Innovation has always been a pillar of gastronomy. In fact, the original concept of a “restaurant” was itself arguably one of the most innovative developments in retail history.
And while innovation isn’t always associated with technology, in the digital age the two are increasingly intertwined. Even in good times, our industry operates with relatively low margins. This is a business that requires making dollars to make pennies.
With each passing year, exponential technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics are becoming more efficient, easier to use, and more affordable, leading to an inevitable wave of disruption across the global economy.
This requires a higher level of technological acceptance, a faster adoption rate and an overall different mindset for running a restaurant than in previous decades.
The best chefs and marketers have always embraced these things. However, as the pace of change accelerates, restaurant owners and managers must also adopt the innovative “new is better” mindset.
Fortunately, the possibilities that change offers are not only endless but also exciting. The technical innovations we are about to discuss do not just provide a competitive advantage. They represent a holistic approach to better business.
Breakthrough technology: back-of-house
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
To some, artificial intelligence and eating out seem completely separate worlds. But we’re not talking about robots running restaurants (that’s another discussion), we’re talking about the power of predictive, self-managing software that can “learn” over time.
Imagine this: A program run by AI that is seamlessly integrated with a restaurant’s digital menu, point-of-sale (POS) system, and inventory control system. When items are ordered from the menu, the inventory data is automatically adjusted. When supplies of a particular ingredient are low, the AI can reduce the menu prominence of items that contain that ingredient. If another ingredient is overfilled, the program can adjust the menu accordingly. In both cases, information is saved about what is ordered and when, and data-based recommendations are made for future orders. What if the same system can provide data that will help the restaurant manager understand the ROI of each ingredient on the menu?
While it seems far-fetched, some restaurants, including McDonald’s, are already adopting integrated systems like this one. Even stranger, McDonald’s has an AI-based system (courtesy of Compology) that monitors garbage.
This is still only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to AI. Many other applications are already in use. Educating fast food operators about these opportunities is one of the goals of ConverseNow, which raised $ 3.25 million in funding earlier this year. Their platform is customizable, is itself referred to as “plug and play” and counts labor savings, higher average tickets and an increase in total sales among the most important benefits.
Cloud based systems
Convenient and secure cloud computing is the basis for the most modern applications of digital technology. For the uninitiated, storing something “in the cloud” just means it’s accessible through remote servers. Restaurants have largely adopted the cloud for POS, but less so for back-of-house businesses like accounting and enterprise resource planning (ERP). The breakthrough potential of the cloud lies in its ability to make information available in real time from almost anywhere. Without the cloud, you often have to be in that location to get the information about a particular location or otherwise wait for it to be sent to you.
What does that mean?
This means that adding new locations, users, or functions to your data systems can be done with a few clicks, rather than requiring significant investments in storage space, servers, or other hardware. This means that sharing or aggregating data across locations to gain insight into operations can be almost instantaneous. Backing up, integrating, and troubleshooting your data systems doesn’t require an IT team to visit your store. Overall, this means simpler and more efficient business processes.
But what was outlined above is honestly a bit boring when it comes to how the cloud actually powers restaurants, a reality that really haunted in 2021. Even before the pandemic – but mainly because of it – we are witnessing the rise of entire cloud kitchens, a brand new type of restaurant that doesn’t avoid the need for a front-of-house at all (maybe the name Rebel Foods is ringing a bell). This is happening in different formats around the world, and the model is growing faster than experts predicted.
Internet of Things (IoT)
In every kitchen, the walk-in freezer was accidentally opened at least once overnight, just as every cook has forgotten to check the oil level in a cooking vessel during a busy shift. The expectation of such glitches is built into the mindset of restaurant managers, but the Internet of Things is working to change that.
IoT refers to the vast network of devices in the world, from sensors to satellites, that can be connected to each other. A kitchen can contain anything from deep fryers and food processors to refrigerator doors and dishwashers. The result of such high connectivity is the ability to monitor kitchen ecosystems as a whole. This means that not only is the data to support decision-making in real-time scenarios, but also the data to better understand what is happening from a bird’s-eye view, including things like peak energy and device usage.
Restaurant technologies Uses data on edible oil consumption to drive dynamic distribution so that oil can only be delivered when customers need it. The same data enables real-time usage analysis, so a restaurant manager can be instantly notified by text if too much oil is being used. Operating a deep fryer may seem easy from the outside, but in reality it has a huge impact on efficiency and food quality. Even with the relatively small amount of data we collect, we can help customers manage these factors by, for example, monitoring fryer filtering and providing alerts about operational deviations – all possible through the IoT.
In short, the IoT is what makes AI and cloud software such powerful and useful technologies for restaurant operators. Without them, implementing AI in most back-of-house processes would be virtually impossible, and cloud kitchens would still be a pipe dream. Currently, IoT technology has contributed to some great successes for fast food restaurants and promises to play an even bigger role in the future.
Do you want fries with this combo?
By now it is likely to be apparent that these technologies are closely related and that none of them would have the same impact without the other. It is this synergy that makes them so powerful and necessary that restaurants adopt the innovative mindset that they are a product of. Whether it’s POS software, kitchen screens, or an ERP suite, the sum of its impact is much greater than its parts.
It’s not just about making the work of cooks or BOH managers easier. It’s about reducing margins by increasing security, eliminating data entry, and increasing overall efficiency. It’s about making restaurants more sustainable by reducing food waste, improving the supply chain and inventory control, and implementing data-driven energy management. In short, it is about doing better business at a time when it is not only possible but also necessary. Put simply, tomorrow’s back-of-house looks very different from yesterday’s – and you can have it today if you want.
PS We didn’t even talk about any of the coolest things on the restaurant horizon– Kitchen robotics! But don’t worry, we’ll come back to this on another day. This is the first in a series of articles covering groundbreaking restaurant technology.