking about technology we never even imagined?” he said.