From drive-thru speakers to high-efficiency fryers to touch-screen POS systems, quick-serve restaurants have long been the earliest adopters of new restaurant technology. But the restaurants of 2017 will put even today’s tech-savvy restaurateurs to shame. Robotics, touch-screen ordering, and customized-to-the-max orders will become increasingly established parts of the quick-serve experience.
Jeremy Umland, founder and CEO of sushi company Ozumo Concepts International, will be one of those leading the charge. His recently launched u-sushi concept combines customization and a high level of technology, and provides a small sample of what restaurants may look like in five years.
“We’re new on the block,” Umland says. “So whatever we present, if it strikes a chord with the customers, it’s going to be a bigger win for us.”
Part of the technology is behind the counter. Automated rice cleaners, mixers, cookers, and sheeters make sure the whole process is quick and consistent. It’s a departure from the chef-focused ethos of a traditional sushi restaurant, but Umland says customers don’t seem to mind at all.
“People get a real kick out of seeing the machine deliver this perfectly fresh sheet of rice,” Umland says. “It’s clean, it’s fresh, and it’s fast. [The machines] look modern and cool.”
U-sushi allows customers plenty of room to customize, from subbing out an ingredient or two to creating whole rolls from scratch. A touch-screen ordering system makes the process easier.
Another restaurant taking this DIY approach is Burger Studio, where kiosks allow customers to play around with 30 possible toppings to customize their dream burger. Giandelone says this approach to ordering will become more popular by 2017.
“Customers increasingly are going to be placing their own orders,” Giandelone says. “That churn is going to get ever quicker because of that.”
Of course, anyone familiar with the airline industry knows that high-tech touch screens don’t necessarily mean the customer is about to have a good time. While Giandelone mentions several pros to the new technology (faster service, easier payment processing, no miscommunication about orders), there’s also one major con.
“That hasn’t exactly been a very positive experience for a lot of people,” Giandelone says. “If this technology works, the benefits are really high. But on the day that it breaks down or stops working, it’s an easily frustrating experience.”
As the economy rebounds, the American market will be increasingly saturated with foreign-based brands, experts say.
Alison Vickers, business development director for United Kingdom–based YO! Sushi, says the U.S. is ripe for new concepts.
“I think from a growth standpoint, the U.S. is certainly ahead of Europe in terms of coming out of the sluggishness of the economic downturn,” Vickers says. “Obviously we’re just starting our journey in the U.S., but we’ve done a lot of research.”
The conveyor-belt sushi chain (where customers pick and choose from color-coded dishes as they slowly roll by) just opened its first location in the U.S. and aims to have between 50 and 70 locations by 2017.
But while economic strength is one factor, there are other reasons for international chains to set up shop under the stars and stripes. Gordon and Aviles both point to the changing tastes of a younger generation. As kids raised on Italian and Mexican food seek to broaden their culinary horizons, a growing population of immigrants is looking for a taste of home.
“In the United States, the population has become much more diverse,” Gordon says. “We are not a typical extended suburban nation anymore.”
Philippines-based Jollibee offers hamburgers, spaghetti, and chicken alongside more exotic fare like breakfast pork-and-rice platters or Fiesta Noodles with shrimp and hardboiled egg. It has 26 stores in the U.S., and recently opened one in Anaheim, California. South African chicken restaurant Nando’s has several U.S. locations, as does Guatemala’s Pollo Campero.
Giandelone says that during the next five years, old chains will expand and new ones will enter the market. The biggest pressure will be on existing concepts, which risk losing market share if they can’t convince customers they’re just as good as the “real thing.”
“When a restaurant opens up and they’re from China, who has more credibility presenting Chinese food in that instance?” Giandelone asks. “That’s going to be the challenge U.S. operators are going to face.”
However, globalization is a double-edged sword. Vickers points out that just as international brands will be entering the U.S., American chains will have new opportunities to expand abroad.
“More brands will cross over,” Vickers says. “Good brands will work in most metro cities around the world and not just in the country they were invented in.”
The world of 2017 will be a different place. Better burgers will be more eco-friendly, and they’ll be ordered via touch screen. Upscale Asian restaurants—possibly even some from Asia—will grab more market share. And as time pressure builds, fresher-than-fresh juice will become a grab-and-go commodity. If all the progress seems like a blur, there’s a reason for that. Trends aren’t just taking hold—they’re taking hold faster than ever.
“It used to take so long for that to trickle from your urban centers,” Aviles says. “Companies are reacting so much faster.”