2015 Restaurant Innovation Summit: Robots, Food Hacks & Tech Trends

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Innovation has become an essential part of our industry. Without it, restaurant operations would remain clunky, outdated, and certainly not aligned with consumer habits and demands. Earlier this week in San Diego, the National Restaurant Association’s annual Restaurant Innovation Summit (RIS) brought technologists together from all across the globe to mix, mingle, and discover and share big ideas of the future.

“The main focus of RIS is the future of technology when it comes to restaurants and how to drive sales by using and embracing new ideas,” says Anna Tauzin, senior marketing manager, innovation & entrepreneurial services at the NRA. “It was originally created as an idea from several key board members who wanted an event focused around payments and has grown to include marketing, operations, workforce, and tech.”

A total of 10 sessions packed into two days, the event — hosted by the NRA’s Phil Kafarakis, Chief Innovation and Member Advancement Officer, and sponsored by American Express, Anheuser-Busch, Constant Contact, Heartland, Visa, and more — touched on everything from robots in the restaurant space to the future of mobile payments, something most diners — and restaurateurs — have still yet to regularly adopt.

Amy Webb, founder and CEO at Webbmedia Group, kicked things off with a keynote on tech trends, including how robots will impact the future of restaurants — for example, how robots will be able to decode sentiment from an email and use the appropriate tone and language based on that person’s demeanor to send a reply. A mix of emotions from the crowd, one couldn’t help but wonder: to what extent can technology replace hospitality? Can it?

The overall consensus seemed to be that technology should enhance a restaurant experience, making it personal to each guest and using technology as part of that process. While some adoptions work for certain brands, others do not. Chris Demery, Group VP Customer Experience Technology at Bloomin’ Brands, says the restaurant group has found that their customers prefer that person-to-person service while in the restaurant. However, their customers do prefer that advanced experience before and after the actual dining experience, he says.

As “big beer” has made many headlines with the rise of craft beer, especially with the recent AB InBev/SAB Miller merger, Josh Halpern of Anheuser-Busch defended Budweiser and big beer by showing a recent upturn in sales compared to previous quarters. To help operators drive sales and to bring big beer brands back into the conversation, Halpern revealed to attendees a sleek-looking, lightweight Stella Artois draught system, a hopeful product of entry into the fast-casual space.

Another robot, though not aiming to replace a server or manager role, wrapped things up on the first day of the event, and this one may be found in more kitchens in the near future. You’ve most likely heard of IBM’s Chef Watson, a cognitive computational device that whips up innovative recipes. Chef Watson made an appearance, and his skills whipped up the recipe for a featured cocktail at the closing event of the evening, held on a rooftop venue with sprawling views of the city. The night kicked off with the Foodable Five Star Awards [check out the winners here] and after, guests enjoyed entertainment from indie band The Lonely Biscuits.

Day 2 touched on topics currently affecting the restaurant business today, like cybersecurity and on-demand delivery (a panel session that kicked off with some drone action). But the biggest session of the day was the closing act, an imaginative look into the future of food, held by Edie Weiner, president and CEO at The Future Hunters. Though not an expert in the food niche, Weiner is an expert futurist using real-life examples from history and past trends to forecast what’s to come. Her firm does not necessarily predict, but rather understands the mechanisms of change.

Wiener spoke on a bevy of topics, including hacking the food supply chain, hacking food waste, innovating via self-assembly and 3D printing, and even hacking how we eat food.

“It’s not about change,” says Wiener. “It’s about the speed of change.”

And with that, of course, comes a host of other issues we face in this industry: scaling, quality assurance, and human adoption. Timing truly is everything. 

In all, those attending the Summit left with many things to think about for the future, surely sparking innovation for the present.

“Our hope is for attendees to leave excited about the future of restaurants and technology with lots of new ideas,” says Tauzin. “It’s a great time to be in this industry.”