Let’s face it, menus are pretty boring. Go into almost any restaurant — fast food, fast casual or that fancy place you take mom once a year — and what you get is a set of food choices that don’t differ from one customer to the next.
And ok, we’ve seen incremental improvements over the past few years through interface technologies such electronic order kiosks and voice ordering, but the reality is a menu today is pretty much the same for us as it was for our parents and grandparents: a one-sized-fits-all list of food choices.
But here’s the good news: judging by recent moves by big restaurants like McDonald’s, that may soon change. Just this week the fast food goliath announced they were buying menu personalization startup Dynamic Yield for $300 million to make their drive thru and in-store menus more technologically dynamic. Chris has the story here.
Here’s an excerpt from the company press release describing what they plan to do with the new technology:
McDonald’s will utilize this decision technology to provide an even more personalized customer experience by varying outdoor digital Drive Thru menu displays to show food based on time of day, weather, current restaurant traffic and trending menu items. The decision technology can also instantly suggest and display additional items to a customer’s order based on their current selections.
Sounds great, right? After all, who wouldn’t want contextualized menu choices based on external environmental factors? Plus, trending items will mean more optimized options than the usual.
But here’s the thing: if that’s the extent of the personalization that a $300 million deal buys you, I’ll be pretty disappointed.
There’s Personalized and Then There’s Personalized
No matter what industry you follow, at this point you probably know personalization is hot. Whether it’s entertainment, nutrition, food or what-have-you, there’s probably more than a dozen startups who want to deliver something highly tailored to you, the end user.
The problem with most of these offerings today is that in most cases, personalized doesn’t really mean personalized, but instead it just means something slightly different based on a set of localized and current environmental factors.
What if instead we were to get truly personalized results tailored specifically for us? What if instead of a menu based on whether it’s hot or cold we got a menu based on what type of food we – you, me, us – like and eat on hot days or cold days?
In short, what if we were to see truly personalized food choices based on specific food profile?
This level of personalization is something we’ve been thinking about at The Spoon for a while. We talked about this exact topic at the Smart Kitchen Summit 2017. Alpha Labs’ Mike Lee had this to say about the idea:
“I’ve always believed there needs to be this interoperable data standard that encapsulates what your food preferences are,” said Lee. “Something that can be used from this app to this app to this grocery store. Much in the same way you have single sign-on with Facebook, I can log in somewhere, and it can show me content that’s sculpted to what I have.”
Think about it: instead of getting just an updated list of food based on what’s trending that day or if it’s hot or cold outside, you would get a menu that was created specifically based on your taste profile, biomarkers, allergies and more. This menu would be an entirely new thing to the world, something made for you and your unique characteristics.
Sounds intriguing. It also sounds like the future. But is it a future that is near or far? A lot of it depends on how companies like McDonald’s, with Dynamic Yield in the fold, move in that direction.
There are definitely barriers. In a world rampant with data breaches and consumers increasingly worried about their privacy, the idea of more places having information about you and your specific preferences, biomarkers and more can be petrifying (not to mention perilous from both a political and business standpoint).
Still, I think it’s worth pursuing and I’m not the only one. Jim Collins, the CEO of Kitchen United, said menu personalization is one of the biggest opportunities going forward in restaurant. To him, today’s menus are like search engines of the early 2000s: kinda dumb.
“If you’re gluten-free, why do you see menu where 80 percent of the items have gluten?” he asked last fall on our panel about restaurant tech. “Why don’t you see one that only shows the 20 percent that’s not? That’s what I’m looking for.”
I agree and I’m pretty sure McDonald’s (and others) does too: true menu personalization is the holy grail. So while in the near term this deal likely means trending items and McFlurry recommendations when it’s hot out, in the long term I think we’ll see menus created instantly – based on your own McDonald’s or perhaps a more universal profile – for you.