Consumers across generations debate the pros and cons of restaurant tech

As the industry races to adopt the latest innovations, how are diners feeling about their brand interactions? A member of Gen Z, a Millennial, a Gen Xer and a Boomer shared their views at FSTEC.
Consumers across generation gaps talked technology at FSTEC in Dallas. |Photo by W. Scott Mitchell Photography

Restaurant operators may be embracing the creep of technology into every aspect of the industry, but consumer perceptions about their tech interactions are mixed.

Certainly demographics are a factor, but not always in the way operators might think. It’s easy to assume younger diners, for example, will be more comfortable with new consumer-facing technologies. But in fact, data from sister brand Technomic indicates that, when it comes to innovations like the use of AI, front-of-the-house robots, and facial recognition, Gen Z is more closely aligned with their much-older Gen X counterparts, and Millennials are more likely drawn to new technologies.

Fundamentally, however, consumers love the convenience factor that technology can provide, but they love it—and are motivated to use it—for different reasons. And those reasons are often tied less to their specific age and more to their life circumstances.

In a first-ever panel at the annual FSTEC conference in Dallas on Wednesday, Abbey Lewis, VP of content strategy for Winsight Media, spoke with four consumers, each representing a specific generation, asking how they consume restaurant tech.

The panel (identified only by first name) ranged from Gen Z member Kimmy from Chicago, who is single, working full time and a heavy user of restaurant delivery. She is a fan of Burger King tacos, when she can find them, and Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza. While the extra fees can be a burden, Kimmy sees the convenience of delivery as a tradeoff: It she uses her time to get extra work done, for example, a delivered meal is the reward. [Full disclosure: Kimmy is also a digital specialist on the Restaurant Business staff.]

Representing Millennials was Josh, a Whataburger fan, who lives in a small town in rural Texas with his wife and four children under age 12. Dining out for his family is an undertaking, so convenience is key. But his family typically only orders pizza for delivery, and he said the extra cost of delivery fees is certainly a factor.

Gen Xer Corrie, a lover of Chick-fil-A from a suburb of Dallas, is the busy mother of two teenagers, so delivery helps make her life easier when she’s at a football game with her son while her daughter’s at home and hungry for dinner. And if a robot is delivering that meal, even better, because then she doesn’t have to worry about her child opening the door to a stranger.

But when it comes to things like robots in restaurants, Corrie is not impressed. “I personally like the human connection,” she said. Seeing a robot host at a Chili’s, for example, made her wonder what the purpose was. “It just seemed like it was in the way a little bit and the waitresses kind of had to move around it.”

And then there was Lorena, a Boomer from Dallas and an Arby’s fan who is originally from El Salvador. A grandmother with adult children, Lorena described herself as reluctant to adopt more technology into her life.

“I always think of people [whose jobs are eliminated by technology]. So where are the people now? We’re losing the personal touch I’m used to,” she said. “I don’t want more technology.”

Both Kimmy and Josh said discounts definitely drive their restaurant choices, but Corrie looks for stress-free experiences and restaurants that are aesthetically pleasing. Lorena wants both, saying, “For me, it’s experience. But if there’s a discount? Perfect.”

When it comes to innovations like AI ordering at a drive-thru, both Kimmy and Lorena said they prefer to have a conversation and ask questions about the menu. Josh and Corrie, however, were more open to the idea of talking to a bot, especially if the restaurant remembered a past order.

“It reminds me of getting groceries online. It’s so much more helpful when they already know these are the packages that you’ve already ordered,” said Corrie. “And if I’m going to go with fast food, I want it to be easy and quick.”

None of the consumers on stage said they use restaurant loyalty programs.

Kimmy said she doesn’t really see the benefit. Josh said it’s too difficult to choose one brand that suits the whole family. Corrie doesn’t want the emails and text messages and Lorena said simply, “Too many apps.”

Though comfortable with using technology up to a point, Lorena said the pace of new technologies has just become overwhelming. “Yeah, I can learn,” she said. “But it’s just too much.”

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