Jim Banks looks at how smart equipment, touchless tech, AI, robotics and other innovations are shaping the industry and aiding its survival
Technological innovation to propel foodservice into the future has pivoted over the last year to focus on cutting-edge technologies improving connectivity, service, hygiene and delivery. This week and next, we look at how technology is reshaping the sector.
Foodservice operators know how to produce good food, but having been forced to adapt to the reality of a global pandemic, they are now focusing their minds on how to get that food to customers as efficiently as possible and how to run their businesses more cost-effectively in unprecedented and volatile market conditions. As always, technology is here to help.
The industry is now investing in technologies that improve safety and hygiene, enable customers to order and pay remotely, meet the growing demand for deliveries, and cut costs. Those investments will not only help them survive the pandemic, but also fundamentally reshape the industry as it emerges from lockdown.
“The whole industry is in the shadow of the pandemic,” says Rick Caron, chief innovation officer at equipment manufacturer Welbilt. “In the US, food sales have fallen by 30%, so it is clear that the industry is not immune to an infectious disease. This has been a major awakening and it has sparked a sense of urgency around innovation and new technology to improve resilience.”
Foodservice outlets with delivery and takeout options have done well, but the whole industry must prepare itself for a new normal, in which growing demand will put pressure on capacity, costs and customer service.
“Drive-throughs have done well, as have takeout and delivery services,” says Jay Bandy of Goliath Consulting in Georgia, US. “Pizza clients are also doing really well. There is pent-up demand that is starting to pour into the market. Some clients, especially in QSR, are already beating 2019 numbers.”
“But the labor pool has shrunk and it is harder to find employees than it was in 2019,” he adds. “All of our clients are trying to hire, especially in QSR, but with the difficulties they face they are trying to reduce their need for labor. That drives investment in new technology.”
Connectivity in the kitchen
Most innovation in foodservice technology happens in the kitchen, often to improve resource efficiency. Now, connectivity is the keyword in the kitchen.
“Clients want more machines that are connected to Wi-Fi and the restaurant network,” notes Bandy. “Operators can connect from anywhere and operate equipment remotely. They want pieces of equipment that can talk to each other. That will grow very strongly.”
Connectivity improves process efficiency and enables the remote monitoring of equipment across many locations. Electrolux Professional, for example, has brought out a range of Skyline Combi Ovens and Blast Chillers that share the same control panel and communicate seamlessly, allowing the blast chiller to start automatically when sensors in the combi oven send it a signal. One manual step in the food preparation process disappears.
“Smart equipment is on the rise because it is easier for staff to operate,” says Bandy. “It is driven by concerns about the labor force. The stickiest part is developing a platform that can connect equipment from different manufacturers and get them to talk to each other successfully, but we are seeing the beta stage of that development, which will address what is the biggest challenge.”
“We were already a mobile society and during lockdown we became a virtual society,” adds Caron. “So, the ability to operate and monitor a business remotely through a phone will just be a given in the next few years.”
Touchless takes off
The development of smart equipment for the kitchen was already a strong trend but has been accelerated by the Covid pandemic. So, too, have touchless technologies that make reading a menu, ordering and paying quicker, simpler and safer in a time of increased hygiene and social distancing.
“Covid has changed the way restaurateurs perceive the industry and how they’re working,” says Patrick Hooykaas, managing director at restaurant booking app developer TheFork.co.uk. “They had to reinvent themselves to survive and digitization appears to be one of the most effective ways to do so, with new ways of communicating with customers, managing their activity, changing their menu and services.”
“Restaurant owners had to adapt quickly in order to cope with periods of decline or cessation of their activities and thanks to digital they have been able to do it,” he adds. “Online booking, online payment, online menus or even digital floor plans allow restaurants to streamline organization and processes to more easily manage distancing, inform consumers and reassure them about compliance with protocols, and to keep in touch.”
Contactless ordering, often through a mobile app or the scanning of a QR code to access the menu, has become commonplace and is a natural step on from the now ubiquitous contactless payment process. Now, the same principles are being used for more out-of-the-box applications.
One example is Coca-Cola Freestyle’s latest innovation – contactless pouring from a smartphone. People who want a touchless experience with the soda fountain can now use a phone camera to scan a QR code, connect to the Freestyle, select from its menu and then pour the drink.
For customers, the appeal of contactless technology lies mainly in speed and convenience. For operators, it is cost.
“Remote ordering, delivery, virtual menus, flexible equipment – all of these have quick payback, so even if operators turned to them because of the pandemic, they will continue to use them in the future,” says Caron. “Covid gave them a sense of urgency in adopting these technologies. After all, you only fix a leaky roof when it is raining. It does, however, create a virtuous circle around technology investment, about which operators will be more open-minded in the future.”
“The restaurant industry is going through a monumental period of digitization, as more and more consumers expect to compare places to eat online and seamlessly book a table from their mobile device,” adds Hooykaas. “The restaurant industry is being digitized at each step of the value chain.”