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The voice of progress

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As remote ordering becomes more common in the foodservice industry, Jim Banks considers how far voice technology could take us

In our homes, in our cars and through our phones, millions of us are becoming used to searching information using voice commands.

Amazon has sold more than 100 million Alexa smart speaker devices since its launch in 2014, while Google Home and personal assistants on our phones are steadily making voice technology ubiquitous. And estimates from comScore suggest that by next year, 50% of all web searches will be by voice.

While the foodservice sector is not known to be a fast adopter of new technologies, when innovations promise more convenience, it has no choice but to pay attention.

“The early adopters were a mixture of chain restaurants and grocery store chains,” explains FCSI Senior Associate Garrett Lennon, principal foodservice consultant, JLR Design Group.

Leading edge

“Its origins came from the advent and proliferation of platforms such as Siri, Google Voice and Amazon Alexa. With these platforms it seems as natural to order a pizza just as easily as a new pair of socks.

“Amazon has always been on the leading edge and it was offering voice ordering for Amazon Fresh. Then companies like Wingstop and Pizza Hut started offering this voice activated ordering through the Alexa platform.”

Nadia El Hadery, founder and CEO of YFood – which organises the annual London Food Tech Week – says it is inevitable that people will have to start talking about it. “The retail and grocery sectors are much more active than the hospitality sector, but there is a strong argument for voice technology moving quickly and taking over.”

Any new technology needs early adopters and in the foodservice industry these were well known brands such as Domino’s (see box on page 59), KFC and Starbucks. This year, KFC launched an Alexa chatbot for cash-on-delivery ordering.

“It’s just getting started,” says Allison Page, co-founder and chief product officer of guest management technology provider SevenRooms. “The interest is there and everyone is assuming it is coming down the pipe. The restaurant industry is generally a slow adopter of new technology but operators are quicker to adopt technologies that touch customers to improve their experience.”

Finding the right technology

The challenge for many operators, however, is choosing the right technology from the many that are marketed to them. Voice must stand out in a crowded tech market.

“Operators are inundated with technology to solve problems,” says Michael Atkinson, CEO of voice ordering application developer Orderscape. “They know more about food and customer service than back-office technology. It is still a bit early for voice ordering, which is a whole new sales channel. But as operators become users of Amazon or Google devices, their level of awareness of and potential use cases is increasing.”

As KFC and others are proving, remote ordering is the most obvious application
of voice technology. But while it may seem simple to get Alexa to present local food options and menus, there are many challenges to overcome.

“It is very complex to create a simple interaction like ordering a pizza,” says Atkinson. “A lot is going on behind the curtain. You have to work backwards from customer expectation, which means making it so easy that they want to use it again, and you have to integrate that with how restaurants take orders today. The process has to be seamless for both customers and operators.”

Orderscape aims to make building a new voice channel simple for restaurants. Over three years, the company has created a voice-ordering software layer that integrates with mobile devices and smart speakers. It has so far delivered voice search capability for 50,000 menus on Google Assistant and Alexa. Partnering with companies like Olo, Onosys and Monkey Media that are responsible for menu content, Orderscape integrates voice commands into existing digital channels, with orders going straight into the point of sale (POS) system.

“There are hundreds of POS systems, so you can either go with the larger, enterprise-grade POS systems or you can look at who is already integrated into those systems,” says Atkinson. “That means the digital ordering software companies like Just Eat or Deliveroo. That way we can ingest menus from these portals and platforms that are already integrated with the POS, which means the voice order comes in as just another order through a new digital channel.”

The customer experience has to be so simple it becomes the preferred option, he adds. “That will take years. The market is there, but someone has to build the technology and develop the ecosystem.”

Behind the curtain

The potential for voice tech does not, however, lie solely in the hands of the customer. The people behind reservation, seating and guest management platform SevenRooms are hoping to harness its power to improve back of house efficiency.

“We are not about ordering or delivery,” says Page. “We focus on the operational perspective in the dining room with technology that will improve the guest experience by letting the operator use information the business has about its guests.”

SevenRooms is the recipient of the first investment made by Amazon’s Alexa Fund in a restaurant technology company. The investment enables the company to tap into Amazon’s knowhow in building skills and push forward its technology development.

It aims to enable operators to populate and leverage their guest databases. Using voice queries, staff can enquire whether particular guests are regulars, when they last visited, whether they have allergies or prefer particular dishes or wines, and much more.

As servers learn about their guests in face-to-face interactions, they can use voice to put information into the database. There is also the potential to use voice for operational tasks, such as changing the status of a table, dimming the lights or changing the music.

“The Amazon investment came because it saw that we were 100% operator-focused,” says Page. “We are helping the restaurant rather than the guest. We had an immediate meeting of minds. The investment and Amazon’s technical knowhow allow us to move faster in building the Alexa skill.

In foodservice, the biggest challenge is the hardware. You need to access Alexa in a way that guests can’t perceive, and you need it to be able to understand you if there is music playing in the background. The next milestone for us is to find hardware that works in all types of restaurants and has the right price point.”

The ultimate potential for voice tech, says Lennon, is creating an environment where it not only assists with customer ordering but is used as an integrated assistant for a foodservice business to help increase the efficiency and safety in kitchen, operational flow and predictive product procurement. “The sky is really the limit as artificial intelligence tech develops. We really don’t know far it will go.”

Beyond the horizon

As voice tech rapidly grows in popularity, the foodservice industry is already seeing the effects. Lennon notes it is already having an impact on kitchen throughput, as mobile ordering becomes the ‘go-to’ method for segments such as quick-service restaurants (QSR) and fast casual.

“It has big potential in the kitchen and back of house,” he says. “With this tech, chefs could turn on combi ovens, start the process of warming up the dishwasher or start retherming sous vide cooked items before they even get into the office.”

With some of the world’s largest tech companies driving the development of the voice channel, issues around noise or the recognition of different accents and dialects will no doubt be resolved. After all, it is in their interest to open the market to as many people as possible.

“Customers are using voice technology in their daily lives,” says Page. “Their expectations have changed. Restaurants need to be on the right platforms to meet their customers. KFC’s first Alexa skill just told chicken jokes, now it has ordering capability. The potential is unlimited. Ten years ago, if I had told you that you would be doing everything through your phone, you would not have believed me.”

Atkinson believes that it will be 12 to 18 months before there are enough menus ready for voice search and commerce, and enough customers with access to these gateways to make voice search convenient and truly useful.

“We are now at an interesting inflection point where customers and operators know that voice ordering, or v-commerce is a reality,” he says. “Once we reach critical mass, the market will expand rapidly.”

Now is an exciting time to develop apps, as people are using voice technology a lot more, says El Hadery. “We are only scratching the surface. Although the hospitality sector will be one of the slowest to adopt the technology, in five years the space will be fundamentally different.”

Jim Banks