The Future of Dining: Industry Expert Insights

Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine asked restaurant industry experts to gaze into a crystal ball and re-imagine the future of dining. Now that many restaurants have pivoted and adopted technology such as contactless, QR codes and pay at table to be responsive to their guests and to survive during the pandemic, what is next? Here are their insights. 

Chris Boyles, VP of Food Safety for Steritech

We're already seeing lots of innovation. Coke Freestyle machines allow customers to make their selections using their own smartphone screen. There are touchless faucets and soap dispensers. Perhaps touchless condiment and utensil dispensers are not far behind.  

Ghost kitchens allow you to order from multiple brand menus at a single location. Robots flip burgers and deliver meals to your table. Drones deliver to your house. Self-driving cars deliver you to our chosen destination. Grocery stores allow you to shop without going through a checkout process. Voice-activated apps allow you to order without touching anything. Artificial Intelligence bots manage customer service interactions, asking clarifying questions to gather the necessary details. 

As various initiatives continue to evolve, they will start to overlap and combine.

As these various initiatives continue to evolve, they will start to overlap and combine. It's a small step to having a group of friends walk into a dining room served by multiple brands. Each person orders their favorite meal on their smartphone. Their meals are prepared quickly and consistently with significant automation in the back of house, delivered to the table robotically, and the bills automatically deducted from their accounts as they walk out the door.  

For fast food, as self-driving cars continue to become more sophisticated, the drive-thru may evolve for a pre-order lane. The driver orders a meal using voice commands.. The navigation system finds the nearest compatible restaurant, places the order and then reroutes the vehicle. It arrives just in time to pick up the freshly-prepared order and barely stops long enough for the handoff before driving away, payment handled automatically. We may eventually simply send an empty car to pick up the food and bypass the delivery driver as well.

From a food safety perspective, far UVC light is a growing area where the light destroys germs, but doesn't harm humans. Maybe this replaces our constant disinfection of frequently touched surfaces. And sensors technology is advancing rapidly. There are already sensors that can monitor food for shelf life attributes and sanitizer for proper concentration. As the preparation and cooking processes become more automated, sensors may also be able to ensure greater safety. 

The role of many employees may evolve from manual tasks to more human interaction. The food itself may no longer be enough to draw people to a restaurant, since it's so easy to have it delivered to your home. Restaurants may compete by creating more and more elaborate experiential dining, whether it's adventuresome, like dining in the dark, or communal, where our social media habits organize dining events with like-minded individuals. 

Zebra Technologies Retail Industry Consultant Mark Delaney

As COVID-19 first confronted the Restaurant / Hospitality industry, contactless payment and curbside delivery strategies gained prominence to help to ease concerns. Looking ahead, the most obvious but most capital dependent area is restaurant design. In most areas of the country, outdoor dining can only last so long, so we need to address the interiors. Social distancing – even in areas minimally affected by COVID-19 – will become more of the norm – regardless of nostalgia. Crowded bar areas and throngs of patrons near the check-in area or pickup lines will be viewed negatively for the foreseeable future. One area that may be more economically viable is spaces that can be converted from open air to closed easily depending on weather and capacity limitations.

The ability to mine customer data and distill insights that drive loyalty, and perhaps more importantly trust, will become necessary as we emerge from the pandemic.

The next level of technology could involve locationing capabilities commonly used in other industries. The ability for a host to know when a customer is en route to ensure the table is ready and appropriate distancing is in place makes for a better customer experience – the same applies for curbside pickup. There are a number of technologies that can be deployed to address both areas and can be integrated into existing loyalty programs. Another technique that may be of interest is the concept of an open kitchen displayed digitally via a restaurant’s app. By providing patrons a bird’s eye view into the kitchen they can be assured that safety protocols are being followed.

From there the possibilities are endless. Today’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology allows a proprietor to “learn” a customer’s shopping habits, menu preferences, and more, and market to them accordingly. This helps build a level of loyalty and trust that will be key to emerging stronger from the pandemic. This will be important particularly to fine dining establishments that have relied historically on humans to build those 1:1 relationships. Patrons of fine dining establishments expect a level of personal interaction and service that a kiosk cannot deliver. At the same time, they have the same safety concerns others do. It will require a level of customer intimacy well beyond what exists today to bring them back in for in-person dining. The ability to mine customer data and distill insights that drive loyalty, and perhaps more importantly trust, will become necessary as we emerge from the pandemic.

SpeedLine Solutions CEO John deWolde

Restaurants need to be able to quickly adapt to a market that is ordering delivery and staying home more often. Having a POS system that integrates with restaurant’s online ordering site, and third-party delivery apps saves them a considerable amount of order entry labor, and eliminates the risk of an order entry error.”

Goutham Gandhi, Founder, Futuristic Labs

The world is moving ahead at an unprecedented pace. Now, we are dependent on technology in and for every aspect of our lives. From Robots replacing baristas in Japan to machines deployed in cooking complex dishes at a restaurant in Boston, these ideas are futuristic and will be regular occurrences going ahead. The pandemic infused need for automation will give the food industry a chance to employ tools that promote efficiency. While other spheres of our lives have successfully incorporated automation to make things simpler, kitchens are yet to take the leap.

While other spheres of our lives have successfully incorporated automation to make things simpler, kitchens are yet to take the leap.

The kitchen industry will employ tools to minimize human contact, time and efforts. Restaurants will look into dynamic solutions for everyday problems. Digital menus have already been introduced by many cafes pertaining to the circumstances we are facing. The main focus would be to minimize human contact or maximize hygiene and efficiency by investing in one-time smart solutions.  Inventions like Riku, an automatic rice and curry-maker that offers a wide pool of recipes, can be the savior. The future of restaurants will be governed by such machines and more.

There is still a lot of scope for innovation not only in the areas of hospitality and customer relations but also in the way we cook. It would be interesting to see young minds coming up with innovations that change the face of the food indust

Andrew Glantz, Founder and CEO of GiftAMeal

Restaurant technology will play a vital role in a post-pandemic world. Customers already have their phones out at the table, and restaurants should take advantage of this channel to engage the customers in a unique experience. The future consists of not just using phones for ordering or payment, but also in engaging with the restaurant's brand and story. Millennials especially crave experiential dining, and to differentiate, restaurants that tap into that using tech will advance fast.

Johan Gutierrez, President of Oceanview Financials

Bars, restaurants and the entire hospitality industry are continuing to pivot and adapt to the new normal amidst a global pandemic. This means shifting their financial and revenue goals as they continue to navigate pandemic operations. 

With the pandemic, there has been an increased reliance on technology for restaurants and bars to stay afloat. From scanning QR codes for contactless menu ordering to investing in tableside credit card authorizations, restaurants and bars are looking to technology to ease consumer concerns while also continuing to drive revenue. This means it is imperative from a financial perspective that bar and restaurant owners budget accordingly for these changes. For example, bars and restaurants will often print new menus on a regular basis, especially with menu changes. However, as this moves to be more digital, it will be important to shift the cost from printing to digital and invest in online databases and platforms that support digital menus. 

Restaurants and bars will also need to shift budgets to support tableside credit card processing instead of relying on POS systems. Budgets may need to be cut in other areas of the business in order to adapt to this new normal. 

Utilizing a digital software platform to help manage inventory, purchasing/ordering  significantly help streamline budgets and see current and future costs that will impact the business. It also helps track expenses and vendor management, which is extremely valuable in this new world of F&B.

Technology in restaurants and bars is a fantastic shift for the current economic climate, however, there are many that were not ready to make this shift just yet. It's important to recognize from both a business and financial perspective that technology will continue to drive the future of the hospitality industry as we look for ways to remain contactless, ease consumer concerns and continue to drive revenue.

Michael Kalman, CEO and Founder, MediaCrossing Inc.

The use of digital advertising is increasing each and every day as restaurants continue to figure out how to survive and thrive in the COVID world . Although this was already increasingly important prior to the pandemic, it will only become more crucial in the weeks, months and year(s) to come. Owners and marketers must bring their efforts to the next level to stay in business.  We have numerous statistics to share, but one key fact is one-in-ten small businesses have developed new products as a way to engage with new customers during COVID-19 (Harris Poll) — and that means it is more and more important to talk to agencies and other experts to figure out how to best reach consumers. In addition, there are certain things restaurants can do to edge out the competition and engage customers, especially in the delivery space – an increasingly significant part of a restaurant's revenue.  

 In today's new environment it is often the most basic things that can be overlooked. Here are some best practices:

  • Ensure your business is listed and current on Google My Business. 
  • Update business hours to reflect the current abilities of your business
  • Ensure your listing includes any new services, like curbside pickup
  • Confirm all contact information is still up to date for the stay-at-home economy
  • Update listings to include takeout and delivery-only menus with unique items and message
  • Facebook has incredible personalized, hyper-local targeting capabilities. With 2.6 billion monthly users, Facebook is a prime channel to reach your local users.
  • Launch a campaign promoting your takeout and delivery services to local users and previous customers.
  • Consider messaging that engages with the community and ‘virtual experiential economy.’
  • Launch a new campaign for customers – you need to stand out now and break through the clutter; offer ‘meal kits’ and virtual sessions create signature dishes or cocktails. Bottom line? Promote interesting content, local community donations and philanthropic work.
  • Think like a "start-up"  business again! Restaurants need to shake things up to stay in business.
  • Make your curbside pickup business "app-first" to streamline your operations and connect with users in the long-term with push notifications.
  • Social, political and local government changes are occurring at a rapid pace. Ensure messaging reflects the current climate of your business and community.
  • Send important updates about opening hours, dine-in opportunities) via email and social media channels – sounds obvious but it's not! Many websites have not been updated since the pandemic started.
  • Reiterate your health and safety procedures as communities slowly open back up .
  • Monitor promotions and scheduled social media posts closely, as mindful messaging is key to maintaining trust with your customers.

Digitizing your customer engagement will be critical to retaining current customers and capturing consumer loyalty.

‚Ä®Digitizing your customer engagement will be critical to retaining current customers and capturing consumer loyalty. Integrating true digital experience into customer service will enable you to utilize customer data — driving decisions about merchandising, pricing and promotions. 

There are so many new tools and platforms restaurant marketers and owners need to consider as they face the near and longer term reality of doing business in a new economy and reality. If possible, work with an expert to figure things out. If not, remember the simple, obvious tips you can do today and challenge your team to think as if your business is first opening its doors!  New apps, new technology, new tools and new messaging is all critical right now. 

Peter Klamka, Blind Pig Las Vegas

We have been testing QR codes, contactless payments etc.  Lots of customer resistance and confusion. I think pay on an app at the table is what we will see.  I don't see much movement towards adoption because the technology is not very user friendly from a staff or customer perspective.

Candace MacDonald, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Carbonate

Despite COVID-19 ravaging our industry, restaurateurs will continue to want to do what they love, but will lack the significant capital needed to open new restaurants or re-open existing concepts. The next wave of technology for restaurants will aim to solve the impending imbalance between creativity and capital and address current health & safety concerns.  Technology solutions on the rise will allow creativity and passion to flourish with less initial capital and help consumers feel safer when ordering food. 

Food robotics has emerged during the pandemic as a very viable solution to health, safety and sanitation concerns.

Two examples:

1. The rise of the new ghost kitchen/delivery company/food hall hybrid. Following the 2008 Great Recession food trucks flourished, because they offered a smaller capital investment and could offer food directly where people were. Ghost kitchens with integrated delivery services are the 2020 evolution of this concept. In order to provide restaurateurs with more than a real estate deal, these multi-operator kitchen models have to provide back of house technology systems that will enable efficiencies that impact not only real estate but cost of goods and marketing budgets as well.  (think IOT and machine learning)  Also unlike the current crop of delivery companies, they will have to provide fully integrated restaurant friendly solutions.  Some examples: Crave, currently operating in Boise, Kitchen United (article last year in Tech Crunch here) or REEF Kitchens.

2. Food robotics has emerged during the pandemic as a very viable solution to health, safety and sanitation concerns. There are two categories – bottom line supporting and top line revenue generating robots. There's been much recent discussion the past few weeks about robots that decrease costs for restaurants, and remove some employees from the risk equation, with the notable example being White Castle's recent announcement of its partnership with Miso Robotics' Flippy/ROAR.  Another, much more intriguing, value proposition comes from robots that can increase top line revenue. As salad bars were shut down across the nation following the pandemic, a key question was how to replace what they offered. Chowbotics' Sally, a fresh food robot which makes fully customized salad in minutes, provides an answer. The company has seen tremendous growth in hospitals and grocery stores in the past months.  (A few articles here: Grocery Dive, CNN, Bloomberg News)  This can also translate to restaurants, check out how Salad Station is using the concept of "robotic vending" to expand its reach (and perhaps even it's brand, which relied on customer facing salad bars).  Robots can reduce costs, but the more interesting use, I think, is how they can enable creativity and extension of restaurant brands to places where a restaurant wouldn't be viable.

Amanda Nichols, Senior Manager of the Retail, Hospitality, and Food Service Practice at Kronos Incorporated

The growth of technology, sales channels, and regulation changes in the food service industry have pushed systems and processes beyond their limits. Traditionally, restaurants have found themselves in a cycle where they look to technology to quickly solve an urgent need in a very siloed area of the business. They find a technology vendor that can solve the problem at hand, and then move on—often without developing a long-term holistic strategy that considers how this new technology could be integrated with other existing or future solutions. For many operators, this has led to a patchwork technology ecosystem where data is kept in silos, and deriving insights from that data is nearly impossible. 

It’s a matter of bringing together all the technologies an operator chooses to invest in to run their business into a unified solution.

At the end of the day, many restaurants are lacking the visibility and accountability – particularly as it relates to its workforce – that is needed across all aspects of the restaurant. And this is a problem because operators must be able to understand the data and analytics behind their workforce in order to make strategic labor management decisions that impact operations. 

The industry is always innovating, and technology adoption is constantly in motion. Therefore, developing a long-term technology strategy really has to become priority today. When all data sources are brought together into one core solution, operators gain much-needed visibility into information that can improve efficiency, control labor costs, reduce turnover, increase employee satisfaction, and proactively manage their restaurant. It’s a matter of bringing together all the technologies an operator chooses to invest in to run their business into a unified solution — like learning tools, communication tools, scheduling, time and attendance, guest satisfaction surveys, BOH, POS, payroll, performance management, etc. Doing so sooner than later, operators will minimize technology disruption and find themselves in a strong, future-forward position.”

Bo Peabody, Co-Founder and Executive of Seated

 Restaurants’ website will become a new focus, which means increased adoption of all sorts of technology related to reservations widgets, private event booking widgets, and pickup and delivery ordering systems…plus all of the accompanying martech technology to drive and track usage. Restaurants can lessen their reliance on platforms and control more of their destiny by embracing their website.

Jack Serfass, CEO with Uptown Network

Analytics will drive new, beneficial outcomes for restaurants of every size.  No longer just the domain of big chains, digital and cloud-based tools will drive everything from back office operations to interactive menus that allow restaurants to track activity, geography, smartphone operating system types, and user-sharing stats. “Democratized” access to data will enable restaurants of every size to optimize behaviors and revenue – for example, A/B testing menus to see which offer produces the desired revenue and experience outcomes.

'Democratized' access to data will enable restaurants of every size to optimize behaviors and revenue.

* Digital transformation fosters innovation. Widespread digital transformation opens the door for innovations that will vastly improve restaurants’ ability to reach new customers.  For example: can experiences afforded by augmented reality be far behind?  Rather than post a picture of a restaurant's superb bone-in ribeye steak to a website or social media account, patrons will be able to create and share virtual experiences that provide a first-hand look into a diner's delight.

Or send an AR-enabled gift card for that steak to a friend that simulates the gift opening experience.

Junior Therriaut, General Manager ofAbout Last Knife (ALK) – a modern steak bar in Chicago

“The restaurant and hotel industry will continue to adapt and evolve against adversity. The restaurant concept of tomorrow will invest in an outdoor concept, drive-thru, and pick-up window options in their construction designs to promote social distancing and safety of employees and guests. Operators will implement contactless technologies like QR code menus, frictionless ordering payment options, and voice-activated tools like “Alexa” from amazon.

The restaurant will focus the service offering on eating local and supporting their economical region. The trend of grab-and-go, pick-up, and delivery will continue to stay strong and solidify. To-go cocktail programs, like the one we developed at ALK in Chicago, will become a new norm to drive revenue and let our guests enjoy the restaurant experience at home.