At a moment when convenience is king, consumers’ quality standards continue to escalate, and innovation can upend entire industries in the blink of an eye, it stands to reason that quick-serve operators find themselves constantly looking for ways to get customers the best, freshest food possible—whenever, however, and wherever they want it.
Typically in this space, I try to share some of the latest and most interesting culinary trends we’re seeing at CCD Innovation and suggest means by which marketing professionals and R&D experts can modify or tailor them to suit fast-food and fast-casual environments. Technology isn’t typically a focus of these columns, but in truth, technology today is doing as much or more to drive innovation, creativity, and profits than culinary artistry. And since our topic this month is mobile dining, I thought I’d use the occasion to discuss how technological advances, particularly in areas such as robotics, are already disrupting the quick-serve landscape.
Some of the ideas and suggestions I’ll offer aren’t even technologically feasible at the moment—to my knowledge, at least—but the goal here is to look a few miles down the road and determine how quick serves can get a jump on tomorrow, today.
First, though, a few statistics to drive home the importance of mastering mobile dining. According to Statista, food-delivery revenues are expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 19 percent through 2022. And according to AlixPartners’ 2017 global restaurant survey, 75 percent of surveyed consumers said restaurant chains should offer even more delivery options.
The reality is that, with giants like Amazon getting into the food business, and as consumers demonstrate a clear preference for restaurant-style dining experiences at home or on the go, it will be increasingly important for quick serves to up their mobile game. Here are a few ideas on how chains and independent operators alike might deliver what I call “portability with integrity.”
Harness the power of the burger robots.
A company called Miso Robotics makes a product called Flippy, an automated hamburger maker. If it proves successful, it’s possible to imagine a quick-serve hamburger operation putting them in a fleet of self-driving vehicles that could be dispatched to your home to deliver you a burger that’s been prepared on the drive over. Or a third party like Uber could take its food-delivery service to the next level and have your burger prepared en route. That way, you’d be getting a product as fresh and hot as those served in the restaurant. Nothing would be cooked until the truck is on its way.
Consider on-the-go coffee roasting.
In Berkeley, California, an outfit called Artis Coffee roasts its coffee beans to order on site and delivers them to customers’ doors. The next step in customization and freshness, to me, would be for customers to have a branded app on their phones through which they can order their beans or ground coffee. A truck containing an automated miniature coffee roaster could then be sent your way, and in the time it takes to get to your whereabouts, you could have a pound of Jamaica Blue Mountain beans freshly roasted and ground just for you. An enterprising outfit might even brew you a fresh cup on the trip over.
If all this sounds a bit far out, consider that there already exists an automated coffee-brewing robot, Cafe X, at the Metreon shopping center in San Francisco, and it’s getting great reviews from local caféphiles. A robotic arm operates a grinder, tamps ground beans down into an espresso filter, plugs it into an espresso machine, and then hands you your beverage. The novelty factor is there, but as Wired wrote last year, “This robot barista makes a dang good latte.” Starbucks is already delivering coffee drinks to order made from fresh-roasted beans at its new Reserve Roastery concept, which suggests there is indeed a market for the fast, freshest brew possible.
Pizza delivery: The next generation.
Zume Pizza in Silicon Valley has multiple trucks outfitted with smart ovens that, along with a fleet of cars and scooters, enable the company to deliver freshly baked pizzas to order. Meanwhile, on college campuses nationwide, “Let’s Pizza” vending machines use robotic technology to prepare pies for students without the involvement of human beings. These two ostensibly futuristic approaches to preparing and “delivering” pizza suggest that the next big thing in pizza actually may be just around the corner.
Automation, robotics, smart ovens—if they’re still novelties at the moment, it’s a sure bet they won’t be in five or 10 years’ time. Salad robots, burrito-rolling robots, automated preparation and delivery—they’re coming, and they will almost certainly find a crowd of eager, freshness- and convenience-minded consumers to welcome them. And the most creative applications are no doubt yet to come.
Quick serves hoping to stay ahead of the pack may want to investigate their automation options sooner rather than later to get ahead of the mobile pack.