How artificial intelligence/machine learning applications and contactless menus/POS have a significant role to play in the future of foodservice

Technological innovation – whether working its magic behind the scenes, or positioned upfront and visible to impress and assist customers – has always played a critical role in the foodservice sector. And yet, this is a sector many believe is too slow to implement new technologies already powering other industries.

What is certain is that investigating new technology that could make a potential point of difference or a cost saving to a foodservice operator must now be especially high up the agenda for the consultant community. The backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has decimated the sector since the global lockdown was introduced in March 2020, has made that need all the more pressing.

“As designers, we need to be shedding our antiquated ideas and habits and looking at every possible scenario, every piece of equipment, every available technology that might open up a new avenue of income for our clients,” says FCSI Associate and Foodservice Consultant columnist Tim McDougald of Clevenger Associates in Washington, US.

“Are we proposing every possible option? Are we pursuing every possible idea? Our clients hire us for our expertise, they need us to think of the things they don’t, or can’t. Now, more than ever, we need to re-evaluate our ideals, our thought processes and our theories of how typical commercial kitchens function. We need to continue to find new ways to think creatively and find solutions to the problems our clients are facing.” In that spirit then, within this series of stories you will find 10 technologies (plus a few more for good measure) poised to make a difference to foodservice in the next five years.

Some of those listed here in alphabetical order, have been around for a number of years already, but have not yet been fully embraced by the sector, while others are more bleeding edge. All will play their part as the sector transitions from recovery and rebuilding.

1. Artificial intelligence/machine learning applications

Many areas of foodservice are being worked on where (artificial intelligence (AI) technology is proving to be absolutely critical. “AI is beginning to be integrated in guest order systems, web bots, training and other areas of the foodservice business,” says Georgia-based FCSI Associate Jay Bandy, president of Goliath Consulting Group.

“Web bots have taken off. It’s hard to go to a website of a company of any size without seeing them. Consumers will now make reservations on Facebook, even though they have a reservation app. So, having a bot there to capture any questions definitely helps out the customer. We’re also seeing operators using [Amazon’s] Alexa to place orders. Folks are getting much better at integrating these platforms.”

For consultant Joseph Schumaker FCSI of FoodSpace in Idaho, US, the foodservice industry has “always notoriously been behind on tech and we haven’t applied the same AI and machine learning techniques that other big data companies have to get the answers we need. Why do you think Amazon bought Whole Foods? It’s all about data acquisition – filling a data gap data they did not have.” Similarly, Schumaker sees the industry being behind on machine learning implementation. “It can do things in a fraction of the time that it would take a human to analyze. We’re behind as an industry compared to retail and other industries that have employed these tactics,” he says.

“Ghost, host or virtual kitchen concepts are a new solution that require AI and Internet of Things (IoT) practices,” says consultant Serdar Sağlamtunç FCSI of DM Consulting Engineering LLC in Ankara, Turkey. “Now there are as many solutions as there are operators, but these should be integrated into one hub to serve all – it may be a cloud-type, collecting and distributing system to fit all types of applications. According to the recent data and information, there is a great demand to find a swift solution for ordering and delivering phases. RFID usage will support the delivery.”

Bandy agrees. “Really looking out into the future you’ll be able to take AI and connect the ordering system and the inventory system with actually producing the food. I think we’re a couple of years from really turning the corner on your robot AI-driven cooking equipment, but we’re not that far away.

It definitely has a future. They’re great labor saving opportunities.” For Schumaker, it’s all about operational efficiency. “Where AI comes in is its analyzing of data and taking the human out of the equation. A ghost kitchen is a great example of a place where this could really be applied as well. Doordash is an AI company. They are using analytics to throttle up and down everything from marketing, order flow, driver stats – all by machine learning and AI, not by humans,” he says.

2. Contactless menus/POS

Contactless systems allow diners in restaurants to browse menus, order food, and pay from their table, which can help reduce labor costs – as waiting staff have fewer tasks – and speed up waiting times in restaurants. As part of an integrated contactless system, it can help to remove human error and even be more energy and resource efficient as menu changes can be implemented without the need to reprint paper menus.

Contactless can serve multiple functions, says Bandy, including “having the ability for the consumer to use their own device to place their order, browse the menu or look up the wine list and in chef-driven restaurants where you have ingredients that folks don’t know, that’s a great way for them to be able to get information. It eliminates those awkward questions that people don’t want to ask. It streamlines the process because that’s integrated with the POS. It helps with order accuracy and takes away that awkward step in full-service restaurants where you have to wait until somebody brings a check to you,” he says.

Bandy also believes contactless will help on tipping, “but also help on table turns in full-service, because you’re going to probably shave off a few minutes in a process. So, quick returns, and then a higher average check. You’re going to have more folks that are just going to be serving the table and making sure guests gets what they want, but not having to worry about the order process,” he says. “Contactless is the buzzword because of Covid,” says Schumaker.

“Having said that, this is already where we were headed. Look at [San Francisco Robotic Coffee Bar] Cafe X: You have a robot that’s making coffee, but there’s a human barista telling me how to place my order through my app on my own device, talking to me about where the beans came from and the types of cups used. The human doesn’t care about the robot in that moment, they care about the genuine human interaction with the barista. Contactless is about freeing up humans to be human, and talking to the guests and interacting and creating memorable experiences through food and dining experiences.”

Covid, says Schumaker will “accelerate the number of types of contactless technologies that are available to us” and also drive the cost of them down. “If we create a completely different operational flow of how people work in the face of a contactless environment, we’re going to create a better experience for the guests which is going to drive satisfaction, revenue and profit.”

Michael Jones, Tina Nielsen, Conor Carleton


Read Part Two of this story, here.

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