On the brave new world of restaurants.
IF YOU’VE booked a restaurant online or ordered your latte at a touch-screen kiosk you’ve tapped the tip of a rapidly advancing technology iceberg for the hospitality business. A host of advances promise better margins and more sales to an increasingly tech-savvy clientele – for restaurateurs who can afford it, that is. Big groups can spread the cost of tech over a string of outlets but that’s out of reach for your lone local favourite.
So where will technology make the most impact on our future food scene?
‘Make it faster’ and ‘remove human error’ are the twin mantras for a new wave of labour-saving kitchen devices. Place your orders now for the Chowbotics robotic salad maker and the Antunes JS-1000 Jet Steamer, which scrambles eggs in 12 seconds. A California pizza delivery company, meanwhile, has a patent out on a machine that finishes cooking that pizza you ordered in the back of the delivery truck.
PHONES GET SMARTER
Expect tech-savvy restaurants and chains to employ systems that allow you to order, pay and split bills using your phone and to claim and track loyalty reward points. Don’t be surprised, though, if they also monitor this, as well as who uses their free wi-fi, all to target us better. More in-restaurant phone charging stations will no doubt appear.
Automated ordering and payment kiosks have been spruiked since 2006, but now they’re coming of age. Self order solutions were the hot category at two recent US restaurant trade shows and the adoption of kiosks at drive-thru, fast-casual and fast-food restaurants grows apace. McDonald’s predicts that most of its 14,000 US outlets will have self-order kiosks by 2020,while Wendy’s is rolling them out to its 6500-odd US outlets.The counter is all about serving the food. Restaurants will be able to take more orders every hour, and it leaves the up-selling – ‘do you want fries with that?’ – up to the machine.
The brochures also tell you that giving the customer more control over, and ability to customise, their order will keep those more selective (read fussy) millennials happy. And, certainly, being able to customise menus to show only low-cal or vegan offerings, or being able to check the total sugar, fat or protein levels of a meal, would be a huge plus for many in these health-conscious times.
Add up all that data potentially being mined with each kiosk interaction, tablet-based order at your table, phone order and online booking and that’s an awful lot of information about you that (assuming you agree to make it available, one hopes) a restaurant could use for everything from suggesting orders based on your likes, or your dietary choices, to firing your orders to the kitchen and bar just as you approach the restaurant. This means that drink you ordered arrives at the table when you do, there’s no tedious wait for the food and the bill’s already paid so the challenge of disappearing waiters at the end of the night is a thing of the past.
FULLY ATOMATED RESTAURANTS
These aren’t strictly new. Tech author Kerry Segrave writes that basic vending machine-style versions first appeared in the ’60s when big US companies installed automated canteens offering the likes of infrared-toasted sandwiches and frozen meals such as lasagne that were heated in the machines for lunch.
Some futurists predict that 50 per cent of jobs – mainly low- to mid-skilled roles like those that make up the bulk at mass restaurants – are at risk from robots. Japan has Gyoza Lab, a fully automated fast-food joint where the dumplings are made and delivered by a robot, and the Henn-na Hotel where the front-desk and cloakroom staff are all robots. In the US, Momentum Machines has raised $US18 million to launch a chain of fully automated burger joints based on a more advanced version of a machine it unveiled in 2012 that grinds the meat, makes and grills the patties, slices the toppings and assembles the burgers at a rate of 400 an hour.
Momentum has, however, expressed concerns about whether it’s feasible for robots to handle customer service, and rightly so it seems. Oracle’s ‘Restaurant 2025’ report found that 40 per cent of consumers surveyed found the idea of being served by a machine would be strange or invasive. News that automated vegetarian chain Eatsa, launched in 2015, had to close five of its eateries outside its San Francisco base due to a lukewarm response also seems to support the notion that people want people to serve them.
It’s perhaps no surprise that in San Fran, the US’s techiest city, Eatsa has fared better along with the robot-brewed coffees at the Café X cafés and the robot-run food deliveries of Yelp’s Eat24, bought last year for around $288 million by US food-delivery giant GrubHub. Having visited a San Francisco branch of Eatsa for a quinoa bowl (obvs), I can say having a faceless interface is weird.As is seeing shadowy figures flitting around behind the bank of smoked-glass delivery windows that spell out your name when your food is ready.