Innovation in restaurant operations happens every day. New billboards advertise crispier chicken tenders, toastier buns and bubblier soda flavors worldwide, enticing customers to come in and try something that has never graced their taste buds before.
However, innovation in the food industry does not stop at new flavors. Quick-service restaurant automation trends are paving the way for more efficient and customer-focused operations.
The Future of Quick-Service Restaurant Automation
Recent automation trends stem from a massive labor shortage. Quick-service restaurants know about the decrease in staff, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Small teams are hurting the productivity and morale of workers who are doing the roles of multiple people or face poor reviews from dissatisfied customers.
Customers are also dealing with change, as low staff is mentioned three times more often in today’s Yelp reviews than before 2020. People are struggling with labor shortages across the board.
However, automation can help get orders to people faster, improve the conditions for staff, increase profit and place the business at the forefront of its competitors. In the upcoming years, 50 percent of quick-serves have planned to implement technology upgrades into their business models. With the advancement of automation trends in the food industry, quick-serves must consider how to stay on the ball and deliver the best customer service.
How are quick-service restaurants implementing automation into their operations? Amazingly, innovation can come into play at nearly every stage of service. AI and robots can create a tasty and speedy experience for everyone involved, from drive-thru windows to fryers.
Explore the possibilities for restaurant owners and managers to see how speed, safety and happiness can be boosted across the board.
1. Drive-Thru Ordering
Automation can begin outside the building. Automated order-taking (AOT) technology lets customers relay their orders to artificial intelligence. This tech is equipped with natural language processing and can process orders made in multiple languages and dialects. Customers can also quickly add modifications or request various menu items.
McDonalds has already partnered with IBM to implement this technology into its drive-thrus. Fully automated driving lanes let customers fly through complicated orders without the worry of being drowned out by roaring engines or having multitasking employees miss an item. Staff members can now focus on cleaning or helping customers without turning away to take an order over the headset.
2. Kiosks and Mobile Apps
Contactless ordering can even begin before a customer has left their home. Many brands use custom apps or delivery services like DoorDash or Grubhub to prepare orders ahead of time. This way, customers can easily slip in and out of the store. Some restaurants even consider driving lanes just for mobile orders to increase efficiency.
Computerized kiosks inside the store allow customers to take their time and place complex orders without a hitch. Like the mobile app, the kiosks can house a profile that saves previous orders or modifications. A staff member is only a few feet away if they face any technical issues.
Incredibly, machinery can even cook food to perfection. Companies like White Castle are slowly introducing a burger-grilling machine poignantly named “Flippy.” This robot has a specialized arm and can operate many stations, like cooking fries or burgers. Its AI can recognize the differences in fries or chicken and determine when they are ready.
Flippy is also programmed for food safety and quality. It can switch spatulas, designating separate tools for raw and cooked meat. When working with machinery in the kitchen, it is always vital to ensure proper protection and avoid contamination.
Robotics companies are preparing their products for safety through substances like food-grade liquid silicone rubber (LSR). This material is already used for objects like baby bottles, but it is incredibly useful for dispensers, seals and robotic grippers. It is tasteless, easy to clean and protects against water, UV radiation and oxidation. Machines like burger flippers or robotic friers can come with arms and grippers coated in LSR to prevent contamination and resist spreading bacteria.
4. Fresh Food Storage
Artificial intelligence and sensors can recognize fruit imperfections or mold and remove them from the supply chain early on. This technology could also sort food through size, weight and ripeness.
Fingertip sensors use hair-like cilia receptors to touch fruits like strawberries and blueberries to determine their maturation level. The highly sensitive sensors can detect softness or firmness, as well as skin color. Just like a human being squeezes fruit to examine its ripeness, this sensor uses textures to help customers receive the best quality product.
5. Monitored Safety and Hygiene
Store owners and managers could use facial recognition software to monitor proper safety and hygiene standards. These could check for everything from face mask usage to cleaning tasks and machine maintenance. This tech helps keep employees safe through their practices and customers through their properly prepared meals.
6. Delivery Robots
Across colleges and universities, little robots are scootering across sidewalks and up elevators to reach hungry students. Ohio State University owns 50 self-automated rovers for its campus and plans to expand this fleet.
Other companies are investing in ambitious projects, like Dominos and the self-driving pizza delivery car. More automation on the roads means deliveries are faster and kept fresh for longer with the rover’s stabilizing holding capabilities.
Before Getting Started With Automation
Before diving headlong into these advancements in workflow and efficiency, it's best to consider which areas of the business need to be integrated with automation. Some business models heavily rely on the human touch, such as Starbucks’ people-focused branding.
Engaging with customers and brightening their day is vital to Starbucks’ mission, so full contactless service may not be the best option here. On the other hand, some businesses focus on all-around speed and find automated drive-thru ordering a large contributor to customer satisfaction.
Demographics are also something to consider. Younger generations are known to embrace technological advancements, while older customers may become confused or frustrated when faced with a sudden change in procedure. Providing ample signs and staff dedicated to easing people into the change will empower customers.
Finally, business owners should fully prepare their staff for changes in back-of-house operations. Without proper awareness, new technology might slow down procedures or workflow.
Filling Hungry People Faster
The fusion of food and quick-service restaurant automation is changing how the world eats. Quick-service restauarants know the value of a speedy experience, and these workflow updates promise to fill hungry bellies in record time.
Understanding the costs, benefits, and trends popular in the automation industry is the first step for the savvy manager. In no time, they may reap endless benefits for employees and customers alike.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over five years experience writing for the food and beverage industry.