The restaurant of the future isn’t as far off as we think

Robots. Artificial intelligence. The internet of things. Facial recognition. While these technologies and others can seem far in the future, the reality is that many are already in place—or at least in the test phase. One of the biggest reasons: In today’s tight squeeze for profits, restaurants need to find ways to work smarter.

“The restaurant industry is under attack, with rising labor costs and turnover,” said John Miller, CEO of Cali Group, owner of the CaliBurger chain, during the Restaurant of the Future SuperSession at the National Restaurant Association Show. “At the same time, people are wanting to eat food made in restaurants more than ever before. They just don’t want to eat in them.”

So Cali Group—a technology-investment company that can use its burger chain as a testing ground—has worked on a variety of initiatives to serve its off-premise customers as well as create a reason to bring them in-house. All the while, it’s also making sure it can produce at that increased capacity demanded by consumers ordering from restaurants more often. There are four main aspects of Miller’s vision for the restaurant of the future:

  1. Facial recognition, for loyalty as well as payment.
  2. Growth of gaming and e-sports, building a virtual playground that enables on-site guests to compete from their own devices.
  3. Highly automated kitchens with robots and AI, which CaliBurger has tested with Flippy, its burger-flipping robot.
  4. Delivery, with fully autonomous vehicles impacting the industry in the near future.

Even with high-tech operations, though, “we cannot eliminate the human touch in a restaurant,” said John Ha, CEO of Bear Robotics. “You don’t want to dine in a factory,” he said. That point was furthered by futurist Daniel Burrus: “We live in a world of tech-driven transformation, but we also live in a human world.”

So when is it right to add or build on the tech in a restaurant? The first question to ask is whether a new innovation is additive, said Sarah Lockyer, SVP of content for Restaurant Business’ parent company, Winsight. “Tech is not here to replace the role a restaurant serves in a community. It can add to it. It can enhance it,” she said.

To help with success rates when adding a new piece of technology, Lockyer suggested that operators make sure it’s something that their guests demand as well as something the brand believes in.

While she presented tempered views of the increased demand for delivery and the race to capitalize on voice recognition and how it could impact back-of-house operations, Lockyer identified some other, more practical applications that many brands could put in place today.

“Payment has to be top of mind,” she said. Nearly a third of millennials already use Apple Pay or another mobile payment platform. And more and more chains are going the cashless route.

Lockyer also thinks that dynamic pricing is imminent, as a way to boost sales and traffic that have been lagging. Operators could potentially change menu pricing based on dayparts, weather events, inventory supply or personalized customer loyalty preferences.

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