Image via Orderscape

The restaurant industry has always been notoriously slow to adopt new technologies. But when it comes to voice-ordering tech, you can hardly blame them. As a concept, the idea of voice-enabling your menu — that is, making it possible to search for and order food from your restaurant via the likes of Google Assistant or Alexa — is unique and exciting. As a reality, however, restaurants have to develop and build out as another sales channel, voice is complex, expensive, and time-consuming — or in the words of Orderscape’s CEO, Michael Atkinson, “It’s overwhelming and God-awful.”

He should know. Having worked with restaurant tech for the last 14 years, Atkinson understands both the technical and operational challenges involved with bringing voice technology into restaurants. The hope is that Orderscape, which he founded in 2016 with Ted Cohn, will not just address some of these issues but also make it ridiculously simple for restaurants to add voice-enabled search and commerce as another sales channel — something that will become a competitive differentiator sooner than most of us think.

Orderscape makes a voice-ordering software layer that works with browsers, mobile phones and watches as well as smart speakers like Alexa. And as of last week, the company launched a large-scale voice-enabled search capability for around 50,000 menus on Google Assistant and Alexa. (Right now, it’s voice-only, with no display capability.)

To be clear, Orderscape isn’t actually in charge of creating or updating the menus. Rather, the company partners with restaurant platforms like Olo, Onosys, and Monkey Media, all of whom have been powering restaurants’ systems for years and are responsible for the content. “The way we work, our platform originates an order through voice. And then we use our algorithms to convert it from voice to digital, then we send those orders to our partners, who are connected to the restaurant POS,” Atkinson told me.

Orderscape also doesn’t take users to a specific restaurant, but instead tells users where their desired food item is available in their area. So, for example, telling Google Assistant, “I want a grilled cheese” will pull up relevant results at Denny’s as well as the local diner. From there, the customer can, according to Atkinson, “get more granular” and specify place, special instructions, etc.

But, as I said earlier, it’s complicated. Restaurant menus don’t automatically wind up on Google Assistant or Alexa. In fact, to activate a voice capability skill, a restaurant would have to create a voice user experience (VUI), a food-specific taxonomy (will it be called “pop” or “soda”?), then connect those elements to voice inputs, called “gateways,” like Alexa or Google.

With Orderscape, that work is already taken care of, which means a restaurant can get a menu voice-activated with zero disruption. There’s no installation, no training, no downtime. Orderscape simply gets permission from the restaurant to use its menu, ingests the information via an existing parter like Olo, and voice-enables the menu. “All the hard work has been done by portals and platforms,” says Atkinson.

This is potentially a huge selling point for Orderscape, and something that could go far in appeasing restaurants’ well-founded fears around adding yet-another technology to the mix. Right now, general managers are basically having to act as IT people for their restaurants. The appeal of Orderscape is that it may be a complex technology, but the restaurants won’t see that. As Atkinson says, “What we’ve done is try to take all the burden and hassle out of the restaurant side.”

Next up for Orderscape is to release a commerce version of its voice tech, which Atkinson says will drop towards the end of Q2 2019. This will mean users can not just search but also complete an entire transaction, right down to whether they want delivery or pickup, using Orderscape via Google Assistant. That whole image of being able to lie on your couch and shout instructions at a device, moving only to answer the door when the food arrives, is a fast-approaching reality.

Because of that, Atkinson’s quick to emphasize the need for restaurants to act now in terms of hopping the voice train. According to him, voice-enabled tech will explode over the next 12 to 18 months, and “2019 is the year everyone needs to get it together.”

This “getting it together” probably involves a little more than simply taking a phone call to grant Orderscape permission to ingest your menu. But not much, if my conversation with Atkinson is anything to go by. At the very least, it’ll be one less technology the GM has to grapple with during a busy dinner rush.

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