The future will be personalized

Odds are, robots won’t rule the back of house in the next five or 10 years. And drones probably won’t take over all deliveries. But what will certainly power restaurant innovation in the coming decade is similarly high-tech and even more far-reaching: data.

Whether it’s consumer metrics from in-unit sensors or a “smart” refrigerator that helps ferret out kitchen inefficiencies, restaurant operations will become even more data-driven.  

“Data matters more than ever,” in the restaurant of the future, says Richard Coraine, chief of staff for Union Square Hospitality Group. It will help operators track diner preferences to deliver personalized service—and targeted marketing. Data, in the form of applicant tracking and onboarding metrics, will improve employee retention. Software modeling will power shift-size scheduling. Data-tracking kitchen equipment will make sure walk-ins stay at temperature and ingredients have full traceability.

Already, operators are mining data to predict consumer behavior. At Chicago’s Alinea, for example, “If you’ve been there two times, I can predict when you’ll come back a third time,” says Nick Kokonas, the restaurant’s co-owner. (It’s 74 days, on average, after the second visit, Kokonas says, after which time the restaurant’s computer system automatically sends diners an email saying Alinea looks forward to welcoming them again soon.) 

As tech-savvy Gen Zers enter the workforce, restaurants will become more nimble data miners, says Erik Thoresen, a principal at research firm Technomic (RB’s sister company) who specializes in industry tech. “It’s still very early days when it comes to operators’ ability to leverage the data they have,” he says. “Most operators are sitting on top of a tremendous amount of data that’s going unutilized.”

When properly used, this data could lead to hyperpersonalized menu suggestions, tailored literally down to a consumer’s DNA, Thoresen says, adding, “We’re moving from customization to personalization.”

Any leeriness on the part of today’s consumers about brands harvesting their data is understandable. But restaurant innovation experts predict those privacy concerns will fade as more data leads to improved service. “Instead of being creeped out by that, they’ll realize that if you’re a regular, [restaurants] know your preferences and treat you well,” Kokonas says. “People will create ‘dining profiles’ willingly.”

Mediterranean chain Cava has been an industry leader in gathering data to inform operational decisions. Sensors placed along the lines of some units led to a shrinking of menu items, reduced congestion and speedier ordering. All of the chain’s software vendors must feature a compatible API that allows data to stream to Cava’s cloud servers, letting raw data be turned into actionable information, says Brett Schulman, the chain’s CEO. “We don’t view technology as replacing the human element, but as enhancing the human experience,” he says. “This will allow us to be more sophisticated, to meet the needs of each guest.”


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