image via John Ha

We all know technology is changing the restaurant, but what that looks like varies from business to business. Wired’s Joe Ray dug deep into this hotly debated topic at the Smart Kitchen Summit this week, speaking onstage with a trio of seasoned restaurant vets: Eric Rivera, a master chef who runs addo:incubator in Seattle, Jim Collins, CEO of commercial restaurant space Kitchen United, and Bear Robotics’ CEO, John Ha.

Having watched these four hash it out onstage, it’s clear there’s no simple answer to what kind of role tech should play or how big that role ought to be. That said, the group covered some key areas where this question will play out in the coming months and years:

The Robots Are Coming
Collins had a litany of items that are working for his company when it comes to tech and automation in the kitchen. Among them, he noted POS in the cloud, self-ordering tablets, facial recognition for customers when they order, and predictive kitchen display systems (KDS). He also talked about small changes that make restaurant kitchens more efficient, like major restaurant suppliers like Sysco shipping pre-cut veggies and in the process saving cooks time on the line.

Rivera, on the other hand, disagreed that something like pre-cut veggies was a benefit in the kitchen, noting that Sysco might be capable of sending pre-cut carrots, but as a chef, he himself has far superior skills with a knife. “I just want to find out how I can create something custom for [the guest]. It’s my job to collect all the breadcrumbs and make a meal out of it.” He did, however, agree that using tech to make the kitchen more efficient has a lot of value, particularly for “menial tasks” like taking out the trash.

Ha landed right in the middle on this debate. He may run a robotics company, but as someone who’s also a restaurant owner, he doesn’t believe we can automate the entire restaurant and expect to deliver the kind of experience guests want. “It’s such a dynamic environment and I don’t think a robot can do [everything] yet,” he said. The strength of AI and robotics will come into play in the front of house, he noted, where robots can do simple tasks like running food to tables.

The Delivery Debate Rages On
At one point, Ray steered the conversation towards the restaurant industry’s most hot-button issue right now, food delivery. Here, as elsewhere, panelists had fairly different viewpoints. Rivera, more a chef and artist than cook, pointed out that people come to his restaurant to see him at work, and that experience for the guest should be the number priority in an establishment like his. “[People aren’t] just coming to hang out,” he said of his clientele, who’s paying for things like tasting menus and watching those knife skills.

As someone who operates space for virtual restaurants, Collins was a little less skeptical around the role of delivery. “People can eat anywhere, and they can get good food anywhere, and that’s going to get more and more prevalant.” He added that “delivery is here, it’s radically changing the restaurant landscape.”

2030 Is Around the Corner
On that note, panelists had lots to say in terms of predictions for the restaurant of 2030. Collins believes we won’t see paper menus in 10 years’ time, and that ordering food will be so personal you won’t be shown anything you don’t like or can’t eat. If you hate broccoli, you won’t have to pretend to be allergic to it anymore, for example.

Rivera’s restaurant has already gotten rid of paper menus. Meanwhile, he relies a lot on social media to find out his guests preferences and glean inspiration for his next dish, which he aims to make as personal as possible for each individual guest. His version of the future is far less automated than that of Collins, but the level of personalization he aims for is nonetheless proof of technology’s reach over the whole restaurant experience.

Personally, I think the industry will sit somewhere in the middle, along the lines of Ha’s vision, with robots managing the repetitive stuff and humans focused on providing a personable and personal meal for the guest — whether that’s online or in-house. “I have to make sure they’re happy,” he said of his guests. “If I’m busy running food, I can’t do that.”

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