Tech talk: the future of restaurants

By Jessica Brill

How is today’s technology helping to shape and improve the foodservice industry? As inflation and labour shortages continue to challenge businesses, innovation can play an important role in helping to alleviate some of the stresses that come with managing those persistent challenges.

We consulted five industry experts from various leading foodservice sectors, asking for their insight on innovation, a heightened customer experience, and what we can expect to see industry-wide as technology continues to raise the bar on operations and service.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the biggest shift in 2022, in your eyes?

Matt Davis, OpenTable: We saw sustained and persistent levels of demand to dine out at restaurants rise, with a 45 per cent increase in seated diners booking online in 2022 compared to 2019. While Canadians displayed incredible enthusiasm by dining out and supporting local restaurants in droves, dining out became somewhat less spontaneous in 2022, with a 9 per cent decrease in walk-ins over 2019.

Heather Wilkie, Compass Group Canada: Across all industries, we saw a rise in self-serve and frictionless technologies to provide new opportunities for seamless experiences for our customers. We were also encouraged to respond to new regulations regarding single-use plastics before laws were passed in different provinces across Canada, driving innovation to more environmentally friendly products. With this comes the challenge of managing supply chain disruption, which is largely behind the scenes.

Mo Chaar, Givex: The most significant shift in 2022 was the increasing reliance on automation for food preparation and delivery. We’re now seeing more restaurants using robots to prepare and cook food, while others are using drones and self-driving vehicles to deliver orders to customers.

Food delivery apps are also on the rise, making it quick and simple for customers to order food from a wide range of restaurants. Many apps offer real-time delivery tracking and other features to enhance the overall customer experience. This shift has also provided new opportunities for restaurants to expand their reach and accessibility to a broader audience.

How does technology continue to transform foodservice?

Wilkie: Technological innovation is impacting our industry in four main ways: sustainability, customer experience, data, and labour. Food waste solutions, vertical farms, eco-labeling, local sourcing platforms, and environmentally friendly products are just a few of the effects of technology on sustainability. On the customer side, technology offers a new level of personalization, from AI solutions to IoT, advanced analytics, and more.

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Access to data is also helping improve guest experience, providing insight into customer preferences. From an operations standpoint, data sheds light on cost efficiencies in back-of-house, broadly speaking, allowing restaurants to tighten up their processes. On the labour end, robotics has provided an opportunity to address staffing challenges by taking over some of the positions that companies may be having a hard time filling. Robotics is one way we can give some time back to our staff to do what they do best: connecting with their guests.

Chaar: On the consumer side, the rising adoption of mobile and online ordering systems allows customers to effortlessly place food orders using their smartphones, tablets, or computers and that’s one of the most notable impacts of technological innovation, catering to the growing demand for convenience and real-time access to food options. Along with simplifying the ordering process, these advancements play a crucial role in reshaping the foodservice landscape, steering it towards a more efficient and customer-centric experience.

Nipun Sharma, SJW Robotics: Technological innovation continues to impact foodservice at every stage from farm to fork, becoming more affordable for all stakeholders. Agritech for environmental sustainability and biodiversity is helping to meet the ever-increasing demand of 8 billion people, along with impacting packaging (sustainability) and supply chain (food traceability) for optimal movement of food in our ecosystem. On the fork side, the retail consumption point will see robotics tackling the acute worldwide labour crisis, lowering energy consumption, and increasing restaurant profitability.

Davis: Historically, the restaurant industry has been reluctant to embrace technology, likely to preserve and protect in-person hospitality. Increasingly, though, there has been a collective realization that technology doesn’t have to disrupt the in-person experience. Rather, it can enhance traditional hospitality.

Innovations like automated guest tags, which allow restaurants to easily recognize regulars for the highest level of personalized hospitality, and the access rules feature, letting restaurants reward loyal diners with perks like exclusive access to the best tables on special occasions, are valuable additions.

AI will further transform the industry, connecting restaurants with even more diners. As we partner with companies like ChatGPT, we will soon be answering questions like “What’s the best restaurant for date night?” by exclusively recommending our network of restaurants. Tools like these bring a more fun and conversational way for Canadians to discover new restaurants.

David Hopkins, The Fifteen Group: Technological innovations are simplifying restaurants’ ability to build a digital presence and share photos, videos, and their story online, improving and extending that guest connection beyond their visits. For guest engagement and transparency, some restaurants are using tools like digital ticker boards with fluctuating menu prices based on supply and demand, or digital platforms that make it easy for guests to give feedback on their experience while they’re still at the restaurant.

Back-of-house is also seeing the benefit of technology, automating, and streamlining many tasks with kitchen display systems, inventory management, and cost control platforms saving operators significant time and money.

We’ve seen so much innovation, from robot chefs and servers to autonomous kitchen robotic systems. How will those continue to develop and what’s the next big thing?

Sharma: Many startups have only automated one process among many in a complicated kitchen operation. 2023 will be the breakout year as we will see fully autonomous kitchens producing gourmet made-to-order cuisine with no onsite employees. This next-generation QSR kitchen will truly move the needle on labour and operations costs, allowing restaurant delivery to finally become profitable!

What are you already seeing or expecting to see in technology for 2023?

 Wilkie: In 2023, we are predicting an influx of innovative solutions to market, including more sustainable products, services, and practices in the foodservice industry. We are working on offering autonomous hot and healthy meal options from our partnerships to incorporate technology to broaden offerings and provide case studies for future learning and advancement.

Davis: This year, we are hyper-focused on restaurant-first innovation. Our research shows that restaurant dining is up three per cent year-over-year as of March 2023, with major cities seeing even larger gains. We are also observing shifts in consumers’ weekday dining habits, coinciding with the rise of hybrid work and widespread return to the office, including an increase in popularity in weekday lunchtime dining and happy hour dining over last year.

Sharma: We will see the rollout of cell-based meat using animal cell culture technology this year, and as long as this delivers on flavour and acceptable price points, it will be the future of meat! AI and robotics will see rapid adoption in foodservice at every point in the farm-to-fork ecosystem, allowing for massive cost savings in operations, smart inventory management systems, and hyper-customized brand engagement with customers.

Chaar: Looking to the future, AI will be used to personalize or enhance menus and recommend food options based on a customer’s dietary preferences and ordering history. AI also has the potential to provide waitstaff with real-time item suggestions, enhancing the overall dining experience for patrons. This tech can also be used to optimize operations and reduce costs for restaurant owners. We may also see an increased use of virtual reality to enhance both the ordering and dining experience, also improving food presentation.

The last few years have seen widespread technological integration in the front of the house, what’s next in the payments realm?

Chaar: We expect to see further advancements with continued growth in the digital payments space. We’ll see more customers using tech like mobile payment systems such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet. Additionally, there may be a rise in SoftPOS systems that utilize near-field communication (NFC) technology to enable mobile payments, reducing terminal costs and increasing restaurant efficiencies.

Technology now plays such a big role in a restaurant’s brand and customer interaction. How will digital solutions continue to improve the experience for operators and customers?

Wilkie: Digital solutions will continue making it easier for operators to meet and exceed guest expectations efficiently and effectively, enabling them to create more customer value through offerings that are uniquely targeted. Digital solutions need to offer intuitive, personal, and environmentally conscious experiences that make guests excited to return to the same place time and time again.

With indoor dining back in full force, what should restaurants be prioritizing with their reservation systems to stay competitive going forward? 

Davis: Staying competitive means that restaurants need to partner with the right technology platform to help their business adapt in a rapidly changing industry. Does your restaurant need to streamline operations? Reach new customers or improve your in-person hospitality? Do you need additional marketing support? Restaurants need to choose a platform to address those needs, with digital tools helping to solve some of their biggest problems, run a smoother front of house, and help increase revenue by attracting new and returning diners. For example, Availability Alerts notify diners when last-minute bookings are canceled and help restaurants fill seats, rather than losing revenue.

The digital world is increasingly becoming a major aspect of restaurant dining, and restaurants that embrace technology as an extension of their teams can gain a competitive edge.

This article was originally included in the Spring/Summer issue of CRFN Magazine. For the full issue, please visit this link.