There were a few major news stories involving the hospitality industry in 2021. One was a growing labor crunch, which saw restaurant operators desperate to lure reluctant workers with signing bonuses and other perks. Another big headline-maker was the further adoption of automation by restaurants, in the form of both behind-the-scenes artificial intelligence and robotic servers. Naturally, the robots got most of the attention, thanks to some viral videos and the sheer novelty factor.

It’s tempting to make a direct link between these stories: What if the labor crisis in hospitality could be solved by replacing everyone with AI chefs and robotic wait staff? It could happen, and it’s not a giant leap of the imagination to envision robot-staffed kitchens and dining rooms becoming commonplace and bringing us one step closer to Fully Automated Luxury Communism. (And no, I did not just make that up, nor do I endorse any notion that work isn’t fulfilling).

In the quick-serve and fast-casual spaces, robotics makes a lot of sense—in large part, you’re serving a customer base that places a premium on convenience and efficiency and a workforce seemingly unmotivated to provide the same. For patrons of other types of restaurants, however, the human touch is one of the core delivery aspects of the dining experience.

That can’t be replicated by a machine—not yet, anyway—but savvy restaurant operators are finding ways to strike a balance between the benefits of automation and the eating public’s desire for personal connection. Imagine, a humanoid robot, fully articulated, polite and ready to serve, but with the language processing ability of Apple’s Siri. “No, I asked for my salmon to be just north of rare, not for my mom to get a side of pear!” Moreover, Chili’s, back in the days when Norman Brinker was at the helm, actually dished out psychology training for servers, wrapped in customer service packaging. I’m not sure an unruly intoxicated bar guest is ready to be removed of their keys by a firm, but pleasant AI-robotic bartender. Skepticism aside, robotics is coming to a restaurant near you, perhaps not serving you directly, but definitely taking on some repetitive task. As I write this, Roomba just made a pass through my office.

The industry is on board

The industry as a whole is generally on board with the notion of an expanding and increasingly sophisticated tech stack. A recent TD Bank survey of U.S. franchise owners and operators found that their top priorities for 2022 include investing in mobile ordering (54 percent), delivery services (47 percent), POS digital signage and other in-store tech (45 percent), and alternative payment methods (37 percent). 

Moreover, the area where we’re likely to witness the biggest strides in restaurant tech is in the development of new AI applications. The global market for artificial intelligence is projected to grow to a value of $190.61 billion by 2025. In the restaurant business specifically, AI has already made significant inroads into a number of areas, comprising the basis for almost all of the new adaptive automation implemented in restaurants to assist with production. According to one recent report from Lightspeed, 50 percent of U.S. restaurant operators are planning to implement some form of automation technology in the next two to three years.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic—but in the past year in particular—we’ve seen an abundance of reports indicating that large numbers of former hospitality workers have no intention of returning to the industry. There are, of course, plenty of Americans keen on working in restaurants, either as a long-term career or a stepping-stone to something else. Restaurant operators should look at adopting new technology not as a means of replacing human beings, but as a way to make those humans’ jobs more satisfying by increasing the restaurant’s operational efficiency in all areas.

Harness the power of data

Realistically, your operation most likely doesn’t need delivery drones or a robotic arm in the kitchen flipping burgers. To determine what technology would be most beneficial, restaurant operators need to consider what their most pressing needs are, and what functions their current system is not fulfilling. 

The importance of harnessing the power of data cannot be overstated. The modern restaurant collects more and more information, and puts it to good use. That information comes from a number of sources—including POS, back-office platforms, and cloud-based solutions—but all of it enables restaurants to improve efficiencies.

Your tech stack should employ machine learning-based algorithms that can use that data to predict order wait times based on capacity and demand. It should also have powerful analytics capabilities that can reveal, for example, which items sell best at certain times of day, along with other actionable insights.

Customer data, collected through loyalty programs and apps, can be used to boost consumer engagement by allowing the restaurant to deliver personalized offers and other loyalty-based perks.

In a fully connected operation, the consumer-facing front is connected to the back office and kitchen operations, creating a unified experience for both staff and guests. A mobile back-office system, for example, can be accessed on any device. This puts the right data in managers’ hands at the right time, enabling them to spend more time connecting with customers and less time chained to their desks slogging through administrative tasks.

The possibilities are nearly limitless, and the technology is evolving and maturing at a steady clip. Machines will never replace the need for human workers—nor would most people want them to—but AI and robotics can and will take a role, alongside humanity, improving the experience of the guest, and worker alike.

Steve Roberts is the founder of PAR Data Central, SVP Internal Platform at PAR Technology Corp, an open-platform solution offering a unique set of hardware, software and services that help restaurants connect their customers with the meals and moments they love. 

Fast Casual, Outside Insights, Story, Technology