5 stunners from the forefront of restaurant technology

Photograph by Scott Mitchell

An event devoted to the latest in restaurant technology is sure to abound in jaw-dropping moments, as this year’s FSTEC conference proved on Monday and Tuesday. Here are five of the more arresting revelations attendees gained access to.

1. Expect action on the food safety practices of third-party deliverers

Technology has been a key driver of the surge in restaurant delivery sales, and that force is not likely to abate soon, given how much of the discussion at FSTEC was devoted to fueling off-premise sales. But not all of the advances on that front are functions of hardware or software, indicated Terry Erdle, COO of the National Restaurant Association. He revealed that the association is pulling together a group of food deliverers—presumably third-party services as well as their restaurant partners—to codify the best practices for keeping food safe to eat during its journey to consumers’ homes. “Look for information on this space coming soon,” Erdle told the 1,000 restaurant-technology users and suppliers in attendance at the conference.

2. The model for balancing high-tech with high-touch may be Major League Baseball

Technology can differentiate a ball from a strike through nine innings of a professional baseball game, yet the MLB still schedules four umpires for every contest, observed Josh Patchus, chief data scientist for the Cava fast-casual chain. “People want to have a human managing the game,” he commented, drawing a parallel to what consumers are likely to expect from restaurants as more functions are automated. Attention from humans will still be appreciated, as it’s valued on the diamond, he predicted.

All in all, pro baseball provides a model of how to combine technology and human elements into a better experience, Patchus contended. “The MLB is pushing the forefront of technology. But it’s doing it in a subtle way,” he said.

3. Walmart is establishing a high-tech food safety tool for restaurants

Last week, Walmart warned its suppliers of lettuce and other leafy greens that they will have to adopt a blockchain process for tracking the produce from field to purchase. Otherwise they can forget about keeping the retail giant as a customer. And that could have a profound impact on the food safety practices of restaurants, suggested presenter Ron Galloway.

A blockchain, explained Galloway, is essentially a digital tracking system that traces a complex process—in the case of Walmart’s lettuce, every inch of the trip from seed to shopping cart—in 15-minute increments. With that data digitized, Walmart can pinpoint a breach in food safety protocol in seconds rather than hours or even days.

So why should restaurants care about something the retailer is doing? “When Walmart pushes a technology hard, it tends to become a standard,” said Galloway, founder of 818 Research, which studies disruptive tech.

4. Tech could be a pressure valve for franchisee-franchisor relations

Franchisees are assessed a royalty on sales. The ones who offer delivery often pay 20% or 30% of off-premise sales to a third-party service as a commission. Is it right to charge a royalty on that cost of doing business?

Technology may provide a way of diffusing that potential flash point between franchisee and franchisor, suggested Sterling Douglas, CEO of Chowly, a company that integrates third-party delivery pipelines into operators’ POS systems. He noted that franchisors are handling the situation in a variety of ways, subtracting the commission from revenues in some instances, including it in others. Douglas suggested the challenge is establishing a policy, not setting up the technology to execute it.

5. ‘Tablet Hell’ burns on

Restaurants that work with third-party deliverers typically receive a partner’s order through a tablet posted near a cashier or expediter. Because of problems in relaying orders from a third party directly into the restaurant’s POS system, an outlet is forced to dedicate a different tablet to each service that it uses. The result: a thicket of tablets, scornfully known as Tablet Hell.

Eliminating that hardware pileup has been a quest of operators, a task eased by a new generation of technology that integrates third-party systems with the restaurant’s standard order pipeline. But it is far from gone, despite the disdain and accessibility to solutions, suggested Chowly’s Douglas. “The record is about 10 tablets in one setup,” he revealed.

FSTEC is being hosted through Oct. 3 at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando, Fla. The event is presented by Winsight, the parent of Restaurant Business.

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