This is definitely not the era to be a technophobe in the restaurant business, lest your competitors pass you by. Digital tools are streamlining everything from ordering to predictive staffing and inventory, simplifying work for people at every level of the operation. Most promising of all: customer-facing tech advancements—especially those powered by AI – have the potential to boost sales and delight customers.

You no longer need a team of data scientists to tap into the power of AI at your enterprise. Here are some existing and emerging examples.

Voice ordering. When Denny’s customers can order delivery from Amazon’s Alexa, and Dunkin’ fans can ask Google to arrange for a dozen donuts, boxed and ready when they arrive at the drive-through, it’s probably time to consider how you’ll stay competitive in an era of artificial intelligence (AI). Can your POS handle voice/personal assistant-based ordering along with mobile app, kiosk, drive-thru and web sales? Or will you need to assign a point person to make sure these orders get through?

Voice assistant-enabled ordering using the Amazon Echo (Alexa) or Google Home application programming interfaces (APIs) may not just be for customers ordering from home. It also could be applied in the store. Imagine walking up to a self-order kiosk and instead of touching it, you order conversationally using your voice. Or in the drive-thru, a car full of hungry customers places their order, talking with a voice-assistant-enabled order taker, and their orders get queued into the POS system just like any other order. Or if you accept phone orders but the store hits a busy moment, voice assistant technology could take a customer’s phone order and enter it in your POS as if the customer had ordered via any other ordering channel you offer. What’s more, because it’s Artificial Intelligence-driven, the voice assistant ordering system would ‘learn’ and continually improve based on actual orders and spoken language.

Kiosks that recognize you. Your favorite barista knows your favorite coffee drink. Your favorite quick-serve staff knows which side you like with your ‘usual’ lunch. This kind of convenient familiarity comes at a cost, though: usually you have to wait in line to get it. What if you could avoid the line altogether and get the same personalized treatment at a kiosk? Kiosks that use a camera to recognize regular customers are available today as a part of self-order technology. The tech makes suggestions based on your previous order history. This tech is already in use at places like Wow Bao, as well as the fast-growing high-end burger chain BurgerFi, among others. Once you opt in to facial recognition, you can reorder and pay for your favorite dish in less than 10 seconds. And self-order kiosks by Xenial (via a recent acquisition of NEXTEP SYSTEMS) don’t put personal information at risk because they don’t store images of guests’ faces. Instead, guest facial geometry is stored only for the purpose of looking up previous orders. (This data is not tied to credit cards or other personal information and can only be captured once guests have given their consent to opt-in.)

Better scheduling capabilities. As more cities and states consider predictive scheduling mandates for hourly employees, the ability to create and communicate work schedules in advance is becoming essential for many restaurant operators. This critical task is time-consuming and complex without the help of technology that can forecast labor demand, handle on-call shifts, and allow employees to swap shifts with little intervention from the manager. Today, AI powers this kind of functionality. When connected with a cloud-based POS, scheduling software can also factor in granular information that could boost the bottom line. For example, it could determine which of your staff tends to do the most up-selling, and give those team members priority for high-volume shifts.

Integrated inventory and purchasing. POS systems that fold in inventory and purchasing capabilities can create efficiencies and reduce losses. When these functions are integrated into the POS, they can track and order based on actual food sales, menus and recipes. By comparing this up-to-the-minute information with your actual supply levels, you can determine whether your kitchen staff is adhering to recipes and portion sizes and potentially uncover sources of waste and theft. Automating these tasks using an AI-powered integrated restaurant management solution eliminates guesswork, ensures the right supply levels and removes one more item from your to-do list.

Insights and predictions so accurate people may think you’re clairvoyant. Data is powerful, and it’s becoming even more so. The larger your POS/restaurant management platform vendor, the more data they have access to. And they can put it to work for you. Imagine if your restaurant management platform could predict a spike in foot traffic and fruit smoothie sales based on factors such as weather forecast and local events (for example, a family fun run sponsored by a nearby fitness club for its grand opening). Your system could predict how many crates of fresh fruit to order, as well as suggest staffing levels timed with that event. Alternatively, imagine if throughout the business week your restaurant management platform could suggest staffing levels based on weather, proximity and sales of businesses with similar menus, sales history, and more? Or even automatically suggest pricing based on cost of ingredients and actual prices charged by businesses nearby? Or perhaps recommend a discount or special offer on menu items that use a perishable ingredient you have an unexpected overstock on? Modern AI makes all this and more not only possible, but manageable.

Delivery mapping and management tools. As delivery gains in popularity, the ability to optimize delivery routes becomes more important to ensure speed, efficiency and food quality. Delivery management technology can help you monitor drivers’ progress, provide them guidance on the best routes to save miles and time, and keep customers in the loop along the way.

Self-serve options. The public doesn’t seem quite ready for Eatsa, the fully self-serve restaurant concept that kept its staff completely hidden from guests (most of its locations closed last year after a two-year run). But elsewhere, self-serve kiosks and tablets are gaining favor as a way to speed up service without sacrificing the human touch. They make the most sense in high-volume quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, where guests are happy to browse the menu at their leisure, tap in their orders and handle payment in exchange for skipping lines. Studies have shown that self-order, whether at kiosks or at tables, encourages higher check averages and results in healthier sales. Guests seem to appreciate the ability to spend time studying photos, ingredients, and nutritional information, as well as easily request more food or drinks as the meal progresses. What’s more, self-order technologies tend to reduce the repetitive, transactional demands on servers, freeing them to be friendly ambassadors for your brand. Expect to see more of these types of applications.

Your customers and employees have already embraced digital in their personal lives. It’s time to make sure you can keep up with them.

Christopher Sebes has spent his entire career in hospitality management and technology. He received a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management in England and managed hotels and restaurants on three continents including multi-unit restaurant operations in Europe and the US. He created the first Microsoft Windows point-of-sale company, Twenty20 Visual Systems, which he sold to Radiant Systems. He went on to become the CEO of Progressive Software before founding XPIENT in 2004. XPIENT was sold to Heartland Payment Systems in 2015 and he was tapped to become the President of Heartland Commerce, a major player in restaurant and retail management technology. Today Christopher is the President of Xenial Inc., formerly known as Heartland Commerce.
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