Where is restaurant technology headed in the next five years?

Digital transformation is having a significant impact on the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) and Fast Casual Dining industry like never before. The shift to technology driven by restaurants’ response to the pandemic.

Customers are driving their own ‘customer journey’, and they are embracing technology to decide what they want, where they want it and when they want it.

This has created significant changes in marketing, loyalty and operations as restaurant chains respond to these emerging customer demands.

Ira Gleser from Microsoft was joined by Bruce Hoffmeister, CIO of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Colin McGuire, Vice President of Corporate Systems, Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Cracker Barrel is an American chain of restaurant and gift stores with a Southern country theme. Since its launch in 1969 in Tennessee, it has grown to over 663 stores across 45 US states.

Chipotle launched in 1993and the chain has now grown to over more than 2,000 locations across the US, employing more than 45,000 team members.

The panel discussion held at the Food Service Technology Stage explored what restaurants might look like in the next five years.

The panel looked back briefly at 2022, suggesting ‘dine-in’ traffic was back, post pandemic. However, it had not been a smooth transition. There were ups and downs – impacted by various waves of COVID outbreaks, and inflationary pressures.

Hoffmeister noted that even before the pandemic, there had been a ‘slow erosion’ of dine-in traffic. Where once people would dine out, they were shifting to ‘take-out’, accelerated by the comfort and convenience of meal delivery apps, like Uber Eats, and Menu Log.

In a response to the pandemic, Hoffmeister’s Cracker Barrel chain, had moved to ‘heat and serve’ options, to grow their business. Freshly prepared in store, ordered as far out as 4-6 weeks out. Customers simply drop in and collect. An offer continued today.

This option particularly spiked around ‘Thanks-Giving’ and Christmas. Where, time poor customers wanted larger family events catered, rather than preparing meals themselves.

The panel agreed, over the next 5 years, technology is expected to impact the QSR and Fast Casual Dining industry greatly.

The customer is demanding more control and they want individuality. Rather than arriving and waiting, customers will want to join the wait list, before they arrive at the restaurant. Speed will be the point of competition.

It will become the norm for waiters to use tablets to take orders – direct from the floor to the kitchen, instantaneously. No errors, no missed orders.

All restaurants will enable ‘pay at table’. But importantly, this must be individual experience. Customers will demand options. Some will want to wait and talk to a team member and pay at counter, others will want to order and pay at the table.

There will be a need to blend high-tech, with high-touch.

QSR and Fast Casual will have smaller footprints. The removal of dine in areas completely, in response to meal delivery apps and dark kitchens.

Kitchens will use AI cameras and computer vision to track food during preparation, ensuring only the most uniformed, highest quality product leaves the kitchen.

Computer vision and AI in kitchens will also help to reduce waste. Systems watching chefs and cooks prepare – alerting when too much of an ingredient is being used and suggesting waste reduction practices. Also tracking when not enough of an ingredient is being used, which may result in diner dissatisfaction.

The biggest issue is labour – attracting, recruiting, and retaining team members. Digital timetabling and rosters will enable team members to switch shifts online, via apps.

Speed to recruit will be an important factor in recruiting the best candidates. QSR and Fast Casual will need to take action to quickly hire people and on-board team members.

McGuire indicated, “we need to be faster. If it takes a week, to book and interview, call referees and job offer, it’s a week too long”.

He suggested a move to SMS to speed up recruitment. Potential young employees are not reading emails. Once recruited, they don’t want to spend a day doing induction videos. There will be a need to ‘compress’ recruiting and on-boarding time. Shorter training videos, no more than 2-4 minutes.

Hoffmeister predicted that in the next 5 years restaurants will need to give more control to customers.

McGuire expected restaurants will use smart technology to make it a compelling place to work. Using technology to remove pain points, taking away jobs that no one wants to do. Automation can ‘augment’ labour.

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