Imagine this: You walk into a McDonald’s for a quick bite on a workday. The place is busy, and customers are unwrapping their food at the tables and biting into burgers, salads, and wraps. But when you push to the counter, there is no one there to take your order. No cashier smiling at you in a Golden Arches T-shirt. No cash register.

That’s when you notice a fast-moving line of customers punching in their orders at a bank of touch-screen kiosks. They’re browsing through digital representations of the menu items and sliding their credit cards down the side of the machine before moving on. Moments later they pick up their food at the counter, either from an employee who suddenly appears from the kitchen or a conveyor belt marching orders out.

Chances are that nobody has had this experience. But with the restaurant industry quickly adopting 21st century technologies, this experience might soon become the norm. Across the food and beverage industry, companies are experimenting with new ways for customers to interact with their menu options and place an order, particularly using touch-screen machinery. The devices have not yet shown up in many restaurants, but there are signs that they will become commonplace soon.

Three food and beverage giants are already exploring interactive machines that engage consumers with touch screens. Coca-Cola is steadily rolling out a touch-screen soda fountain called the Freestyle, which allows customers to choose from among 106 Coke products and mixes the ingredients on the spot for a crisper beverage. The Freestyle is in 25 markets across the U.S., and the Atlanta-based soda giant plans to be in “significantly more markets” by the end of 2011, says Jim Sanders, director of commercialization for Coca-Cola Freestyle.

“We’re in full commercialization mode … focusing heavily on [quick serves] and fast casuals,” Sanders says.

Kraft developed a machine with technology provider Intel that is intended for grocery store use. The interactive “Meal Planning Solution” scans a customer’s face, determines their age and gender, and suggests possible meal options, pointing them to the aisles where they can find ingredients.

Finally, Sara Lee Foodservice’s Douwe Egberts beverage brand developed an interactive coffee machine called BeMoved, which has a touch-screen functionality that lets customers drag and drop various flavors and roasts into their cup, play a built-in video game, and saves user coffee preferences. Introduced to the U.S. at the 2010 National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, BeMoved is not yet for sale, but Sara Lee is already in talks with national restaurant clients about rolling it out in their locations, says Greg Immell, director of marketing for Sara Lee Foodservice’s beverage division.

“Ultimately, I think it’s inevitable that this technology in some form will come to the beverage dispensing world,” Immell says.

Although not yet to the point of helping a customer choose or even play with their menu selection, similar technology is already changing the way customers order at quick serves. Boloco, a regional burrito chain based in Boston, recently installed two touch-screen kiosks in its busy Copley Square location. Boloco customers can still go up to the cashier and order the old-fashioned way, but the kiosks cut down the process by two to three minutes, says Sara Steele-Rogers, head of social media and marketing for Boloco.   

“I think there’s a great value to that [time difference], especially in this location,” Steele-Rogers says. “It caters a lot to the John Hancock Building people in finance who have to get their food and get back to the office.”

Steele-Rogers says the kiosks also increase service accuracy, allow customers to discover “the breadth” of Boloco’s menu, and cut down the length of lines—all of which promise to increase business. “A line can be intimidating,” she says. “But if guests see a kiosk available, they are less likely to walk out the door.”

The touch screens also have a harder-to-quantify benefit: They are cool.

“We like to be innovative, and the kiosks let our guests know that we are in touch [with technology],” Steele-Rogers says.

BeMoved has a touch-screen functionality that lets customers drag and drop various flavors and roasts into their cup, a built-in video game, and the ability to store user coffee preferences.

Wow Bao, a Lettuce Entertain You brand based in Chicago, will soon install kiosks in its locations for many of the same reasons. Specializing in “social ordering solutions,” Exit41 is working with Wow Bao to tie Facebook and mobile applications into its ordering strategy. The majority of the Andover, Massachusetts–based company’s approximately 60 restaurant clients are moving in a similar direction, says Exit41 CEO Chet Barnard.

“Especially the small- to medium-sized restaurants are moving very quick in this area,” Barnard says.

While restaurants seem to be riding the same technological wave as many other businesses, some analysts are concerned about the industry letting face-to-face customer service go the way of the dinosaur.

“Restaurants are natural social businesses whose product is a social experience,” says Jeffrey Summers, president of RestaurantWorx, a Dallas-based restaurant consulting firm. “So for restaurants to build success, they must create and support real organic loyalty through meaningful guest relationships.”

Summers says relationships are “the glue that cements a restaurant’s loyalty with guests” and that having customers interact with machines instead of with people will keep restaurant brands from distinguishing themselves in ways other than their prices.

“The more an operator focuses on a transactional model instead of building and supporting relationships, the more he is forced to position himself to compete on price, since that’s the only point of differentiation left to him,” Summers says.

Even if restaurants are sacrificing a measure of charm in turning to ATM-style ordering, it seems the early adopters in the quick-serve sector have determined that the pros outweigh the cons.   

“We believe people want speed, accuracy, and control,” says Geoff Alexander, a vice president at Lettuce Entertain You and a Wow Bao managing partner. “People can now spend less time in line and more time enjoying their lunch hour.”

Steele-Rogers says Boloco has heard from “a few customers” about the “lack of person-to-person interaction” in using its new kiosks, but the reaction overall has been positive.

“You still have the person handing out the food and calling out the numbers,” she says. “So it doesn’t completely take away from the customer experience.”

Beverage, Ordering, Restaurant Operations, Story, Boloco, McDonald's, Wow Bao