“Robots are going to be running the front of house and back of house in the future,” said Mark Freeman, senior manager of global dining services at Microsoft, earlier this week at the industry’s meeting of techie minds. While artificial intelligence isn’t taking over the industry just yet, there are advances—either rolling out now or just on the horizon—that will make running a restaurant a little more efficient. In-the-know tech experts shared what they’ve seen, what they’re excited about and what they’re keeping their fingers crossed for while gathered at the FSTEC conference, hosted by Restaurant Business parent Winsight. Here’s a look at some of the advances that had operators saying “aha!”
1. It's all about employee tracking...
Gone will be the days when an hourly staffer can have a buddy punch him in or out. McDonald’s new biometric time clocks use fingerprint recognition technology, so employees actually have to be present to clock in. The next-gen version of this tech: facial recognition. Though Nick Low of Oracle says that employees are unnerved by the idea of using an image instead of a fingerprint. “They have all kinds of privacy concerns,” he says.
2. ...And that includes the managers
Chains can’t always have a member of the corporate team—or even the field team—in every store. Still, they want to know if their managers are spending their time efficiently. One vendor attested to installing sensors under managers’ desks, so that corporate could track how much time they were spending in the office versus out on the floor. This way, corporate can determine if there are too many administrative duties and strategize ways to ease up on the paperwork, allowing managers to spend time doing what they were hired to do—be hospitable up front with guests.
3. Labeling to save time
Sometimes, automating the simplest of processes can save a lot of time. Bill Ford—director of operations for Stewart Restaurant Group, a Yum Brands franchisee—created labor efficiencies by switching from handwritten food safety labels to using an automated printer. “We got the prep folks to hit a button and print 20 labels, one for each tray [of ingredients], and it literally saves an hour,” he says.
4. Seamless inventory
While Brian Pearson, chief information officer at Stacked: Food Well Built, has not yet found the perfect inventory management system, he thinks one is on the horizon. Stacked has a recipe system and it can predict—using data—its food output each day. “I want information, as it comes in, to go back to the supplier. And for that all to happen without management interference,” he says. Freeman of Microsoft agrees. “I don’t see management placing food orders [in the future],” he says. “It will all be automated, and it will know exactly what you need and when, even tracking back to the farmer and when they should plant.”
5. Open POS architecture
“Everything is going to need something to attach to and will need to integrate,” says Joe Tenczar, chief information officer at Sonny’s BBQ. “If [restaurants] have an open architecture, they can plug in something pretty easily.” Where this came into play a lot at FSTEC: third-party delivery platforms. A number of operators and suppliers talked about new systems that integrate the many third-party delivery systems as well as internal online ordering into their POS platforms, eliminating the need for six tablets running six different delivery partner’s programs.
6. Cars as labor savers
The topic of driverless cars came up innumerable times at FSTEC. “Autonomous vehicles are happening,” said Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal. One area of opportunity that they present, according to one vendor: labor savings. “You won’t have to pay a deliverer,” said Low. And, he says, you’ll also have a captive audience in cars, since people won’t have to pay attention to the road.
But operators won’t have to wait for self-driving cars to take advantage of vehicle technology. One online-ordering platform is working with BMW to offer meal ordering via its navigation system. Tesla is also working on its AI function, where cars are updated every quarter with what’s learned from the additional miles driven.
7. Point-and-click operations
On a recent trip to China, Schulman discovered that there was no difference between shopping in stores versus online. Customers go into a store and use their personal device to scan what they want to purchase. Imagine that in a restaurant, he said. Customers scan the displayed sample or menu description of what they want, and the order goes straight to the kitchen. It’s then delivered to the diner’s home or handed over for on-site consumption.
“Customer devices are 10 times better than anything we put in,” said Pearson. While he doesn’t envision a point-and-click store, he does want to shift to more use of personal devices in his restaurants, letting customers order in-store. “Customers are comfortable ordering outside, so they will be inside. The restaurant will just be the consumer’s device.”