Robots and virtual reality and artificial intelligence, oh my. These high-tech advances are just a few of the ways tech has shaken up business as usual this past year. Here's a look at the innovations that have changed operations for the restaurant industry—and will continue to make waves in the future.
Bring on the bots…
Already, early adopters are using artificial intelligence to automate the interaction between restaurant and consumer—without it seeming automated. While Taco Bell’s Tacobot is designed for ordering instant messenger-style, others such as Wingstop are expanding the conversation onto social media to allow customers to interact and ask questions solely with technology.
…and the robots, too
Fears of rising labor and overtime costs have some operators considering robots to replace humans—and some are already in action, at least in the testing phase. Domino’s tried its delivery robot, named DRU, in New Zealand back in March. Then, in August, it partnered with a “flying robot” company to test drone delivery. But it’s not the only pizza concept testing out robots. Zume Pizza, a project out of Silicon Valley, is using three robots to replace kitchen staff, the last of which transfers assembly line-made pies to a human-driven delivery truck.
Cashless as the new modus operandi?
Is there a chance that greenbacks are disappearing? While mobile payments via Apple Pay and Google Wallet haven’t caught on as quickly as some had hoped, that isn’t stopping some from trying to ease operations by getting rid of dollar bills. Sweetgreen, for example, just announced that it is going completely cashless at all of its locations in 2017 following a yearlong test to streamline its checkout process and even be a little more sustainable. Customers can only pay with a credit card or via the chain’s app.
Uses for the smartwatch abound
Back in February, Domino’s added the capability for customers to order via Apple Watch. Then, Danny Meyer flipped the smartwatch tech on its head, having his Union Square Hospitality Group partner with a third-party reservation company to put consumer info directly in the hands—or on the wrists—of its staffers. Managers, host staff and sommeliers at the recently reopened Union Square Cafe in New York City receive information about guests, including allergies, preferences, past orders and more to give more a more personalized dining experience in real time.
Third-party delivery soars
Delivery has gone from a nice perk to a competitive must for many operators, especially in urban markets where consumers are growing to expect the convenience. The emergence of Postmates, Door Dash, UberEats and others has proven to be a business boon for some and a threat for others. Despite the challenges third-party delivery brings—as operators try to contend with rogue deliverers as well as figure out how to package dishes to go when food was designed for in-house consumption—it’s big business. At this point, the delivery market is $30 billion, while total off-premise sales ring in around $210 billion, showing that there’s ample room for continued expansion.
Amazon tries foodservice, and delivery, and supply
The online giant is making its play for the foodservice industry. Its Amazon Fresh grocery delivery network is competing in the meal kit world, and Amazon Prime now offers third-party delivery from restaurants in 17 states. In addition, the Amazon Go concept, launched in test in Seattle in December, is offering a convenience store-QSR hybrid that serves chef-made breakfasts, lunches and dinners along with select groceries in a high-tech format where checkout lines and cashiers aren’t necessary. Instead, it’s using smartphone technology to track what’s taken from the shelves and charging orders to a virtual cart.
Uber of foodservice gets real
Its founders may not say that it’s a direct restaurant competitor, but Umi Kitchen—the app that connects home cooks to consumers—has the potential to steal foodservice dollars. The three founders—a West Point grad, former VP of Tumblr and restaurateur Danny Meyer’s daughter—took the idea of the dining room-free restaurant (a la Sprig, Maple and Ando) to a new level by getting rid of the kitchen, too. Home cooks are prevetted by the Umi team, then get Food Handler certified, before they can offer up their meals to diners. The Umi Kitchen app has four to seven menu options daily that are delivered via Postmates and range from $12 to $16, plus a delivery fee.