Invent a new breed of Model T or figure out how to reuse rockets and everyone worships you as a visionary. Not this week, Elon Musk. You hog all the headlines with your disruption of industry after industry, but recent developments in the restaurant industry will have you spitting out your fair-market coffee.
Here are some of those breakthroughs—potentially disruptive in some instances, merely interesting in another, and all signs of how the food business is mastering technology. From the simple to the truly head-spinning, here are some of the advances that are affecting the way Americans are fed.
Drive that around in your Tesla, Elon.
1. The voice-activated restaurant?
Enabling customers to voice their delivery or takeout orders through smart bots like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri is so yesterday. This week brought news the technology is being adapted to the back of house, enabling restaurant managers to check on operations merely by articulating what they need to know. A machine responds with the information.
The technology is being adopted by Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, which cites the specific advantage of enabling managers to keep smoking the chain’s signature ribs and brisket while they get a gauge on operational issues like inventory levels, food safety indicators and food waste. All they have to do is ask for the data.
2. Jack in the Box tries robots
A relative newcomer to delivery, Jack in the Box is looking to leapfrog the competition with a state-of-the-art method for getting food to customers’ homes and offices. The arrangement also provides some brand specificity to otherwise generic third-party deliverers.
Through a deal with DoorDash, robots emblazoned with Jack in the Box emblems are being used on an extremely limited basis in San Francisco to haul the chain’s burgers and fries on the last stretch to the customer, according to the cyborg’s supplier.
There’s no word yet on how the robots like the city’s notorious hills.
3. Amazon’s army-surplus meal kits
The onetime virtual bookstore, or what "Star Trek" fans might know as the Borg, is trying yet another way to elbow its way into consideration as an alternative source for dinner. The e-commerce giant is exploring mass production of packaged meals that can be stored for an extended period without refrigeration, Reuters reported last week.
The shelf-stable kits call to mind the highly storable, self-contained field rations that are already in use by the U.S. military, called meals ready to eat, or MREs. But the experimental alternative to frozen dinners uses another acronym, according to Reuters: microwave-assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS. In a nonscientific nutshell, the meals are put in pressurized water and nuked to kill all the bad things.
Amazon itself has yet to say anything about the endeavor.
The news comes as the restaurant and retail industries are cowering underneath tables, kitchen pots on their heads for protection, waiting to see the actual outcomes of Amazon’s pending merger with Whole Foods.
4. Little Caesars’ pizza-dispensing device
Let Domino’s make all the head-spinning news about delivery technology. Archrival (and cross-state nemesis) Little Caesars is focusing its tech efforts on takeout, the Detroit-based chain’s traditional stronghold. The brand has just started testing what several major media labeled a pizza vending machine.
That’s an oversimplification. Sure, the technology enables a customer to slide a hot pie out of machine without dealing with a human, but it’s actually more of a holding cabinet—the sort of device many chains are trying to engineer as a way of serving takeout customers faster.
At test locations, customers can now place an order and pay for it via their smartphones, an option Little Caesars has dubbed Reserve-N-Ready service. Patrons are texted when their pie is ready for pickup. They input a three-digit code or use a QR code to open the locked Pizza Portal and access their pizza, and then head out.
Little Caesars says the amount of time a customer is in the store is reduced to seconds, a boast that may be directed in the direction of Ann Arbor, Mich., the home of Domino’s.
5. A&W goes back to the future
Not all of the industry’s recent technological advances are big-budget, NASA-caliber moonshots. In the instance of A&W, the venerable burger and root beer chain, the breakthrough was the adoption of a familiar piece of equipment: a mixer.
The device has enabled the franchisee-owned chain to resume making its signature root beer in every store. Previously, the brand’s largely mom-and-pop operators would have to blend in the sugar using a wooden paddle, an arduous (and presumably sticky) task that discouraged the hand-crafting. Now, with the sugar being automatically blended into the drink, A&W can sing about the soft drink being made on-premise and served in frosted mugs again.
The capstone: The chain is now bringing back the visually arresting draft-pull handles that attest to the soda being freshly drawn.
We suggest you have a frosted mug of the drink and think that over, Elon.