OPINIONTechnology

The year in restaurant technology 2022

Robots, ghost kitchens and the metaverse made headlines in a turbulent year for tech companies.
Art by Nico Heins via Shutterstock

Just like last year, we’ll review the year in restaurant tech trends by looking back at how good (or bad) I was at predicting them

Here are my predictions. And here's what actually happened:

Restaurant tech got a reality check

My prediction: “I only expect restaurant tech consolidation to continue in ’22.”

2021 was a year of plenty for restaurant technology. Venture capital poured into the industry and tech firms grew quickly, often using their cash to buy other companies.

All of that ground to a near halt in 2022. That was due in large part to inflation and fears of a recession. Rising interest rates cowed investors and forced companies to focus more on profits than growth. It led to a wave of layoffs as companies cut costs and hunkered down to weather the financial winter.

Though that was much less fun to cover than eight-digit funding rounds, it was a necessary wakeup call for companies that grew too fast in 2020 and 2021. It should set a more realistic pace for restaurant tech development going forward.

Robots took 2 steps forward and 1 step back

My prediction: “I expect even more development in ’22.”

I wasn’t wrong, exactly, but 2022 got more complicated for robots than I was expecting. 

In one sense, it was a banner year for the technology. Bots were the stars of the National Restaurant Association Show in May, and restaurants continued to invest in automation. We saw the launch of a cheeseburger vending machine, a robotic wok and a number of new Flippy installations.

But those developments were offset by some notable setbacks. Chili’s ended its test of server robots to focus on more pressing initiatives. DoorDash shut down its robotic vending machine division. And McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczyisnki threw cold water on the prospect of robots flipping burgers at the fast-food giant anytime soon.

As we close out the year, the robotics trend defies an easy summary. But that’s to be expected for tech that’s moving beyond the test-and-learn stage and starting to scale. Robots’ uneven year could be seen as cautionary, but it’s more likely a sign that the technology is starting to mature. And with labor and inflation continuing to pummel operators, robots could be pressed into a bigger role very soon.

Ghost kitchens became virtual food halls

My prediction:“I don’t think ghost kitchens are close to their final form. … I’m expecting ghost kitchens to start adding more automation.”

Ghost kitchens certainly continued to evolve in 2022, but the changes came more in the way they look and feel than in the technology they use.

In fact, we may look back on 2022 as the year traditional ghost kitchens were usurped by a new format: the virtual food hall.

What’s the difference? The prototypical ghost kitchen, like the name implies, is a primarily online entity—an Amazon fulfillment center but for food. Yes, there is an actual building with kitchens and cooks, but the customer interacts with it almost exclusively through an app or a website.

The industry over the past two years has learned that this strategy might not be the best one. Even in today’s increasingly digital restaurant business, a physical, visible location still goes a long way in terms of attracting customers.

Kitchen United

Customers can order at kiosks at Kitchen United's Chicago food hall. / Photo by Joe Guszkowski

Enter the virtual food hall, which combines the off-premise acumen of ghost kitchens with the vibe and selection of a food hall. Locations tend to be in high-traffic areas where walk-ins are as welcome as online orders. Some even offer seating. And they usually give guests the option to mix and match from multiple concepts.

This hybrid approach has been exemplified by smaller upstarts like Local Kitchens and Hungry House and adopted by established players like Kitchen United and Reef.

I would expect it to become the prevailing model going forward. Relying on delivery apps alone is simply not going to be profitable for most ghost kitchens. 

The metaverse underwhelmed 

My prediction: “Innovative chains with younger followings (like Chipotle and Starbucks) as well as the big delivery providers will start wading in further in 2022.” 

The metaverse came into 2022 with a bang but will leave with a whimper. 

The virtual world’s biggest booster, the company formerly known as Facebook, has struggled this year amid reports that its metaverse app is less popular than it was expecting. The metaverse’s Web3 cousins, cryptocurrency and nonfungible tokens (NFTs), have also gone from boom to bust.

Restaurants, including Chipotle and Starbucks, experimented with all of the above in the name of marketing and engagement in 2022. But for now, the metaverse remains little more than a curiosity for an industry with a lot of other issues on its plate.

3 more 2022 tech trends

Demand for delivery remained strong, despite soaring prices

Non-robotic forms of automation gained steam—especially AI voice.

TikTok is having a big impact on where people eat. 

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