Tech and the foodservice industry: are we losing our human touch?

Following CAB Studio’s release of the white paper, Power to the Customer, Emily Lewis explores their suggestion that the hospitality industry needs to reassess its relationship with technology

“Omnichannel world” and “customer age”. These are the terms that industry experts CAB Studios have used to characterise today’s society in the recent white paper, Power to the Customer.

The customer age marks a turning point in consumer society, the paper reports, stating that the customer nowadays is empowered through their ability to make buying decisions informed by peer reviews and online research. “Today’s customers have the power to make or break brands in a matter of minutes. All businesses need to make sure customer experience comes first.”

The paper seeks to remind operators that a smooth and satisfying customer experience does not always correlate with more tech. Technology for technology’s sake is a potential pitfall in the hospitality industry – a sector traditionally associated with ‘service with a smile’.

Instead, CAB highlights the success of technological ventures that have empowered the customer, tailoring their experiences to be customised and convenient. One such example is Starbucks, whose rewards scheme collects and uses data to deliver customised discounts to its 13 million members.

“The businesses that thrive are the ones that embrace the customer age, see it as an opportunity and create a positive and personalised experience,” says the report.


The white paper emphasises the potential in personalisation, recognising Starbucks’ use of smart data analytics as “key” to their direct marketing programmes.

Using Big Data to personalise a customer’s journey is becoming increasingly common, with the paper detailing Starbucks’ use of “embedded technology within a store’s point of sale system, which connects to your smartphone and tells the barista about your preferences and regular orders.”

Scott Muncaster, owner and managing director of software solution companies Adactus and Data Know How, agrees.

“Technology will enable ever-greater personalisation,” says Muncaster, who has provided tech solutions to the likes of Pizza Hut and Wagamama. “Data capture across all touch-points will give richer insights on individual customers’ needs and expectations from a brand.”

Muncaster’s companies have already successfully combined digital services with copious amounts of valuable customer data. “By bringing Data Know How into the fold, we’re now able to offer an end-to-end service where we both generate data from online service and turn it into insight.”

Back in 2005, wonder-kid Vincent McKevitt caught onto the power of customisation in the foodservice industry, opening his ultra-trendy London salad bar Tossed in Sheldon Square.

“Our vision is to deliver healthy, customisable food, made to order,” explains McKevitt. However, as customer expectations grow, McKevitt has had to utilise tech to combine speed with bespoke services. Switching to an electronic point-of-sale (POS) system has been a game-changer, with the number of kiosks in Tossed storefronts rising from just five to over 20.

“Customisable and made-to-order makes us slower than some competitors who pre-make their food. Technology has allowed us to deliver our vision much faster as we can now handle many more orders from our guests and can also focus our team on production.”

McKevitt has ensured the POS system hasn’t superseded the human aspect of his business, however, by employing hosts for each outlet, as well as the affectionately named ‘Tossers’ actually making the food.

The rise of the virtual

Upon hearing the phrase virtual restaurant, it would be natural to picture holograms and VR goggles. In reality, virtual eateries are simply foodservice providers without the shop-front.

These do not have the same pressure to maintain the human-touch as traditional restaurants. When choosing delivery customers are usually seeking easy food from the comfort of their home, instead of a social experience. Accordingly, in food delivery tech is focused on providing the quickest, most convenient experience possible.

Edin Basic, founder of gourmet pizza delivery company Firezza, suggests that the growth of the virtual restaurants and delivery services such as Deliveroo has led to an increasing amount of customers choosing to dine at home.

“I think over the last three years you see lots of online ordering – so much that now it is about 70% of our orders. And obviously everything that’s involved with delivery is online, and is part of the experience. So there is very little actual interaction with the customers,” he says.

“This is slightly different from the restaurant experience, where customers are coming in and technology can be destructive. But in our case it just makes it easier and more convenient for the customers.”

Even taking into account the benefits tech can provide in terms of service, Basic follows CAB and Muncaster in their focus on human interaction and traditional hospitality.

“Millenials just want simple, quick food. I think the industry is crying for the old traditional restaurants where you go in, the chef comes out and says ‘don’t worry, I’ll make that for you tonight’. That kind of thing. I love that,” he says.

Power of peers

Following its announcement of the customer age, CAB Studios have recognised a “shift in power” in the white paper, saying that this is a “consideration for all businesses”.

Contributing to this shift is the growth of internet giant TripAdvisor, whose revenue for 2015 was $1.4 bn. With CAB reporting that 90% of consumers read less than 10 reviews before forming an opinion on a business, Basic recognises that now more than ever foodservice operators need to have a strong online presence.

“You have to have a powerful online presence nowadays. You totally have to keep on top of it; you have to have the tools to respond to everything,” he says.

Muncaster equally notes the importance of embracing technology. “Brands who embrace this are creating a competitive advantage; those who do the bare minimum will fall behind,” he says.

However, ultimately Muncaster believes that the traditional hospitality industry values will hold fast. “A successful restaurant will always offer good food, a nice venue to spend time in, excellent service. But the definitions of each will vary more widely than ever before, customer to customer. Technology will be the enabler that allows restaurants to offer what each customer wants.”

Further reading:

See CAB’s white paper ‘Power to the Customer’ at:

Emily Lewis

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