The past few months have seen the restaurant industry entirely upended and transformed. Technology that had been gathering steam for years, like customer ordering kiosks and shared tablets for waitstaff, is suddenly no longer viable. Other trends that were still emerging pre-COVID are now nearly ubiquitous.
While not every development in restaurant technology can be directly tied to the coronavirus and all the associated health concerns, we are seeing a new environment emerge that has been irrevocably shaped by the virus—and that environment, I believe, is here for the long-term.
With that in mind, here are three major technology trends that I see taking hold in the restaurant industry.
Massive adoption of bring-your-own-device
Mobile ordering was already a fast-expanding phenomenon, but the stay-at-home orders that affected most of the U.S. population for March, April, and May of this year have accelerated mobile ordering and bring-your-own-device adoption at record speed.
This is the business I’m in—I founded OneDine, a contactless mobile menu browsing, ordering, and payment system that guests access on their own devices—and we’re seeing restaurant demand for our solution climb.
Even though restaurants are reopening their dining rooms across the country, any restaurant worker will tell you that things are drastically different. For health and safety reasons, customers are using their phones at the table to browse the menu and pay for their food. They’re not just for ordering takeout and delivery anymore.
Automation jumps from the back office to the kitchen and beyond
Back-office automation has been around for years. Ordering, procurement—the days of a manager counting actuals and tallying up what’s needed for an order are long gone, and most restaurants now have systems that will do automatic, predictive ordering for food and liquor
But now we’re seeing automation move into kitchens—and not just quick-service restaurants (QSR), but casual and even fine dining. Kitchen video screens, for example, used to be strictly a QSR staple. Now you can find them in restaurants across the spectrum, being used to improve efficiency and order accuracy.
Of course, automation has other uses, too. In the COVID-19 age, the contactless aspect of automation is one of its major selling points. Consider something like Briggo’s Coffee Robot—it’s a fully automated robotic coffee machine that can create barista-quality cappuccino, flat whites, and other coffee drinks at the rate of 100 per hour. Customers order via their phones and receive a text when their drink is ready. It’s not only a contactless experience, but the Coffee Robot also comes with zero labor costs (other than installation and maintenance).
Another example is 3D-printed food. Take pasta—making it is a very labor-intensive process, and yet you can’t charge much for a bowl of spaghetti bolognese. 3D-printed pasta, however, removes the labor aspect, which can increase profit margins substantially and free up kitchen staff for other tasks.
Innovations in packaging
We’ll call this “tech without a computer,” but it’s worth mentioning that there’s been a lot of innovation in packaging in the last few years—and that innovation has been further accelerated by COVID-19.
Since the wide-scale adoption of third-party delivery services, we’ve seen companies developing packaging that can carry food with less spillage, keep it hot for longer, and prevent it from getting soggy.
Concerns around coronavirus have pushed restaurants to be even more transparent and careful with packaging—labeling and individually packing every item to show that nothing’s been touched or opened between the store and customer’s doorstep.
And that transparency isn’t just for the foodservice and delivery people—if a restaurant delivers 20 sandwiches to my office, I want to find my item without having to open five other sandwiches first and touch my co-workers’ food.
While these trends are huge in the restaurant industry right now, and I believe they’ll only continue to grow, what’s more important is to think about the environment into which they’re coming. And that is—you guessed it—one that has been absolutely and irrevocably shaped by the coronavirus.
The pandemic will pass, but the virus will be with us for the foreseeable future. So, too, will people who are at high risk of catching it whether from age, or from being immunocompromised, or any other number of risk factors. Once the virus is no longer at peak levels, but those customers remain, how do we serve them in a way that makes them feel safe and healthy?
In fact, I see the coronavirus almost as a compliance event. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, restaurants and other businesses complied through installing handicap ramps, braille menus, etc. Those things are only serving 6-7 percent of the population—but thankfully, as a country and as business owners, we’re not willing to make that group of people feel as though they can’t participate in commerce.
Likewise, if 15-20 percent of the population remains high-risk until there’s a proven vaccine, which can take up to 10 years, you have to provide options for those people. Maybe that’s contactless ordering and payment. Maybe servers wear masks and gloves around those customers.
After all, gluten-free food prep methods are only totally necessary for the roughly 1 percent of Americans who have celiac disease, yet restaurants have adopted them almost across the board. We have to be willing and able to serve all customers, not just the ones who need no additional consideration, and that’s going to be true for COVID-19, as well.
Restaurant technology is rapidly advancing and has been for decades. But now, what’s clear is that the direction those advances take will be shaped by this new normal that we’re all getting used to.
Rom Krupp is founder and CEO of OneDine, a contactless mobile menu browsing, ordering, and payment system that guests access on their own devices. He has 22 years experience in restaurant technology, having worked with over 500 restaurant brands. The technologies that Rom has helped design are currently used in over 100,000 restaurants around the world.
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