Don't give computers the keys to your restaurant, FSTEC attendees are warned

During a Technomic report on the state of technology, attendees were advised to factor human intervention into their contingency plans.
FSTEC conference
Technomic Senior Principal Rich Shank maintains that human interaction is important to restaurants. | Photo by W. Scott Mitchell Photography.

Technology should help the restaurant industry offset traffic-dampening demographic trends along with the business' worsening shortage of workers, but it could fail to deliver on both fronts if operators disregard the importance of having human backup for what it's counting on machines to do. 

That was the message sounded by Technomic Senior Principal and VP of Innovation Rich Shank as he benchmarked where restaurant technology is heading during a key presentation at the FSTEC technology conference.

As he explained, the industry has a traffic problem that’s likely to be aggravated by “tectonic” trends in American demographics. The U.S. population is only growing at a rate of 0.6%, or half the rate clocked 20 years ago. The upshot is a thinning of the population entering the industry’s pool of consumers.

At the same time, Shank said, the buying habits of that pool are likely to change as Baby Boomers and other well-off oldsters age out of the pack. Because those mature groups have money and a reliance on dining out, they’re restaurants’ best customers. But their ranks are not being fully replenished by younger cohorts, who don't share their elders' propensity to visit restaurants. 

He asserted that technology could be the means of fostering more visits from that smaller and less-infatuated group.

He noted how loyalty programs have become more sophisticated as the industry pulled its way out of the pandemic, a trend he said consumers have welcomed. A Technomic survey of consumers found that 47% of today's diners are drawn to a restaurant that offers a loyalty program.

Technology will definitely help in that struggle to get more visits per restaurant regulars, Shank stressed. But he also observed that old-fashioned price-off coupons and other discount come-ons, the traffic-building tools that were widely used before app-delivered lures became the standard, haven't lost their magic.  Technology, he stressed, is a facilitator, not the draw per se. 

Similarly, he advised the nearly 900 operators in attendance to ensure they can switch back to a reliance on humans in the event their technology fails. Part of technology’s benefit is its ability to crunch data into decision-guiding and a solid business-building plan, said Shank. But don’t cede all of the decision-making to computers.

Neither should it be the only means of operating a store, he warned.

“What is your plan to be fail-safe? If you’re implementing these technologies, be sure that there are ways of human intervention,”  said Shank.

Shank related how he and several colleagues had visited a restaurant that sported a production line like Chipotle’s, where customers move down a line and tell employees at the various stations how they’d like their meal to be customized. He did not reveal the concept’s identity but stressed that the restaurant was not a Chipotle.

The place had just added a piece of technology intended to streamline the meal-building process. Instead of moving down the line, specifying what they wanted, patrons covered all the variables at the beginning of the process. Their choices were printed out on a ticket that moved with the guest down the line, so team members could read the specifications instead of asking the customers what they preferred.  The customization was streamlined accordingly.

But the ticket printer stopped working. Instead of switching to the old production method, or writing down patrons’ orders at the top of the line, the employees simply stopped serving. Customers were turned away and a significant volume of sales was lost.

High-tech systems are “going to have a lot of value,” said Shank, “but they’re going to be at their best if you have this capability for human intervention.”

He showed a picture of Chipotle’s new automated make line, which runs underneath the human-based system the burrito chain currently uses. He pointed out that each component of the automated system was readily accessible through a series of doors.  If one component fails, workers on the line need only open a door and lean down to attempt a reboot.

He also advised the operators in attendance to view artificial intelligence as a more efficient way of bringing to light the insights they’ve previously unearthed by analyzing data on a spread sheet.  He suggested that it's more of a time-saver and an aid than a brain that can operate at a super-human level.

Shank spoke on the last day of the FSTEC conference, which was presented in Dallas by Winsight Media, the parent of Restaurant Business.

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