By Megan Prevost
Recent years have seen a real insurgence of automated technology throughout the restaurant industry. In both quick-service and full-service restaurants, business owners have replaced cashiers with tablet-like ordering devices. In 2022, restaurant automation is all around us.
While McDonald’s and Panera Bread are two quick-service establishments known for these devices, more and more businesses are following suit and incorporating this kind of technology. Similar to the large-scale chains before them, small businesses are discovering how automation can help streamline the point of sale and save on labour costs in the midst of a staff shortage.
Automated tech’s takeover
Restaurants like Panera Bread and McDonald’s were among the first to favour the use of cashier-replacing ordering systems while full-service restaurants like the Olive Garden, Red Robin, and Chili’s opted for tabletop tablets that assisted servers by allowing customers to order specific types of food.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, automated technology has become more in demand, as both customers and employees preferred contactless methods. Not only did contactless methods allow for safer interaction, but customers could access menus and even place an order without having to speak to anyone at all. For some, this represented a huge perk in our increasingly digital world.
Most of these technologies were born out of necessity. It just wasn’t practical for customers to handle menus and come into close contact with servers with a pandemic raging on around them. On top of that, with more and more people calling out of work and the labour shortage causing additional problems, these technologies helped to keep business moving along.
Types of automated tech used in restaurants
When it comes to restaurant automation, there’s a huge margin for restaurants, from robots that cook pizza to a simple QR code that allows customers to easily access your menu without having to interact with customers. One type of technology, obviously, might not be right for every type of restaurant. However, all types of restaurants can likely benefit from one type of automation or another.
QR codes and contactless menus
Likely the most widespread automation technology, QR codes allow customers to access menus, landing pages, and more from their phones with a quick scan of a square barcode. These codes can be placed on menus, countertops, and table tents to allow easy access for customers. Not only do they prevent the increased spread of germs, but they allow customers to access the menu without having to wait for a server or employee to guide them.
QR codes can also streamline contactless payment. By scanning a QR code on a tabletop or receipt, customers can use alternative forms of payment to quickly pay for their food, again, without having to interact with a server or cashier.
Ordering hubs are great for both quick service and full-service restaurants, although the technology slightly differs for both.
At quick-service restaurants, these hubs allow customers to place and pay for their orders without having to interact with an employee until they receive their food. At full-service restaurants, these hubs function as more of an assistant to the server. The server still plays a vital role in facilitating the dining experience, but the tabletop tablets can be used to order appetizers, desserts, and second (or third, fourth, etc) alcoholic beverages. By allowing customers to place these orders without the help of a server, customers won’t have to flag down a busy employee when they need attention.
Some family restaurant chains even add various entertainment options to their at-table ordering hubs. These give parents an option to plug their kids in if they want a peaceful meal out. Games can be available for free or offered for a couple of dollars if you’re trying to make a few extra bucks on the margins of your dining experience.
Beverage & condiment dispensers
Employees at quick-service restaurants spend a lot of time doling out drinks and condiments, especially in the drive-thru. Automatic devices read orders and fill cups on their own, allowing employees to focus on other tasks, like cooking food and packing orders once they’re complete. These types of robots are great for increasing efficiency and speeding drive-thru lines.
Smart ovens can adapt to whatever food is placed inside of them, setting the time and temperature based on weight. Some smart ovens even use QR codes – you can scan the code on a food item with the oven and the oven will automatically cook to the specifications that the food requires. These types of ovens are great for quick-service restaurants that rely on heating up their food.
Cooking & serving robots
We may think that robots are a thing of the future, but they’re closer than we think! Some restaurants have begun using robots as a way to streamline specific tasks, for example washing dishes or even delivering food! These robots are programmed similarly to a Roomba (a robot vacuum). They allow the owner to map out the restaurant floor, complete with table numbers. Then, the robot can be loaded up with food and delivered to the correct table. While this is just one use of robots in the restaurant industry, there’s much more to come.
Could QSRs be fully automated in the future?
While full-service restaurants will rely on servers to facilitate the dining experience for a long time, quick-service restaurants show more potential for a fully automated experience. In fact, there are a few fully automated restaurants around the world already, like Spyce, a restaurant created by MIT students that allow customers to input their orders at a kiosk and features a kitchen full of robots that cook the food in less than three minutes.
While it’s unlikely that this technology will take over quick-service restaurants in the immediate future, it is a possibility in the distant future. Maybe eventually all restaurants will feature robotic kitchens and a contactless experience. Only time will tell.
How do customers feel?
As with so much in foodservice and hospitality, restaurant automation will live or die by the customer. While some customers may prefer to go into a restaurant and avoid contact with employees, large segments of the population will always prefer human-facing customer service. Automation throws up key questions, too. What if things go wrong with your order or you need specific help? How easily can a robot perform customer service? Is there a human being on standby to help with these problems? For that latter one, the answer should be yes.
However, while not all customers would prefer a fully automated experience, most customers don’t seem to have a problem with small automated adjustments like ordering from a kiosk or using a QR code, especially when there are alternatives available.
Making the move towards automation
If you’re thinking about making the move to automation for your restaurant, it’s important to start small so as to not shock your customers. If you’re already using QR codes, try adding tabletop ordering devices or a self-service kiosk alongside alternative options.
Ultimately, allowing customers to make their choice between automated service and human interaction is the sweet spot where restaurant automation really thrives. It’s there for people who like it, but there’s always an alternative for those who don’t.
Megan Prevost is a contributing writer for RestoBiz and a marketing content writer for MustHaveMenus. Her work has also appeared in App Institute, Bar Business, Modern Restaurant Management, Small Business Currents, PMQ, FSR, The Daily Fandom, and FanSided.