Technology has always been a strong area of focus for the restaurant industry, but never has it felt so urgent as it does today. At this year’s National Restaurant Association Show, innovation took center stage at the event’s 30,000-square-foot Tech Pavilion, filled to the brim with imagination and excitement. This is especially true given the show had been canceled for the past two years due to the pandemic.
Why is an emphasis on things like artificial intelligence and robots so pressing in 2022? It’s because restaurants are dealing with the dual hit of ongoing labor shortages and supply chain challenges that are expected to continue at least through 2022. In fact, the National Restaurant Association released its 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry confirming that roughly half of restaurant operators expect recruiting and retaining workers will be their biggest challenge this year. That’s in addition to inflation hitting a 40-year high of 8.3% as of April 2022. Clearly restaurant, foodservice and hospitality professionals have a lot on their plates.
With these challenges top of mind, here are three tech trends that are attempting to address them, while also driving innovation in the restaurant industry:
Robotics is getting closer to serving a function, but is still not near replacing human labor. Flippy the burger flipper and a self-contained drink-making machine may make restaurant operations more efficient, but will not replace labor in restaurants. At the event, a new National Restaurant Association participant, KEENON Robotics, showcased a robot waiter that can assist human waiters and be outfitted to disinfect surfaces. For the time being, the expectation is that robotics can assist humans in being more efficient and mitigate errors that humans make in the kitchen.
So how to address the problem of labor shortages when technology can’t step in as a replacement? In a Nation’s Restaurant News interview with Teriyaki Madness, their CEO Michael Haith described labor challenges by saying, “It’s really just trying to keep the doors open. We have increased wages and tried hard to recruit. There is really no secret, it’s really about being good to your employees.”
The purpose of restaurants’ physical location is shifting and we are seeing it in new store designs across all restaurant formats. One example of this is the growing number of drive-thru options. In the past few years Chipotle announced their Chipotlane and Shake Shack came to market with an innovative 3-lane drive-thru. Now, full-service restaurants like Applebee’s are joining the fold, leaning into the drive-thru trend.
“I think you’ll see the premiumization of the drive-thru, and you’ll probably see quite a few casual-dining brands play there,” said P.F. Chang’s CMO Tana Davila during a panel at the event. Many restaurants have spoken on the difficulties with cost, affecting both their bottom line and how much their customers pay when it comes to delivery. Haith commented saying, “We think third-party is going to start backing up, mostly because of the cost. We are now working on reducing the friction on the customer transaction. Our focus is on curbside and utilizing technology to know when the customer is going to arrive so we can make that delivery in seconds.”
No matter the restaurant format, bring your own device (BYOD) remains an important trend for all restaurants. Focus remains on influencing customers to use loyalty applications, order on their mobile devices, scan QR codes to view menus or even pay with an increasing number of POS providers for payments.
With digital trends like this leading the way for the restaurant industry, particularly as it continues to recover from the pandemic, it’s important that restaurants remain secure and support their technology innovation with a modern network that protects their customers’ data on any device, from any location.
Whether it’s mobile apps, drive-thru automation, robotics or artificial intelligence, there is no shortage of innovation in the restaurant industry. Technology is creating new and valuable opportunities for operators to alleviate labor shortages and supply chain pressure, while maximizing operational efficiency. How can you ensure your organization will get the most out of these innovations? Having a strong backbone of connectivity, security and communications is a great place to start.
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