5 ways technology is on the menu at quick-serve restaurants

From delivery to operations, artificial intelligence to sustainability, restaurants focus on tech to find success
Geoff Williams
NRF Contributor
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There was a time when all the technology you needed for a successful food business was a non-stick skillet. That time has long passed, of course — increasingly, food businesses are technology businesses.

Sure, the menu is still important. Always has been, always will be. If you own a restaurant, none of your customers will leave, raving about your app’s point-of-sale technology. But without the latest and greatest in technology, you might someday not have any customers around to rave about your food.

So, what types of tech are restaurants ordering up these days? The menu is becoming increasingly crowded. There’s virtually no area of the QSR space that isn’t affected by technology.

Food delivery

Domino’s Pizza has been showcasing its “pinpoint delivery” service, where the app lets customers order pizza to be delivered wherever they might be — in the middle of a park, a beach or even a campsite. It’s impressive, but the pizza delivery wars are going to look even more dramatic and different in the years to come.

Marco’s Pizza, which has over 1,100 stores in 33 states, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, recently partnered with Magna, a global mobility technology company, to address last-mile deliveries. The two companies are testing an electric, autonomous on-road last-mile delivery vehicle; an electric, autonomous sidewalk delivery solution; and a low-speed, electric two-wheel delivery bike.

Electric, autonomous on-road last-mile delivery vehicles already exist. Grubhub has a partnership with Cartken, a technology startup that offers self-driving robots; for anyone living at The Ohio State University in Columbus, it’s not uncommon to see one of 40 robots zipping along roads and sidewalks, delivering food from five restaurants and markets around the campus.

But the technology isn’t exactly widespread. If Marco’s Pizza has its way, far more people will see small robot vehicles delivering food.

“The service industry has been dealing with delivery challenges for some time now,” says Rick Stanbridge, executive vice president and chief information officer of Marco’s Pizza. “Many franchisees have experienced more challenges managing their delivery business over the last year, and we want to provide them with purpose-built, dedicated and environmentally friendly solutions that are cost-effective.”

Dave Niemiec, director of corporate external communications at Magna, says the company isn’t disclosing the cost of the delivery platforms but describes the financial outlay for Marco’s franchisees as “relatively low-cost.” Niemiec says, “Customers should not expect to see an increase in delivery costs from what they’re currently used to.”

In fact, he suggests that customers might pay less for their pizza: As he points out, you don’t need to tip a delivery robot.

AI in everything

Artificial intelligence is making inroads in just about every element of the food business. R.J. Hottovy, head of analytical research at location intelligence and consumer foot traffic analytics firm Placer.ai, says his company is helping several QSR chains utilize AI for site selection, marketing strategies and competitive benchmarking questions.

Other AI firms, Hottovy says, are helping restaurants with inventory, pricing and menu decisions as well.

“Voice-text ordering is one of the hottest areas of investment right now, at the drive-thru, in-store and through mobile devices,” Hottovy says.

Artificial Intelligence

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In other words, it could become a regular thing for a customer to pull up to the drive-thru and give their order to an AI program.

“Labor shortages are still one of the most pressing problems in the QSR industry, so it makes sense to automate some of the more repetitive tasks in the restaurant,” Hottovy says. Still, he adds that while voice ordering may help a restaurant run faster — by making more people available to prepare food rather than take orders — it’s going to be awhile before anyone can set up an AI program and let it work uninterrupted.

Automated operations

“We are starting to see fast casual chains like Sweetgreen and Chipotle explore and test conveyor belt makeline format stores,” Hottovy says, referring to restaurants where customers walk past ingredients and choose how they want a bowl, burrito, sandwich, etc., to be made. “In the case of Sweetgreen,” he says, “the early results have been promising.”

Indeed: In May, Sweetgreen opened a fully automated restaurant in Naperville, Ill., dubbed its “Infinite Kitchen” that has received positive media coverage.

With any luck, Jared Cohen will be reading similar stories in the near future about Protein Bar & Kitchen. Cohen has been with Protein Bar & Kitchen since 2017 and serves as the COO for the company headquartered in Chicago. It has 12 locations but is just starting to franchise.

Cohen says Protein Bar & Kitchen has been exploring partnerships with startups, looking into automating some of the meal-making, particularly with bowl assembly.

“We’ve engaged with a number of emerging companies in these spaces and are lining up pilots where we think it can really improve our business,” Cohen says.

Eco-friendly kitchen tech

Sustainability-minded decisions are a given, in this climate of climate change, but arguably can’t happen fast enough.

Restaurants are finding ways to ease their carbon footprint with technology in the kitchen: A lot of machinery like ovens, fryers and griddles have hoods, a venting system designed to capture grease, smoke and other vapors. But that sort of equipment takes up a lot of room, it’s expensive and some critics suggest that they don’t really work all that well to remove indoor pollution, especially when working with gas stoves.

Bango Bowls, with seven locations and poised to begin franchising, has a hoodless kitchen. CEO and co-founder Ryan Thorman says the company uses hoodless technology that removes the indoor pollution, but because the kitchens can be so much smaller, it saves energy. It’s also far cheaper.

“A kitchen venting system can cost up to $100,000. The oven we chose is in the $15,000 to $20,000 range,” Thorman says.

Everything is going digital

It goes without saying: Digital menus have become a huge deal, because of the cost savings.

“We used to spend thousands of dollars per store per year just printing updated menu boards,” Cohen says. “Rolling out new culinary innovations seasonally, we would need to replace the menu panels to keep up with our new bowls, salads and shakes. It was a big expense for the restaurants, plus we would run into issues with them getting damaged or lost in shipping.”

But now that all the menus are digital, “we’ve taken that cost out of the business entirely,” Cohen says. “And it allows us to instantly update the menus should we need to.”

Retail Technology

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Granted, digital menus aren’t exactly free. Cohen says the company’s investment was considerable, but Protein Bar & Kitchen made back its costs in printing savings and sales growth.

Of course, none of this technology — whether software programs or kitchen automation or robot delivery vehicles — could really be called cheap. Stanbridge says Marco’s Pizza’s technology investments over the next few years will be in the “millions,” including projects looking at voice-to-text ordering and utilizing AI, all in an effort to try and improve the customer and franchisee experience.

“Technology for technology’s sake is over,” Stanbridge says. “To keep up with the rapidly changing world, restaurants must invest in relevant technologies to grow business.” 

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