Cutting-edge tech emphasizes convenience, customer service

New and evolving technologies are creating opportunities for restaurants to streamline operations and improve the customer experience. Keeping up with the latest tech can seem daunting, but starting small and choosing the features that are right for a particular concept can help operators ensure that they don’t get left behind.

Global trends expert Daniel Burrus led a panel discussion on how technology is shaping the future of restaurants at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago on Monday. Burrus has a history of predicting which technologies and trends would be on the leading edge -- in a keynote presentation at the National Restaurant Association Show in 1980s, he predicted that time would soon become more valuable to consumers than money. Today, the theory has proven true as demand grows for delivery, mobile payment and other tech that help diners save time.

Here’s a look at some of the emerging technologies that will continue to shape the way restaurants operate.

Voice tech

Voice technology is becoming commonplace as more people use voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Some restaurant brands, such as Domino’s, have already rolled out ordering options that allow consumers to place orders via voice. Voice ordering also has the potential to streamline back-of-house operations by acting as an inventory management tool, said Sarah Lockyer, senior vice president of Winsight Media and Restaurant Business. “Voice is extremely important and those who are going to capitalize on it first are going to hit that wave at the right time,” she said.

Facial recognition

Like voice assistants, facial recognition is another technology that’s quickly becoming more common in consumers' day-to-day lives. The newest version of Apple’s iPhone has a feature that lets users unlock the device through facial recognition, and it makes the idea of face-based payments seem more feasible than ever.

Mobile payments such as Apple Pay are already popular with younger consumers -- 32% of millenials use Apple Pay, according to research from Technomic. Face-based payment takes the concept one step further, freeing consumers from the need to carry a credit card or pull out their phone. John Miller, CEO of Cali Group, envisions the technology as something that could someday be used for everything from paying at a restaurant to gaining entrance to concerts and other events. On stage, Miller demonstrated the POPIQ facial recognition platform that Cali Group is testing at CaliBurger locations in California. The kiosk registered his face and pulled up a screen with his previous orders, offering an option to pay with the card already on file. Both POPIQ and CaliBurger are subsidiaries of Cali Group, which allows the holding company to test concepts before rolling them out for use in other restaurants.

Robotics

Another emerging technology that Cali Group is putting through its paces at CaliBurger is robotics. The Pasadena, Calif., location features a burger-flipping robot from another Cali Group subsidiary, Miso Robotics. Flippy consists of a robotic arm capable of flipping burgers and a camera that allows it to see and identify items on the grill. Human workers place the uncooked burger patties, but the robot eliminates the need for them to stand over the hot grill, freeing them up to do other tasks. “There will always be a role for people in our view of the future restaurant,” Miller said.

The idea that robots are a tool to assist -- rather than replace -- human workers is also the inspiration for Bear Robotics’ Penny. CEO John Ha led development of the running and bussing robot after noticing the physical strain that the tasks put on staffers at his California restaurant. As with Cali Group, having a working restaurant allowed Ha to test the concept before bringing it to the market.

Penny rolled across the the stage during the panel discussion, prompting applause from the audience. Ha said the robot has proven its worth beyond being a novelty. When Penny first debuted in his restaurant, Ha said there weren’t noticeable changes to check averages or tips, but after a year sales have climbed 8% and tips are up 18%. With Penny shouldering the weight of running food and bussing tables, servers are freed up to focus on customer service, which boosts sales and drives higher tips. “We cannot eliminate the human touch in a restaurant,” Ha said. “No one wants to dine in a factory.”

The importance of human interaction to the restaurant experience was an idea touched on by all the panelists, who agreed that hospitality will always be central to the restaurant experience, no matter how technology advances.

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