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Technology

Tech to check in 2021

Here are four areas of innovation to keep an eye on next year.
Illustration: Restaurant Business staff

Restaurants came a long way technologically in 2020, and by all accounts, they’re just getting started. Here are some innovations to keep an eye on next year.

Google.com

You may have heard of this website, which is at this point nearly synonymous with the internet itself. And as more people migrate to online ordering, it’s naturally becoming the first place many of them go to search for restaurants—not DoorDash or another third-party marketplace.

Meanwhile, Google has made it a lot easier for those hungry searchers to order food. They can now do that directly from the search engine or Google Maps by clicking a prominent “Order” button, which takes them through the whole process without leaving Google. Panera Bread and Burger King have integrated this capability, and it seems like a no-brainer for others to follow suit.

Kitchen robots

2020 was a big year for robotic fry cook Flippy, which landed its first full-time gig, at White Castle, and will soon be in 10 other locations. Many of its robotic counterparts made headlines as well, though most are still in the early stages of fundraising or launching pilots.

That said, robots appear ready to take another step forward in 2021—many robotics companies RB spoke to teased partnerships with major chains next year. And the pandemic has only underscored their benefits: Not only do robots have the potential to make restaurants more efficient, but they can help promote social distancing and reduce human contact with food. 

AI order-taking

In addition to doing more cooking in 2021, robots will also be taking orders. Chipotle and Wingstop are among the chains testing this method of order taking, which relies on machine learning to improve interactions over time. The burrito chain has been rolling out a messaging bot called Pepper that is currently fielding customer service requests but will eventually take orders. And Wingstop is using AI to take orders over the phone—the last frontier in the chain’s quest to go 100% digital.

A sense of security

Health and safety is going to continue to be a top priority for diners, even once the pandemic subsides. With that in mind, many restaurants will be leaning more on technology to ensure a safe experience.

That might include automated health screenings for staff, devices that aid in hand-washing and ultraviolet lights to purify the air—as well as digital checklists to help managers keep track of all the new protocols.

Diners’ desire for a more hygienic experience dovetails with their demand for a more frictionless one. That’s going to continue to accelerate the rise of so-called contactless solutions, like high-tech pickup lockers and mobile ordering and payment. Some suppliers have even introduced technology that allows guests to pay with their face.

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