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Technology

The year in restaurant technology

What we got right and wrong about tech going into 2021, plus the developments we didn’t see coming.
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

As we reflect on another eventful year in restaurant tech, we thought it would be useful to look back at our predictions from last year to see how they held up. Then, we’ll review some of the trends we didn’t see coming.

First, a stress-test of last year’s crystal ball ...

Google

In 2020, we predicted that more chains would start integrating with Google ordering, allowing customers to place an order for pickup or delivery without ever leaving the search engine. That has happened, albeit somewhat more quietly than we expected. And consumers are still far more likely to order in other ways: 43% said they prefer to go to a restaurant’s website to place a delivery order, while only 1% like ordering through search engines like Google, according to research from DoorDash.

Kitchen robots

We wrote last year that kitchen robots seemed poised to take another step in 2021. That prediction definitely came true. Robots made all kinds of substantial headlines this year: Sweetgreen bought Spyce, DoorDash bought Chowbotics, and 800 Degrees is planning to open thousands of robotic locations, to name just a few. Many of these developments are still in their early phases, but the interest from restaurants is clearly there. One driving factor we didn’t foresee was the labor crisis, which suddenly made robots seem even more attractive.

AI order-taking

Even if it didn’t make huge strides in 2021, the use of chatbots and other automated software to take customers’ orders is still firmly ingrained in restaurants’ collective imagination. The usual suspects—McDonald’s, Burger King, Wingstop, Chipotle—appear to still be toying with the technology, while burger chain Krystal recently announced plans to test it in the drive-thru. AI promises labor savings and smart upselling, but the challenge for large chains will be scaling it.

A sense of security

Health-focused tech like UV air purifiers and hand-washing systems were all the rage in the thick of the pandemic, but they didn’t exactly take hold in the way we expected this year. Interestingly, tech products that touted themselves as contactless and social-distancing-friendly in 2020 pivoted to highlighting their labor attributes in ’21 as hiring became the crisis du jour. QR codes are a great example: They were initially hailed as a safer alternative to paper menus, but will likely end up having a bigger long-term impact as labor savers.

And now on to a few developments we weren’t expecting ...

Celebrity virtual brands

At the very end of 2020, the online-only restaurant MrBeast Burger made its debut on delivery apps. The to-go-only concept backed by a YouTube star became an overnight sensation thanks in large part to MrBeast’s huge online audience, ushering in a new era of celebrity tie-ins for restaurants in the process. Over the course of the year, dozens of celebs have lended their likenesses and, in some cases, their culinary chops, to new delivery-only brands. What the upstart concepts lacked in scale and brand awareness, they made up for (in theory) with the familiar faces of celebs. Guy Fieri, DJ Khaled, Pauly D, George Lopez, Dwyane Wade and Gwyneth Paltrow all launched virtual brands in 2021, and there will likely be more to come.

Robot delivery

You just heard about robots in the kitchen—but how about robots on the road? Autonomous delivery vehicles gained more traction than expected this year behind promises to make delivery faster, more affordable and more sustainable than humans in cars. (Even drone delivery got some attention, although that still has some hoops to jump through.) Uber Eats and DoorDash both unveiled plans to use robots to ferry food, while a number of robot delivery companies closed funding rounds this year. 

Customer relationship management

This is a fancy term for what boils down to targeted marketing. It has become a key tool for restaurants that began to gather loads of customer data amid a shift to online ordering during the pandemic. With that valuable information in hand, the next thing they needed was a way to act on it. Enter CRM technology. The software has increasingly made an appearance on the earnings calls of public companies, which have praised the ability to ping individual segments of their audience with tailored messaging. Its importance was boldly underscored by Olo’s acquisition of CRM provider Wisely in October. Olo CEO Noah Glass called it the hottest sector in restaurants.

Fragmentation

The proliferation of restaurant technology has been both a gift and a curse for restaurants. There’s a software tool for just about everything, but getting it to play nice with the rest of the tech stack can be a headache, as restaurants made known at the FSTEC conference in September. Most suppliers appear to hear them loud and clear, and are focused on simplifying those connections either by acquiring other providers or, more frequently, working with them to make their products more plug-and-play. 

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