The world is changing, with technological breakthroughs being made all the time. Many different industries and fields are evolving as businesses find ways to put the latest tech to use, and restaurants are no exception. During the recent 2022 Franchise Customer Experience Conference, multiple awards went to restaurant brands for their innovations as Franchise Operations & Technology Leadership Award finalists. These included Checkers and Rally’s restaurants, Smoothie King and Inspire Brands.
In many ways, the pandemic accelerated customer adoption of technology as they became savvier and more accepting of apps for ordering, QR codes for menus and more. Now, restaurants are further leveraging the power of technology with multiple approaches. These include innovations to improve the customer experience, like geofencing, ordering kiosks and even artificial intelligence.
The addition of technology tools and programs does come at an added cost for restaurant franchise owners. As such, I’ve observed that franchise brands are increasingly adding technology fees to franchise disclosure documents, as this helps ensure their brands have sufficient capital to continue to invest and that restaurant owners can incorporate new tech into their operations.
Here are some of the latest technologies adapted for the food service industry.
It’s not a human behind that speaker. Artificial intelligence (AI) is taking orders at Checkers and Rally’s, and its initial testing delivered strong results:
• The machine or AI was more efficient than humans for order-taking.
• The guest experienced a consistent customer journey with a pleasant voice 100% of the time.
• Upselling (“Would you like fries?” or “Can I add bacon to that?”) was accomplished 100% of the time.
For employees, they found that the implementation of AI for order-taking led to less strain on the staff and more time to focus on higher-value tasks and interaction with the customer. Checkers and Rally’s is not the only brand—Smoothie King is also implementing nationwide AI order-taking, and more are sure to follow.
Kiosks are another way in which technology can handle your ordering process. Some franchises—particularly quick-service restaurants (QSRs)—have been adding touch-screen ordering kiosks to their locations. Much like online ordering and the software that powers it, this can help ensure order accuracy, as the customer enters their order into the system personally and reviews the order before finalizing it. These kiosks can also suggest new menu items to repeat customers based on previous orders. They can even be programmed to recognize customers with the use of cameras and facial recognition software. Ordering kiosks are proving both effective and increasingly popular as a means of streamlining customer service in QSRs.
Lastly, the customer adoption of online ordering apps means they can place the order themselves and are quite comfortable with the experience. People are also ordering remotely more often. Just as the phone eventually led to the practice of ordering takeout and pickup, the internet has led to the practice of online ordering. Cuboh, an online order aggregator, found that among the growing restaurant technology trends are online ordering and mobile payments.
Ready When You Are
Another technology application restaurants are readily adopting is geofencing. Geofencing is the use of GPS devices and/or radio frequency identification to create virtual boundaries in a geographical area. For restaurants, this can be used to track customers traveling to the restaurant who have downloaded apps for their smart phones. This is being used by restaurants and food delivery services to help coordinate cooking and customer service so food is cooked based on the customer’s location to ensure the correct temperature and quality.
Restaurant staff can track customers who order takeout to schedule cooking times, and customers can also receive digital coupons for restaurants they frequent as they enter a geofenced area around the restaurant. Geofencing is also useful for customers to do tracking of their own. Delivery drivers can be equipped with devices and apps to allow the customer to follow their route and know the status of their order.
One example of a franchise that utilizes geofencing is Panera Bread. The chain uses geofencing around their locations to alert staff to customer arrivals. When a customer uses the Panera Bread app to place an order for pickup, the location filling their order will be pinged when the customer arrives within the geofenced area so the staff can take their order out to the customer’s vehicle.
Making Room In The Kitchen
Some food service franchises are taking advantage of shared kitchens. These are commercial kitchen facilities leased to multiple operators for hourly or daily periods. These facilities enable franchises to operate without having to worry about the costs and responsibilities of owning the building, splitting the real estate costs and expenses with each other. They also allow newer franchises to benefit from the expertise and advice of those more experienced operating from the same building.
Shared kitchens are a very new franchise concept. According to an April 13 report from Tracxn, a global research service, there are 48 shared kitchen franchises worldwide.
Still Service With A Smile
Technology is a differentiator since its application can provide a consistent experience to the customer and remove personal interpretation of brand standards. For most brands, inconsistency is the enemy of great customer service. Technology on its own will never replace the human touch, though in a environment that is still facing labor challenges, the order-taking AI or kiosk never calls out sick or goes on an extended break. It could, however, break down or fail without an internet connection.
While technology is changing the food service industry, there will always be a need for a personal touch. Automation and digitization help franchises compete, but there still needs to be a friendly face to go with the food. It will take the right blend of tech and teamwork to make a recipe for success.
Robin Gagnon, Certified Restaurant Broker®, MBA, CBI, CFE is the co-founder of We Sell Restaurants and industry expert in restaurant sales and valuation. Named by Nation’s Restaurant News as one of the “Most Influential Suppliers and Vendors” to the restaurant industry, her articles and expertise appear nationwide in QSR Magazine, Franchising World, Forbes, Yahoo Finance, and BizBuySell. She is the co-author of Appetite for Acquisition, an award-winning book on buying restaurants.