Innovation has always been a pillar of the restaurant industry. In fact, the original concept of a “restaurant” itself was arguably one of the most innovative developments in the history of commerce.

And while innovation doesn’t always involve technology, the two have become increasingly intertwined in the digital age. Even in good times, our industry operates on relatively thin margins. This is a “take dollars to make pennies” business.

With each passing year, exponential technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics become more efficient, user-friendly, and affordable, creating an inescapable wave of disruption across the global economy. 

This necessitates a higher level of tech adoption, a faster rate of adoption, and an overall different mindset for running a restaurant than in previous decades. 

The best chefs and marketers have always embraced these things. But because the pace of change is quickening, restaurant owners and managers need to adopt the innovative, new-is-better mindset as well. 

Luckily, the possibilities that change is affording are not only endless but exciting. The tech innovations we’ll be discussing don’t just offer a competitive advantage; they represent a holistic approach to better business. 

Game-changing tech: Back-of-house

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

For some, artificial intelligence and eating out may seem like totally separate worlds. But we’re not talking about robots running restaurants here (that’s a different discussion), we’re talking about the power of predictive, self-governing software capable of “learning” as it goes. 

Picture this: an AI-run program seamlessly integrated with a restaurant’s digital menu, point-of-sale (POS) system, and its inventory control system. When items are ordered from the menu, inventory data is automatically adjusted. If stock of a certain ingredient is low, the AI can reduce the menu prominence of items containing that ingredient. If another ingredient is overstocked, the program can adjust the menu accordingly. In both cases, it stores information about what gets ordered when and offers data-based recommendations about future ordering. What if that same system can provide data that helps the restaurant manager understand the ROI of each ingredient on the menu? 

Far-fetched though it may seem, some restaurants, including McDonald’s, are already rolling out integrated systems very much like this. Stranger-seeming still, McDonald’s is even using an AI-based system (courtesy of Compology) that monitors their garbage.

These are still just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to AI, with many other applications already being used. Educating quick-service restaurant operators on those opportunities is one of the goals of ConverseNow, which raised $3.25 million in funding earlier this year. Their platform is customizable, self-described as “plug and play,” and counts labor savings, higher average tickets, and overall revenue increase among its top benefits.

Cloud-based systems

Convenient and secure, cloud computing is the foundation of most modern applications of digital technology. For the uninitiated, storing something “in the cloud” just means making it accessible via remote servers. Restaurants have largely embraced the cloud when it comes to POS but less so when it comes to back-of-house business like accounting and enterprise resource planning (ERP). The game-changing potential of the cloud lies with its ability to make information available in real-time from almost any location. Without the cloud, getting the info you need about a particular location often requires you to be in that location or otherwise wait until it can be sent to you. 

What does that mean? 

It means that adding new locations, users, or features to your data systems can be done with a few clicks, instead of requiring substantial investments in space, servers, or other hardware. It means that sharing or aggregating data across locations in order to gain insight into operations can be done almost instantaneously. It means that securing, integrating, and troubleshooting your data systems doesn’t require an IT team to visit your store. Overall, it means easier, more efficient business processes. 

But what’s described above is, frankly, a bit boring when it comes to how the cloud is actually empowering restaurants, a reality that’s really come home to roost in 2021. Even before the pandemic—but especially because of it—we’re witnessing the rise of entire cloud kitchens, a brand new type of restaurant that totally eschews the need for a front-of-house in the first place (maybe the name Rebel Foods rings a bell). This is unfolding all over the globe in a number of different formats, and the growth of the model is happening at a faster pace than experts predicted

Internet of things (IoT)

Every kitchen has had its walk-in freezer accidentally left open overnight at least once, just like every chef has forgotten to check the oil level in a cooking vessel during a busy shift. An expectation of these kinds of mishaps is built into the mindset of restaurant managers, but the internet of things is working on changing that. 

IoT refers to the vast network of devices in the world, from sensors to satellites, that are capable of connecting with one another. In a kitchen, it might include everything from deep fryers and food processors to fridge doors and dishwashers. The outcome of such high connectivity is the ability to monitor kitchen ecosystems as a whole. This means not only having the data to support decision-making in real-time scenarios but also the data to better understand operations from a bird’s-eye view, including things like peak energy and equipment usage.

Restaurant Technologies uses data about cooking oil usage to drive dynamic distribution, making it possible to only deliver oil at the times when customers need it. That same data allows for real-time usage analysis, which means a restaurant manager can be informed immediately via text if too much oil is being used. Operating a fryer might seem simple from an outside perspective, of course, but in reality, it has a huge impact on efficiency and food quality. Even with the relatively small amount of data we collect, it’s possible for us to help customers manage those factors by doing things like monitoring fryer filtration and providing alerts about operating procedure deviations—all made possible via the IoT.

In a nutshell, then, the IoT is what makes AI and cloud software such potent and useful technologies for restaurant operators. Without it, implementing AI in most back-of-house processes would be virtually impossible, and cloud kitchens would still be a pipe dream. As it stands, IoT technology has assisted in some major successes for quick-service restaurants and promises to play an even bigger part in the future. 

Want fries with that combo?

By now it’s probably obvious that these technologies are closely interlinked and that none of them without the others would have the same impact. It’s this synergy that makes them so powerful and so necessary for restaurants to adopt the innovative mindset that they are a product of. Whether they take the form of point-of-sale software, kitchen display screens, or an ERP suite, the sum of their influence is much greater than its parts. 

It’s not just about making things easier on chefs or BOH managers. It’s about trimming margins by increasing safety, eliminating data entry, and raising overall efficiency. It’s about making restaurants more sustainable by reducing food waste, improving supply chain and inventory control, and data-based energy management. In a nutshell, it’s about better business in an age where it’s not only possible but necessary. Put simply, tomorrow’s back-of-house looks a lot different than yesterday’s—and you can have it today, if you want. 

P.S. We didn’t even discuss one of the coolest things on the restaurant horizonkitchen robotics! But don’t worry, we’ll come back to it another day. This is the first in a series of articles exploring game-changing restaurant tech. 

Outside Insights, Story, Technology