In an age when technology is king—of every consumer and in every industry—it’s no surprise that four out of five customers believe technology improves their restaurant experience, according to research from restaurant software provider Toast. That’s just one of the reasons why today’s brands are putting innovative technologies to work in their stores, and often reaping the rewards from it.
But with the plethora of high-tech options out there, how do brands know what’s worth the investment? We polled several operators and industry experts to uncover which technologies are changing the game in five different areas of the restaurant—and which ones they’re itching to explore next.
For years, mobile apps and loyalty programs have been the hot-ticket technologies used to communicate with and capture the attention of limited-service customers. But gone are the days when an app simply showcased menus and locations and a loyalty program was just a fancy way to offer discounts. Now it’s all about using deep-dive analytics to make the experience as personalized as possible.
“Our clients are using their loyalty programs to become true loyalty programs,” says Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of the New England Consulting Group, whose restaurant clients have included brands like Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Boston Market, and Jamba Juice. He says operators are now analyzing data from their loyalty programs and apps to not only understand what items customers want, but
also when they want them, why they want them, and what type of offers they’ll respond to most favorably. “If we’re talking about pizza, they know that you order pizza only for dinner, you only order on weekdays, and you rarely order twice in one week.”
With more than a quarter of a million downloads since launching in March 2016, MOOYAH Burgers, Fries & Shakes’ mobile app has been able to achieve this deep level of personalization and data capture thanks to a seamless integration with its POS and online-ordering systems. “We can customize guest communications and offers based on items purchased, frequency, dayparts, preferences, and personal information, versus relying on general assumptions from the industry,” says vice president of marketing Natalie Anderson Liu. “This targeted approach keeps our guests engaged with relevant information from our brand and also helps us continuously learn from unique campaigns pushed through the app.”
Often entwined with today’s highly personalized apps and loyalty programs is another trend popular among restaurant marketers: gamification. Chipotle has long been a leader in the food-gaming space, but brands like Popeyes, Auntie Anne’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King have been pioneers as well.
“In gamification, there are very sophisticated linkages to marketing and promotions, to discounts, to loyalty programs,” says Scott Langdoc, vice president of consulting at Boston Retail Partners. “There’s a way in which the customer cannot just win the game, but actually get measurable benefits—be it by discount or promotion or some other award—as a result of spending time with the game on that app.”
Many of these apps also incorporate GPS, geofencing, and Bluetooth technologies, allowing brands to target nearby customers, send personalized messages to attract them to the store, and continue that communication once they’re inside. Stibel points to the fact that geofencing can be used to target incremental business from consumers by asking them whether they want the same order as the last time they visited, or by suggesting an appropriate add-on item for their go-to order.
Ordering and Delivery
With minimum wage and operational costs rising, a growing number of chains have turned to digital and automated ordering platforms—think tabletop devices, iPad ordering, digital kiosks, and various online ordering systems—to replace employee labor and increase sales volumes.
In addition to self-service kiosks, Saladworks is experimenting with “staged online ordering,” where its online-ordering system is programmed to know the prep time for each item. This not only creates a more efficient flow in the kitchen—helping employees know how to time a guest’s order for pickup—but it also lets customers know how long their potential wait time is based on the volume of orders coming in at any given time.
The brand is also testing “Good to Go” rapid pick-up options to help move more people through the restaurant at peak traffic periods. “[These programs] will boast the same user experience we are testing in our self-serve kiosks, and will recognize consumers by favorite meals, Saladworks rewards, and saved credit-card information,” says Saladworks president and CEO Patrick Sugrue.
However, recent research from the National Restaurant Association shows that while many consumers appreciate high-tech options like online ordering, kiosks, and mobile payment, they aren’t looking for a total switch to automation in their limited-service experience. That’s why Boston Retail Partners’ Langdoc says many operators are providing consumers with choice above all else, combining ordering technologies like kiosks and tabletop devices with the age-old counter-service option. “Touch-point choice is more of the successful trend instead of just assuming that we’re going to see this holistic black-and-white migration to automated ordering,” he says.
To aid in the confusion that often comes with a plethora of ordering options, Langdoc says, a number of brands are opting for useful (though not-so-sexy) technologies like order-status screens. Restaurants are likely to manage the multiple points of ordering by installing digital displays that tell customers when their order is in process, complete, or ready for pick-up.
To prepare itself for whatever new ordering touch points come its way, Toppers Pizza is investing in cloud-based POS software and online-ordering tools that allow it to fast-track adoption of new customer sales channels as they appear. Recently, these have included home-automation tools like Amazon’s Echo, chat bots, and other forms of conversational commerce. “Customers’ expectations have changed, especially in the pizza industry,” says Toppers’ vice president of information technology, Tony Ellis. “Customers want an easy-to-use online ordering experience, and they want to be able to use it through the technology platform of their choosing.”
But it’s not just the way consumers order their food that’s become so high-tech; it’s how they receive their orders, as well. Domino’s made headlines last year by experimenting abroad with drone delivery, and robot delivery is now being tested in a number of urban markets—used primarily by third-party delivery systems like Yelp’s Eat24. “Right now, most delivery is by four-wheel vehicle, but we think that’s going to change a lot, depending upon the country and density of the population,” Stibel says.
Kitchen and R&D
With an increase in mobile and digital-ordering systems, Langdoc says, brands are putting more thought into the timing of order creation using high-tech platforms.
“Brands use location technology and geofencing so that if you place an order two miles away and you get close to the restaurant, they’ll know you’re close and can start an order in the kitchen,” he says. “Further automation in kitchen efficiency will be as powerful, if not more powerful, in the world of mobile ordering than kitchen automation itself.”
But though they’re not yet feasible for the average limited-service concept, automation and robots are becoming the next big thing in kitchen technology. Chowbotics’s Sally the Salad Robot is just one example of attention-grabbing automation. Available for purchase at $30,000 apiece, the robot is a freestanding salad vending machine that comes equipped with a handful of lettuces and dressings, along with a few dozen toppings, which can be customized to create a salad on the spot (though the ingredients still need to be washed, prepped, and chopped by actual human beings.)
Similarly, Momentum Machines has designed a burger-making robot that can produce up to 400 burgers per hour, handling everything from grilling and assembly to bagging up the orders. Food-delivery startup Zume Pizza has even created robots—dubbed Doughbots—that work in unison with employees in an assembly-line setup, helping to press out dough, dispense and spread sauce, and remove pizzas from the oven. Zume has also developed a lineup of special delivery vehicles outfitted with pizza ovens, which reheat pizzas en route to their destination for fresh product every time.
“The demanding consumer will continue to have less patience for wait times, but expect more customization options. To keep up with these demands, brands will seek ways to leverage artificial intelligence for their operations to increase efficiencies and drive consistency,” says Meghan Holmes, vice president of strategy and insights at HelloWorld, a mobile, social, and loyalty program provider for brands like Starbucks, Popeyes, and Domino’s. “Whether it’s flipping a burger or preparing a pizza order with customized ingredients for each slice, more kitchen operations will leverage robotics and [artificial intelligence] to meet consumers’ needs.”
Food sourcing and inventory tracking were some of the first areas of the restaurant in which technology played a major role, Stibel says, and technological advancements have continued to create a more efficient and frictionless process for both suppliers and restaurants. Software programs like Plate IQ allow brands to snap a picture of each vendor invoice and upload it to an app, where it’s scanned for relevant information and added directly to the P&L.
“It saves about 60 percent of the labor to process an invoice,” says Fred LeFranc, founding partner at hospitality consulting firm Results Thru Strategy.
Brands are also turning to more mobile-friendly ways of ordering products based on their continually changing inventory levels. “Offering an inventory software that constantly monitors stock levels based on real-time sales data and provides for a consolidated way to submit [purchase orders] to vendors is the first step to creating a restaurant marketplace for the future,” says Noam Wolf, CEO of cloud-based inventory management system MarketMan.
While many of these inventory-tracking technologies have been invented to help reduce food waste and spoilage, programs now also exist to help restaurants manage that food waste when it does inevitably occur. These programs sync with inventory systems to determine levels of unsold items, help brands donate them in real time or sell them at a discount to consumers, and even register for relevant tax benefits when donating surplus food.
Not only are brands using technology to better track, refill, and manage their inventories, but they’re also using it to optimize the safety and quality of said inventory. Lauren Pietersen, director of products and partnerships at HelloWorld, says concepts like Chipotle, Subway, Bruegger’s Bagels, and Tropical Smoothie Cafe are using specialty software solutions that source, track, and report on food supplies in the case of product defects or recalls.
“These solutions leverage cutting-edge Internet of Things and barcode technologies to navigate the complicated web of food supply chain,” she says. “These systems may not be apparent in the daily consumer experience, but utilizing them may mean avoiding messy consumer safety issues, as well as significant decreases in financial impacts and downtime in the event that an issue does occur.”
Though software programs have long been used to hire, onboard, train, and manage employees at all levels of the restaurant, these programs and capabilities are becoming increasingly high-tech and more convenient for every party involved. A growing number of apps are allowing managers to schedule employees, manage payroll, and control labor costs in real time at the touch of a tiny screen. On the flip side, the introduction of apps that allow employees to view their schedules from anywhere, request time off, trade shifts, and even set reminders about when they’re working are being adopted with increasing frequency.
“The satisfaction increases among employees in terms of having that control and influence in their schedule is really impressive,” Langdoc says.
Enhanced training methods have also become a favorite among many on-trend brands, with some companies launching private YouTube channels for employees to view training videos from the comfort of their smartphones, LeFranc says. Operators are even taking a cue from marketing to incorporate gamification into training. “To make onboarding more engaging, limited-service restaurants can create mini games that enforce safety training and share product and procedural information,” HelloWorld’s Holmes says.
And though “smart hiring” hasn’t become a widespread practice yet, Stibel says, ahead-of-the-curve brands are investing their technology dollars in that space, testing programs that can analyze applications and interview responses to discover key personality traits or make predictions about an applicant. These could include predictions like whether a candidate is likely to steal, be a long-term employee, sue an employer, or prove to be a detail-oriented and committed worker.
Stibel also predicts that in the future, brands will use facial recognition software that decodes reactions to certain questions during an interview, then provides hiring recommendations based on those reactions.
“It isn’t perfect,” he says, “but it’s better than me sitting down with five people I’ve never met before and choosing the one I kind of like, but who may not be the best employee.”