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This week’s virtual Spoon event was a goldmine of information for restaurants and restaurant tech companies, or really anyone who wonders what the word “digitization” actually looks like in action in a restaurant.
Once an industry reticent to adopt any new technology, the restaurant biz has been forced into using all manner of digital tools — from delivery apps to contactless ordering platforms — to stay afloat in the troubled waters brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of the event’s panelists, Ian Christopher of Galley Solutions, put it, there is now a “survive or die” mentality when it comes to digitization for restaurants.
Front-of-house technologies get the bulk of the investment money right now. But as Christopher, along with Martin Flusberg of Powerhouse Dynamics, SousZen’s Stephen King, and The Spoon’s Mike Wolf discussed, the reinvention of the back of house is arguably more important.
As the panelists noted, 75 percent of a restaurant’s costs are in the back of house. If restaurants can’t address those, they’ll never get a good handle on their margins. Meanwhile, the pandemic has made those margins even thinner, intensified the labor shortage issue, and accelerated the widespread rise of ghost kitchens, which consist of nothing but the back of house.
How can more technology in the back of house assist in those areas and others? Here are a few takeaways from this week’s event:
More automation. Back of house automation isn’t just about robots making burgers. It has much more to do with digitizing operational processes to make them more efficient. That could mean a robotic arm doing manual tasks. But it could also mean using tech to replace paper-and-pen accounting books or taking a better, more granular analysis of food inventory to cut down costs.
More operational efficiency. Related to automation, the back of house will become more about making operational processes faster and more efficient. One of the panelists went as far as to say efficiency is the biggest thing for restaurants to get right. That’s especially true with fewer people eating in dining rooms and instead ordering takeout or delivery meals that are constantly evaluated for convenience and speed in addition to quality.
More transparency. The pandemic has arguably brought a greater desire for transparency when it comes to our restaurant food, and tech-savvy companies will respond with a variety of solutions. That could include installing software in a restaurant that can tell a customer exactly where their order is at any given moment (e.g., “on the grill,” “out for delivery”) or a tool that better informs them of a restaurant system’s security measures.
Will everyone in the restaurant industry welcome these changes with open arms? Absolutely not. Panelists said we can expect some pushback at the individual level from different folks in the restaurant industry, and one can hardly blame them. After all, what I just laid out above sounds more like a manufacturing facility than a restaurant.
And to be honest, part of me balks at this new restaurant “experience” where speed and convenience rule and the majority of meals are flung together in ghost kitchens and delivered to me in a cardboard box. But listening to today’s panelists, it’s also clear that digitizing the restaurant biz could mean more businesses being able to stay open (in some fashion), more entrepreneurship, less waste (food and money), and safer procedures for everyone. At a time when the entire industry hangs in the balance, those factors provide some welcome sense of optimism.
80% of Restaurant Jobs Could Go to Robots
On the subject of digitization, this week, the Spoon’s Chris Albrecht wrote about some new numbers that claim 80 percent of restaurant jobs could be taken over by automation. That includes cooking, serving, and prepping jobs.
While the 80 percent figure is high, it doesn’t feel all that surprising. Automation was already coming for the restaurant industry, and robots specifically have been in use for the consumer-facing side of the business for some time (see Starship’s delivery bots or Chowbotics’ Sally).
The pandemic has obviously accelerated that. Reduced dining room capacity, full-on restaurant closures, and a move towards the so-called “contactless” experience has amplified the labor shortage. Throw in the above discussion about efficiency being the number one priority for many restaurants, and it’s easy to see why the industry’s automated future seems a foregone conclusion at this point.
Restaurant Tech ‘Round the Web
Pacific Northwest chain Duke’s Seafood has installed a pathogen-filtering system in all of its restaurants “to kill COVID-19 particles.” The filtration process uses needlepoint bipolar ionization (NPBI) to reduce airborne pathogens, and is the same system installed in the White House, the Mayo Clinic, and some airports.
Hospitality platform BentoBox this week launched its own take on the contactless dining experience, according to a press release sent to The Spoon. The company’s Dine-In Ordering product features customized QR codes and digital menus, as well as complimentary tabletop signs with a restaurant’s branding.
Adobe Spark this week released a guide that, according to a press release, “covers everything small business owners and marketers need in order to implement QR and other touchless efficiencies right now.” Restaurants that sign up for a free Spark trial can access templates for in-store signage, mobile menus, and other graphical elements needed to communicate social distancing and contactless ordering.