CHICAGO – Technology advances that can make foodservice safer, more efficient and more customer-focused are on full display at this year’s 100th edition of the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, running through May 21 at Chicago’s McCormick Place.
Compliance with shifting government regulation is a concern for any store in the food business. A system for in-house labeling for fresh made food like sandwiches and salads will be available soon. The merchant inputs the ingredients and a sticky label prints out with the calorie content and other values drawn from a pre-calculated list.
RFID technology is helping not only with frictionless checkout and counting inventory, but it’s now aiding in food safety management. Retailers can monitor prepackaged product expiration dates as well as those freshly made sandwiches and salads.
New refrigerator temperature sensor systems will operate without Wi-Fi so they’ll work during a power outage. And many of these technologies communicate through a smartphone app in the hands of a worker or manager.
One of the manufacturers at the show even featured scanning devices that can identify individual employees through facial recognition software and detect whether that worker washed his or her hands before returning to work after a restroom break.
While these are all part of an integrated system, operators aren’t required to lay out a huge investment. Instead, the systems can be built over time by starting with one or two components and growing as needed.
New technology is also changing the game regarding customer loyalty and data. Rather than businesses hoarding information about their patrons, the philosophy is one of collecting data to provide better service.
THE EVOLUTION OF DATA
Monday’s panel discussion “The Future of Restaurants” covered some truly amazing tech tools that are designed to improve the customer experience through both guest relations as well as running more efficient food preparation.
On the panel was Allison Page, founder and chief product officer of SevenRooms, a restaurant reservation and guest management data platform based in New York City. While c-stores aren’t typically taking reservations, it won’t take much of a leap to adapt some of the technology to the c-store environment.
Page talked about what she called the evolution of data in restaurants. An eatery can customize its service for regular customers by tracking previous purchases. Page demonstrated a pair of “smart” glasses with a display of a frequent diner’s data inside the lens. Aside from that a regular diner’s name, the data can include her annual spend at the establishment, which menu items she purchases most often and even special information such as birthdays or anniversaries.
The caveat with these systems, though, is to ask, “Who owns your data? You or the tech company?” Make sure it’s you.
Robotics and artificial intelligence are changing kitchen operations, performing some of the industry’s more mundane tasks and freeing up workers to do more important things. A robotics company has a unit that can recognize hamburger patties, automatically timing how long each has been on the grill and flipping it at the proper moment.
Another unit can handle a deep fryer, automatically managing fry timing and removal for up to 16 baskets.
But is all of this technology making for more impersonal interactions, less human contact? Page said that’s not the case.
“Technology, the very thing we’re afraid of, actually brings us closer together,” she said. The goal should be to build technology that’s invisible to the guest and delivers a better product.
Merchants, c-stores included, should ask themselves if the technology serves the mission of improving the customer experience, a point underscored by another panel member, Christopher Thomas-Moore, Domino’s vice president of global commerce and marketing, when he said, “Consumer-centric cultures win!”
If a new technology makes for a better customer experience, then it’s on the right track.