Besides axe throwing skills, which was apparently an activity on the exhibition floor, there’s plenty worth showing off at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, which kicked off Saturday and runs through tomorrow, May 22.

In particular, some key companies have been offering us a glimpse into the future of technology’s role in the restaurant and how it’s changing both the consumer experience and the way operators do business. As the show is huge (over 66,000 attendees) and attention spans are low, we’ve narrowed the coverage here down to a few hand-picked highlights presented in no particular order. We’ll keep updating this post, and if you’re at the show and see something especially exciting, feel free to mention it in the comments or tweet us @TheSpoonTech.

Age of the Auto-Cocktail

Bartending and automation have been bedfellows for some time, but technology-meets-mixology pioneer Barsys has made the concept more accessible with its smart cocktail maker.

A basic model of the Barsys machine — which would work in a small establishment or your own kitchen — holds up to five base spirits and three mixers, and takes roughly 25 to 45 seconds to create a cocktail, according to the company’s website. Users can control the system and program drink recipes — up to 2,000 — via a corresponding app. The system will also make recommendations based on user preferences and history. An elite version that’s faster and has a carbonated bottle station, which would let you serve up fizzy cocktails on demand. At the show, Barsys said the machine is more about capturing inventory data and drink trends than it is about replacing human workers.

The show also featured a more streamlined auto-cocktail machine from Somabar. Their Wi-Fi connected robotic bartender holds spirits and mixers and can make up to 300 recipes. Somabar uses “proprietary static mixing technology” to ensure each drink is properly and proportionally mixed, and, like Barsys, also makes recommendations based on a user’s previously programmed drink recipes.

Delivery: Profitable or Painful?

It seems like there’s a new development in restaurant delivery services every day. However, that doesn’t mean we’re headed towards an on-demand utopia where restaurants and third-party services help one another raise profit margins and top-quality food always arrives on your doorstep in a speedy, efficient way.

In fact, Halal Guys COO Mike Speck spoke at length about the challenges a lot of restaurants face as services like Grubhub and UberEats grow in popularity. These companies, he noted during a session, typically charge restaurants between 15 and 40 percent on delivery orders (according to him, anything over 20 percent is ridiculous). He didn’t mince words when addressing the questions of whether these services are actually helpful, at least to smaller restaurants: “Unless you can prove it is making you money, I don’t know why you would do it.”

That said, Speck wasn’t advocating that restaurants ditch delivery altogether. Rather, he detailed how his own company rose to the challenge by analyzing which services are best for businesses (it varies by locale but generally speaking, DoorDash and Postmates won) and by redoing the layout of its stores to accommodate more delivery.

Also at the show was workforce-management platform ShiftPixy, who matches businesses in need of part-time staff, including delivery services, with qualified workers. In lessening reliance on third-party delivery services, ShiftPixy claims to lower delivery costs for restaurants and allow them to keep their branding intact, something that’s often lost during third-party delivery transactions.

Automated Ordering and Food Lockers

Shake Shack may have shelved its self-order-only concept (for now), but the trend is by no means dead in the water. At the National Restaurant Association show, Apex showed off its self-serve, automated pick-up station for food. The Apex Hot-Holding Device is basically a double-sided food locker that lets operators load hot food at one end then alert the customer, who gets a unique pickup code so they won’t accidentally swipe someone else’s order. That means you could order, pay for, and pick up an order without ever interacting with another human being.

Apex’s other version of the station allows for even greater order accuracy: it’s a shelf system which uses beacon technology to detect customers’ mobile devices. Once that particular customer walks into the restaurant and is detected, the cubby containing their order lights up. There’s no code to punch in. If you should happen to touch the wrong order, a red light signals you’ve got your hands on the wrong meal.

These developments won’t end all technical difficulties when it comes to automated pickup, and there are many who balk at the complete lack of interaction with other humans. But if you don’t mind completely automated service or happen to be in a really big hurry most of the time, this is definitely a trend to watch. That and axe throwing.

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