The foodservice industry continues to see increasingly advanced innovations, and even amid a pandemic, this year was no exception. Here are some of the technologies that grabbed the spotlight in 2020.
QR Codes and Customized Online Menus
QR codes aren’t new, but they’ve grown exceptionally useful this past year. During the pandemic, they began directing users to pages like COVID-19 safety guidelines while providing contactless solutions for ordering and payment. QR codes also eliminate the need for physical menus, which require constant cleaning and updating. What’s more, operators can track engagement by measuring interactions, leading to a better understanding of consumer behaviors.
These patron insights are helping restaurants take digital menu customization to the next level. Sweetgreen launched Collections, which proposes categories to guests when ordering online or through the app, the same way a music playlist recommends new songs. This is the beginning of the company’s larger plan to tailor specific suggestions to each diner. Taco Bell is another chain that’s using technology to drive personalization. Its mobile app relies on AI to give customers recommendations based on their previous orders and other purchase drivers, such as location, weather conditions and price points.
Robotics and AI in the Kitchen
Robots and AI have continuously evolved, leading to great efficiency. Today, these machines can do dozens of tasks that save labor and improve accuracy. Beastro, which Kitchen Robotics calls “the world’s first robotic dark kitchen,” can serve up to 45 customizable dishes per hour and integrate with third-party delivery. Brands that operate and share equipment within the same ghost kitchen, a concept whose popularity also skyrocketed this past year, will find this particularly useful.
More restaurants are adopting robots for faster and safer cooking. White Castle partnered with Miso Robotics, the maker of the first autonomous grilling and frying robot, to integrate Robot on a Rail in its operation. In this era of social distancing, such technology reduces human contact with food, another advantage in addition to bringing consistency to food temperatures and ensuring optimal quality. As a result of automating repetitive tasks like frying, employees are free to enhance the customer experience in other ways.
Automation in Curbside Pickup
Geofencing has made waves in other industries, and now foodservice is tapping into its potential. This year, Panera Bread introduced geofencing technology to trigger alerts when a patron arrives for curbside pickup. This system works by drawing virtual borders around a set location, allowing notifications when a person enters or leaves the area. For those who enable the geocaching service, an employee brings out the diners’ order once their car pulls up—no phone call needed. Those who choose not to participate can tap “I’m here” on the app instead.
Cousins Subs also rolled out automated arrival alerts to streamline curbside pickup. When the chain first began offering this service, they encountered a problem with busy phone lines. They initially instructed guests to call and provide a vehicle description when they were parked and ready to pick up; yet other customers were dialing into the same line to place their orders. By adopting an automated alert system, curbside patrons no longer need to notify the restaurant when they’re at the venue, resulting in a quicker process.
In a year when the pandemic hit restaurants hard, operators are thriving with efficient technologies. These developments also served as a means of survival in a turbulent year like 2020, allowing operators to save labor and other resources while reassuring customers and improving their experience. These benefits may seem almost too good to be true, but that’s precisely how innovation works.
Guszkowski, Joe. 3 New Robots Hitting the Restaurant Market, Restaurant Business, October 2020.
Lalley, Heather. Panera Adds Geofencing to Curbside Pickup, Restaurant Business, May 2020.
Littman, Julie. How chains are automating the curbside experience, Restaurant Dive, September 2020.
Lubetsky, Dan. Restaurant QR Codes: 2020’s Comeback Story, Modern Restaurant Management,October 2020.
Oches, Sam. Sweetgreen Debuts Digital-Only Menu, QSR, September 2020.
Taco Bell Leverages AI to Personalize Digital Menus for App Members, PSFK, October 2020.
White Castle to Pilot Autonomous Grilling and Frying Kitchen Robot, Restaurant Technology News, July 2020.