Restaurant tech investment reached new heights (and dollar amounts) in 2020, but the bulk of that went to software, devices, and other tools meant to power the restaurant front of house. By contrast, in 2021 we will see that balance shift. This time next year, I expect to be writing about the vast amount of investment funneled into making the back of house safer, more efficient, and more automated in many cases.
Investments in 2020 were, understandably, geared towards reopening the dining room in ways that were seemingly safer and less dependent on human-to-human interactions. However, as restaurants closed and reopened, then closed again, interest shifted to ghost kitchens and restaurant formats with little to no front of house in their design. As we’ve said many times over the last couple months, the restaurant industry is not retreating from this focus on to-go orders. Even when dining rooms are once again safe to eat in, ghost kitchens will remain and QSRs will have fewer seats indoors.
That makes now, heading into 2021, the time for optimizing kitchen operations.
Anyone who’s spent time in the restaurant back of house knows it’s in a league of its own when it comes to orchestrated chaos. Un-orchestrated, too, since dozens of variables can change at any moment and affect the speed and quality at which food leaves the kitchen and gets to customers. Missing ingredients. Workers calling in sick last minute. Eggs cooked too early and drying out under the heat lamp. All of these things the food, the customer experience, and a restaurant’s margins, the majority of which are made and lost in the kitchen.
There’s already a handful of restaurant tech solutions available right now that hint at how digitizing and automating the kitchen might help the above scenarios.
San Diego-based Galley Solutions offers an intelligence platform that digitizes processes in the kitchen (inventory and recipe management, purchasing) and uses that data to create a more efficient framework by which kitchens can operate. This centralized data source could bring the many disparate pieces of back-of-house technology together for smoother processes when it comes to meal prep and kitchen management. For example, a centralized data source could populate the digital order forms sent to vendors and at the same time tell the chef how long to leave the burger on the grill.
SousZen, meanwhile, wants a GPS for the kitchen. At Smart Kitchen Summit: Japan, Paul Levins, who helps run the company, explained how the SousZen platform uses machine learning to recognize patterns in the restaurant — how an order is put together, when the kitchen is busy — and can make real-time recommendations for the fastest, most efficient way to do something. It’s not unlike your car’s GPS, which tells you the fastest route from point A to B and can adjust that route in real time in the event of heavy traffic or an accident.
That idea of kitchen systems learning over time and using that information to improve operations is one we will see more of in 2021 — and, likely, one that will command a lot of investment dollars. Statis.ai is another notable example here, with its “full stack AI operating system for the kitchen” that uses live camera feeds and an electric nose to leverage smell and vision in a restaurant kitchen.
Along with a whole lot of AI will come automation. In this context, though, automation doesn’t necessarily mean a robot flipping burgers or a rotating arm mixing salad ingredients (although there will be some of that). A more widespread version of automation will take the form of systems, like those of Galley or SousZen, that can collect data and use it over time to build new behaviors and processes in the kitchen, make real-time recommendations to workers, and even guide the steps when cooking and putting together a meal.
A growing interest in back of house tech is already apparent. Besides the above players, other restaurant tech companies that have historically only catered to the front of house are now releasing tools to improve the kitchen. Among them are Square, xtraChef, and many others. Expect funding in these solutions to follow as we head into the next year.