It looks like 2022 is shaping up to be a very interesting year in restaurant technology, especially in the quick-serve and fast-casual spaces. For example, we learned in December that TikTok was teaming up with a ghost-kitchen company to open 300 virtual kitchens in March, aiming to reach 1,000 by the end of the year. On the menu? Recipes that have gone viral on the video-sharing app. 

This won’t necessarily push the technologies involved any further, but as far as marketing goes, it’s brilliant, and if it allows users to order meals directly from TikTok, it could be a game-changer, with other social-media platforms following suit. 

Where we’re likely to see the biggest strides in restaurant tech in the years to come, though, is in the development of new applications for artificial intelligence. The global AI market as a whole is expected to grow to a value of $190.61 billion by 2025. In the restaurant business in particular, artificial intelligence has already made serious inroads into a number of areas. 

AI is the basis for virtually all new adaptive automation installed into restaurants to assist with production, and according to one recent report, 50 percent of U.S. restaurant operators are planning to implement some form of automation technology in the next two to three years.

The human element

From a customer perspective, most of this new tech will be invisible, humming away behind the scenes to keep the restaurant running in as efficient a manner as possible. In many regards, AI will make restaurant visits more consistent and predictable, with improvements to speed of service and order accuracy. Everything will be monitored and adjusted as needed to optimize the experience. All good things, of course, but automation will also have the effect of removing many current human interactions.

This may be inevitable. After all, it is hardly news to anyone reading this that the industry has been in a labor crunch for some time now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the quit rate among hospitality workers recently reached 6.8 percent, more than double the national average, and full-service restaurants are operating with 6.2 fewer kitchen employees than they were in 2019. In fact, one of the primary factors restaurant operators cite for moving toward more automation is the necessity of filling in labor gaps. Technological solutions that ease labor pressure have become essential tools.

Whether they make for a better or worse experience for the customer will likely depend on why the customer is at the restaurant. If the customer is in for a quick, good-quality meal, then the experience will likely be improved. If the customer is at the restaurant for a high-end experience, however, they will likely feel a distinct absence of the human element.

In other words, the customer wants a good experience, however, that may be defined on a case-by-case basis. As restaurant consumers, people crave convenience, consistency, and value. From fine dining to quick service, the measurement of consistency and value is fungible, but convenience remains a constant. Be it a reservation system or a menu kiosk, new tech tools should foster convenience, and the AI can’t get in the way. 

Automation doesn’t always make things better. How many times, for instance, have you called or messaged a company’s customer-service department, only to be angered by the AI response and routing limitations, and end up furiously trying to bypass the automation so you can speak or text with a living, breathing human? Restaurants need to ensure that any AI enablement is not getting in the way of delivering a positive customer experience.

Everything is an opportunity

It’s no exaggeration to say that opportunities for implementing artificial intelligence are absolutely everywhere in the restaurant space. Consider natural language processing (NLP), which Wikipedia helpfully defines as “a subfield of linguistics, computer science, and artificial intelligence concerned with the interactions between computers and human language.” As NLP gets more and more sophisticated, it should make customer-service encounters like the one described above a good deal less teeth-gnashingly frustrating. It could also be used by restaurants to take your order over the phone or at the drive-thru.

Another way to apply AI to foodservice operations might be a marketing application that knows your purchase history and can determine your preferred flavor profile so that it markets products to you that you are likely to be interested in. 

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that AI is only as good as the model it is based upon—and the model is only as good as the data used to train it. With high-quality data and refined models, the possible ways to put AI to work are nearly endless, but it often pays to take a granular approach. History teaches us that the more refined the model target, the better the output for business-use reliability. As the technology advances, we’ll likely start to see a lot of small—but highly reliable—prescriptive solutions with very targeted scope. 

For example, AI can be employed to automate the flow of inventory, track waste, identify inefficient station scheduling, or adjust production pacing. In the end, AI is simply a maturation of heuristic computing, whereby the machine can mine vast amounts of input to discover causal relationships that would otherwise go unnoticed. 

As restaurants deploy more AI based solutions, so too, must they adapt to unintended consequences of replacing human decision making with machine based outcomes. Who is responsible for understaffing, or over ordering when AI is building the schedule and purchase order? Who has the last word, the manager or the machine? Restaurants will need to map the human machine boundaries in management and team training to ensure expectation transparency in an AI enabled workplace.  

The possible applications are quite literally limitless; there is virtually nothing in a restaurant that can’t be automated using AI. And while AI may not be a panacea, to take things to the farthest extreme, AI might invent your next panna cotta based menu item. 

And, who knows, it might even go viral on TikTok.

Steve Roberts is 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

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