The Future Today: A Look at Smart Restaurant Technology

By Barbara L. Vergetis Lundin, Assistant Editor

Recently, a few (very few) restaurants have begun offering a fully automated, Jetson-like food experience (think eatsa). The futurism is pretty cool, but what does today’s workplace automation really look like?

Today’s Futurism

Most frequently adopted these days are self-order technologies, both at restaurant-provided kiosks and from guests’ mobile devices. Fast-casual restaurants like Panera, Starbucks, and others are providing guests with multiple service options, much like the banking industry has.

“At a bank, you can opt for traditional teller service, an ATM, a drive-thru, or online/mobile banking. Restaurants are doing the same by offering traditional counter service, ordering kiosks, touchscreen/video drive-thru, as well as online/mobile ordering. All orders are funneled to production for fulfilment and real-time inventory management,” explained Tommy Woycik, founder and president of Nextep Systems, whose tagline is “Order Food Faster.”

Chili's® Grill & Bar was a pioneer of sorts when, in mid-2014, the restaurant completed what it called the largest rollout of tabletop tablets in the United States at the time.

About six months later, Applebee’s announced its intention to rollout 100,000 tabletop tablets for the purpose of faster ordering and payment. Neither Chili’s nor Applebee’s has done away with tableside service, but Chili’s takes the tablet concept a step further by bringing friends and family together over a meal with entertainment, including news from USA Today and interactive games.

“Automating the ‘simple’ tasks like order entry and counting change will allow restaurants to provide improved speed-of-service and more value to their guests,” Woycik said. “Customer service means different things to different guests (e.g., Baby Boomers versus Gen X versus Gen Y) and doesn’t have to be face-to-face (e.g., eatsa and drive-thru). All guests value food quality, order accuracy, and speed of service, which is what smart technology is improving.”

Back-of-House Technology

In addition to this front-of-house automation at restaurants, back-of-house technology today focuses on improving services.

“Labor will be focused on production (i.e., making meals) and customer service, with the simpler tasks being provided by machines/technology,” Woycik said. “There will be less face-to-face guest interaction, but improved speed of service. The drive-thru (which provides more than 65 percent of orders at some chains) has already impersonalized the guest experience, but guests have shown they appreciate value, order accuracy, and customization over a traditional ordering experience.”

Starbucks, however, is using technology to personalize its customers’ drive-thru experience. The coffee giant is smack-dab in the middle of a year-long initiative, adding video screens to 2,400 of its drive-thrus throughout the United States; worldwide, Starbucks has 22,000 locations. The key here: it’s live video of the barista (video chat, if you will), not just a screen where an order pops up — and it’s all about making a customer connection.

High-Tech Automation

So, when is a restaurant no longer a restaurant, at some point becoming nothing more than a vending machine with tables and chairs?

So far, guests seem unphased with the impersonal technology, probably due to the fact that at most establishments, its use, thus far, has been at minimal scale.

 Instagram, @eatsarestaurant

 Instagram, @eatsarestaurant

eatsa, a fully automated restaurant aimed at San Francisco’s high-tech demographic whose tagline happens to be “Better, Faster Food,” is unlikely to become the norm in the fast-casual segment, Woycik speculates.

But in its first eight months or so, the restaurant has done quite well. One of eatsa’s founders, Tim Young, attributes its success, in part, to a simple and interactive ordering experience; a virtual cashier that remembers every customer, allowing for highly personalized interaction and tailored suggestions; and zero wait time.

An automated food pickup system features a collection of glass door "cubbies."  When a customer's meal is ready, the cubby door transforms to display personalized graphics and presents the food at the touch of a button, ensuring that every customer receives their food when and how they want it.

Scott Drummond, eatsa’s other founder, actually credits the technology for a lower price point for customers, allowing the restaurant to offer $12 dishes for less than $7.

“[eatsa’s] success does demonstrate that guests may not value a traditional experience as much as some restaurants might believe,” Woycik contends.

Unexpected Benefits and Challenges

Having the technology doesn’t help much if no one knows how to use it — or that it’s even there.

Implementing smart technology requires a significant investment of both time (training) and money, so it can also have a significant impact on a restaurant’s bottom line. Efficiency is the key.

At a recent trip to Panera, I stood at the end of a line of 10 people when my companion realized she could order at one of four unused kiosks. The process was quite easy and user friendly, but to help it along, employees should be trained to encourage guests in line to use them. And, if customers don’t know how, an associate should be readily available to assist.  

Technology impacts more than just the user experience. The technological changes currently taking place in restaurants will shift jobs (from low-pay, entry-level cashier to kitchen and customer service positions) more than eliminate them.

“Hourly labor costs will continue to rise (and dramatically), but labor as a percentage of sales could even drop with a smart investment in technology,” said Woycik. “First-movers will have the greatest advantage, because once everyone has similar labor-saving technology, it will naturally create pricing pressure.”