Preparing for the future of AI in restaurants

By Mo Chaar

Restaurants across the country are facing a triple-threat of challenges: inflationary costs, labour shortages, and pandemic debt – and many are struggling to stay afloat. According to Restaurants Canada, only half of restaurants are profitable, with one-quarter of its members worried they won’t survive another year. While a portion of the hospitality sector is teetering on the brink of collapse, some businesses have started experimenting with new technologies such as AI to help mitigate these challenges.

RELATED: Restaurateurs embrace technology to stay ahead of looming recession

How AI is shaping the restaurant industry

AI enables machines to perform tasks that would usually require human intelligence, including the ability to automate processes commonly found in restaurants. As it becomes more commonplace, AI has the potential to transform the foodservice industry and shape the future of dining out.

Some quick-service restaurants such as McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. have already implemented AI to automate repetitive tasks such as order-taking at the drive-thru. AI can even be used to support food preparation, with Chipotle piloting its robotic tortilla chip-maker, Chippy. AI and machine learning (ML) technologies can even be trained to optimize employee scheduling based on customer demand and employee availability. Whether the goal is to free up time for workers to focus on guest interactions, ensure high-quality food production, or schedule employees to work at the most productive times, AI is helping restaurants reduce their costs and improve efficiency.

AI is also a powerful tool that can be used to enhance the guest experience. For instance, facial recognition at self-service kiosks can recognize repeat customers, analyze data, and provide personalized recommendations based on their preferences and ordering history. While this type of technology already exists, it’s strengthened by AI, and can further support restaurants by increasing customer satisfaction and ultimately driving sales.

AI has the potential to provide waitstaff with real-time item suggestions. We’ll no doubt see voice-assisted menus where diners can ask questions about certain dishes or ask about specials without even needing to speak to a server or manager. While this technology may seem distant to us now, its implementation is much closer than we can imagine.

AI can go a step further, too. It can also be used to create augmented reality experiences for diners, allowing them to view a 3D image of a dish before they order it – turning an ordinary menu into an engaging and interactive one.

However, before restaurant operators take the leap, there are four steps they should take to prepare for a more AI-driven future.

Assess your current technology infrastructure

Restaurants operate on razor-thin margins, and keeping a lean and efficient operation is key to profitability – now more than ever before. That’s why evaluating your existing technology infrastructure is key to identifying gaps and areas for improvement. Investing in flexible technologies that integrate with your POS system can help automate and streamline repetitive tasks. This not only bolsters efficiency and reduces errors, but it can provide insightful data to help inform strategic business decisions. With the right infrastructure in place, you can focus on what you do best: providing excellent food and customer service.

There are a variety of AI-powered technologies available, from chatbots handling customer orders to recommendation engines that help with menu planning and inventory management systems that prevent waste. It’s important to choose the right technology for your specific goals. Consider factors like ease of use, compatibility with your existing systems, cost, and benefits to help make an informed decision about which AI solutions to integrate into your restaurant’s operations.

Invest in employee training

As restaurants increasingly adopt more AI and automation technologies, it’s important to recognize that this will likely change the day-to-day roles and responsibilities of your staff members. Without appropriate training, your employees may become frustrated and confused by the new systems. Investing in employee training for the new AI technologies will ensure that your staff is equipped with the necessary technical skills to operate and maintain these systems with confidence, and without negatively affecting their morale.

By gradually implementing AI in small and manageable stages, you can test and evaluate the impact of these systems on your restaurant’s overall operations and determine areas where improvements can be made, while also ensuring your staff are fully trained.

Collect and analyze data

Once you’ve decided which type of AI to implement and have trained your staff on how to use it, it’s necessary to track and measure its performance. Use your POS system to measure how AI is impacting your operations, comparing KPIs such as labour cost ratio and food cost percentages to determine ​​improvements in efficiency or profitability.

Restaurants should also collect and analyze data on customer preferences, ordering history, and sales trends to make data-driven decisions. One of the significant advantages of utilizing AI is that it can process vast amounts of data and quickly identify patterns, which can provide valuable insight into customer habits, behaviors, and market trends. These insights can then be used to adjust and optimize the technology, to provide maximum value.

Ensure data privacy and security

In today’s digitized world, restaurants are collecting and storing more customer data than ever before. This places a burden of responsibility on restaurant operators to ensure the data is secure and protected from potential breaches and cyber hacks, which are becoming increasingly common.

To do so, this requires robust security measures such as end-to-end data encryption, usage of security firewalls, and regularly updated POS systems with anti-malware software installed. Compliance with data privacy regulations is a must to prevent costly legal consequences. By taking these proactive steps, you’ll build customer trust and loyalty while safeguarding your business.

The possibilities are limitless

We’re in a time of rapid digital transformation, and the full potential of AI remains to be seen. To stay ahead of the curve, it’s crucial to keep up with the latest developments and trends in AI and automation. While AI won’t solve all of the restaurant industry’s problems, it can ease some of the challenges restaurateurs face in a post-pandemic world. For restaurant operators, turning these obstacles into opportunities could be the difference between just barely scraping by and thriving – and it’s truly exciting to see where this technology will take the industry over the next year.

Mo Chaar is the Chief Commercial Officer of Givex, where he oversees commercial strategy and development worldwide, including the development of GivexPay, as well as managing sales teams within North America.