After spending three very full days immersed in the foodservice industry at the IFMA COEX 2016 conference, I was again reminded that the only constant in this industry is change. Technology is rapidly descending on this industry like I have never seen it before. The utilization of technology is everywhere and is driven by operational necessities as well as customer demands. Here are the top two applications that stood out to me.
Technology to reduce labor costs
There isn’t a restaurant operation in the country that’s not immune to increased labor costs due to minimum wage increases, required paid leave and the Affordable Care Act — to name a few. This dynamic serves as a huge driver to look for technology to reduce labor costs.
Particularly in the QSR segment, self-serve kiosks will continue to grow rapidly as chains start to, in some cases, totally eliminate any human interaction at the front counter for ordering. At Eatsa, based in San Francisco, you can eat there and never see an employee. While millennials may prefer technology to human interaction when it comes to ordering their food, it no doubt will be a challenge for older guests to adapt to the technology, posing a real conundrum for the operators.
The back of the house isn’t exempt from the need to reduce labor either; in fact, in many cases it is impacted even more. Robotics and automation is a key area of focus in the kitchen to not only improve efficiency but also to reduce labor costs where possible. I’ll have to admit as I listened to some of the presenters it seemed like the opportunities to help operators drive out labor costs are more of an opportunity for food equipment manufacturers than food manufacturers.
Technology to meet customer expectations
While the world hasn’t totally been taken over by the millennials (yet), their significant adoption of “everything digital” is radically changing how foodservice operators are interacting with their customer base. From the heavy utilization of content marketing and social media to engage with their customers to mobile ordering that enables customers to order and pay ahead of time, foodservice operators are having to make significant adjustments to mirror how today’s customer wants to interact and do business with them.
And then there are tableside tablets that are popping up at places like Chili’s and Applebee’s where customers can now order and pay at their table, with minimal wait staff interaction. These digital venues can provide more information about the menu items as a growing number of customers want to know what’s in a menu item and where it came from — affectionately referred to as “transparency.” Storytelling opportunities are now possible at the menu level to meet the customers’ needs for transparency about a range of topics that customers feel are important (i.e. gluten free, non-GMO, locally sourced, etc.).
Clearly, the acceleration of technology is happening as operators look to embrace what will help them drive their businesses. Those food and food equipment manufacturers who better understand the challenges these operators are facing and bring ideas and solutions that will help them succeed will be the winners. As one presenter said, “Every company has to become a technology company that happens to sell products.” I don’t think he was too far from the mark.