Funny thing, as soon as people start talking about the future, they seem to gravitate towards a vision of it being run by robots. It’s almost like we are willing it to happen. When we think about technology and restaurants, we seem to crave a dramatic difference to what we have today. Thankfully, for the foreseeable future, this is not going to be a reality for most of us. But what should the place of technology actually be in a restaurant experienceYou cannot deny the ferocious pace of change in the world of technology; every day there seems to be a new way of doing things or an upgrade to systems you have only just got to grips with. This can lead to one of two responses:
  • People scramble to incorporate as many advances as possible into their restaurant business so they don’t get left behind.
  • People stick their heads in the sand and try to pretend it won’t impact their success. 

Both of these approaches are a mistake, of course. The only true way to think about technology is to weigh up what will genuinely enhance either the customer or staff experience.

Acceleration and Convenience

Jim Collins articulated this well in his book “Good to Great”, where he describes how great companies understand that technology should be used as an accelerator of what you do. It is like pouring fuel on the fire, once your purpose and direction have been set. Therefore, it is clear that the place of technology in a startup burger shack is going to be very different to a cutting edge food-as-entertainment concept.

Hema_restaurant

For this reason, it is only going to be a few niche brands for which the visible ‘robot’ future is relevant right now. Examples like the Hema supermarket in Shanghai (with its small pod robots, apps and QR codes), EKIM’s robot pizzeria concept in France or Café X’s robot barista in San Francisco are interesting for their novelty, but perhaps more insightful is how they also highlight a key brand quality you need to have if you want to major on this type of technology – convenience.

If your brand has convenience and speed of service as a core part of it’s DNA then there is a clear fit here. Naturally, fast food brands are going to move towards ever more automated systems. Ray Kroc led the way with the systemised nature of a McDonald’s operation. Robotic automation is the natural end game for much of fast food as it is predominantly about speed and consistency.

spyce

Another interesting concept along the same lines, is called Spyce and is based in Boston. It was developed by MIT graduates and features a kitchen of robots that can cook surprisingly complex dishes. As labour costs are therefore much lower, dishes start at just $7.50. If they succeed in creating genuinely good food that people crave (that happens to be produced by robots) then this will be very interesting indeed. It’s a possible glimpse of something we might see more of. 

Joy – The Real Marker of Excellence

But not all restaurant concepts major so heavily on convenience. There is a second key aspect to a restaurant experience – and that is joy. This for me is the core marker of excellence in hospitality – how enjoyable was it? We will always enjoy being looked after and served great food and drink – it is an uplifting experience. One that we like to share with friends – real human beings sitting next to us or by sharing on social media. 

And here is where I struggle with the robot vision of the future that some people have. Robots are really tools of convenience, therefore they have no place at the front and centre of the experience except as a novelty factor. Once the novelty of the new fades, are you really left with an experience of hospitality that is worth returning for?

 

interactive-panasian-eight-dish-15112856

 

There are some examples of brands where the convenience and joy aspects are being supported by a strong use of technology. Inamo provide an interesting case as they have been successful in developing a loyal local community (in 2018 their Camden branch was voted best local restaurant and outside bar by Time Out).

 

Their integrated technology for self-ordering certainly means they can serve people quickly without customers feeling rushed (under an hour from sitting down to paying the bill if the experience shown on Channel 4’s Tricks of the Trade is typical) but they also create an experience which is more interactive and immersive. I’ll be very interested to see what direction this concept evolves into as new technology develops that can alter the dining experience further.

So based on this I would advise any brand assessing how technology should be harnessed to ask itself 3 questions:

  1. How does this advance the core purpose of my brand?
  2. Does it make the experience for my staff or customers more convenient?
  3. Does it bring more joy to the experience for my staff or customers?

Improved Staff Experience

I mention staff experience here because there is a huge case to be made for internal facing technology that makes their jobs easier to perform. These days, there are so many ways that technology can support the running of a restaurant e.g.internal management systems like Trail, online booking systems, even tailored music services like Ambie, so nobody has to choose what music to play. All of these help to systemise the routine elements so your staff can engage in the higher value activities like actually looking after customers or mentoring other members of staff. In this context, technology should be aiming to remove friction and keep things running smoothly.

A Digital Experience

One final aspect of technology that I have not touched on yet, is the ever-increasing role that digital plays in the experience. From a customer’s perspective, we simply expect to have a higher level of digital interaction with our restaurants than we used to. For most brands starting up now, your default position is to have a strong digital thread connecting what you do and how you communicate with customers. From online reviews and booking, Deliveroo, loyalty apps, social media presence – this is an entire customer journey in itself and needs to be treated as such. There will always be a place for outliers – the neighbourhood restaurant that shuns social media but has a fantastic local reputation, for example. But the baseline for most restaurants has changed forever on this front and it is not going back.

Even on this point about digital experience though, I would come back to the first point I made about technology; you must review it in the context of what your brand’s purpose is. What is the point of your restaurant? What makes you worthy of someone visiting regularly and how can technology support this mission? Is Instagram actually a good place to talk to your demographic of customers?

For me, food and restaurants will always retain their romantic ability to create memories. I remember being so excited about a tandoori monkfish I ate at Benares that I needed to tell someone (everyone) about it. I remember the perfect cheeseburger I had at a long lost pub somewhere in Devon before gastropubs were even a thing. I remember stumbling up to a fast food van on a central reservation in Milan only to discover that they were using a wood-fired oven to roast meat and create amazing steak sandwiches. I remember the paella I ate in Valencia with my fiancé the night after we got engaged. These joys will not be replaced by robots, but maybe, just maybe, we will find ways for them to be enhanced by a technology of some kind.

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