As the industry continues on the road to recovery following lockdowns and shortages on all fronts, equipment and technology investments will continue to focus on efficiency, consistency, and automation.
The staffing shortfall will continue to loom large in all facets of operations, from back to front of house, pushing restaurateurs to consider options such as smart, multi-function appliances, software for fine-tuning costs and margins, Bluetooth connectivity and mobile innovation.
Robotics is taking on an expanded role in filling the gaps and attracting customers, for everything from mundane operational functions to end-to-end food preparation.
Filling the Gaps
The foodservice industry in every city and every country is feeling the same pressure around staffing shortages,” says Nipun Sharma, CEO and co-founder, SJW Robotics Inc. in Toronto.
“Operators are now looking at different kinds of robotics rolling across the world. There are the easy ones, like pizza robots, hot water dispensing ramen machines, and robot arm coffee and smoothie machines. A lot is cute and interesting, but not really moving the needle. You need high-speed, high-volume multi-tasking.”
Much of the inspiration comes out of the food-processing industry he says. “Machine learning and artificial intelligence are allowing the industry to crank out hundreds of meals a day, do predictive maintenance and service, and manage inventory.”
And operators in Canada are taking notice. Compass Group Canada is piloting SJW’s RoWok autonomous robotic restaurant system that can prepare six made-to-order stir fry meals at a time from start to finish. “All they have to do is fill the machine when it tells the to and leave the automation to us,” says Sharma.
“Restaurants have had to reduce hours or shut down for a day because they don’t have the staff to open,” says Greg Staley, general manager, E-Pro Bot in Montreal. Robots can help reduce staff requirements by delivering food to tables or returning dishes to kitchens.
“One client reported that he was able to run at the same efficiency with five staff when he used to have seven,” says Staley. “Staff members on the floor can also pay more attention to customers. When staff is more attentive, turning tables is faster.”
There is also the free social-media exposure to consider. “If 15 people with 100 followers post on social media, that adds up to 1,500 geolocated videos per day at no cost. It’s a built-in marketing tool,” says Staley.
Connected Goes Mainstream
But automation is not just about robots. Restaurant operations are increasingly turning to smart technology that can intelligently program cooking and cooling functions; measure temperature and air flow in refrigeration, oven, ventilation and dishwashing systems; connect with the cloud and mobile devices; and alert operators when something requires attention.
“Automation is high on the list of demands,” says Michael Bryanton, certified research chef, Canada’s Smartest Kitchen, Charlottetown, P.E.I. “Part of automation is the need for smart equipment that is self-monitoring and sends alerts over Wi-Fi if something is not working or due for maintenance. In some larger restaurants and chains, data logging is embedded in the line equipment to improve safety.”
Operators can now plug everything to the back office where functions and performance can be monitored at the corporate level for quality control.
Garth Ruggiero, corporate director of Purchasing, Atilific Hotels, Montreal, is on a mission to bring its kitchens up to speed with smart appliances. The starting point has been the Alto-Shaam Vector multi-cook unit that replaces fryers, grillers, and ovens at the Cambridge Suites property in Sydney, N.S.
“The simple fact is the talent pool is not all that deep these days. Smart pieces are the way for operations to maximize output.”
All refrigerator and coolers are also hooked up to temperature sensors and alerts on phones. “Anything and everything that can be flipped to an automated state with alerts or apps to control is worth exploring, says Ruggiero. “Today, a phone, laptop or desktop computer can run just about anything.”
Software Steps Up
Digitization has led to a lot of innovation on the software side when it comes to functions that go into running a restaurant. “Solutions have tended to be focused on inventory and financial software, reporting and invoicing, but there has been nothing for digitizating the operation of a kitchen,” says Joshua Sharkey, chef/consultant and CEO of meez in New York.
The meez recipe tool for chefs automatically calculates recipe costs, allergens and nutrition for recipes of any size and ingredients, including substitutions. No matter what unit a recipe is using, the software understands the cost of the dish, tracks the exact weight and nutritional value, and calculates loss from dicing, slicing, chopping, or juicing, and makes adjustments in real time.
The timing is ideal as operators are increasingly turning their thoughts to improving shrinking margins and reducing back-end costs. “If you need 371 portions of salsa verde today, no recipe will give you that. But you can make the precise amount needed and eliminate waste and errors,” says Sharkey.
Another tool capturing growing interest is translation software, says Dana McCauley, Chief Experience Officer, at the Canadian Food Innovation Network (CFIN) in Guelph, Ont. “There are a lot of newcomers from countries we have not seen in the past. Language is becoming an issue in kitchens. We’re seeing more people investing in technology that can help them communicate with new hires, present webinars, and distribute recipes.”
Loyalty programs have come a long way from punch-card programs. As more integration features take shape, loyalty programs are becoming increasingly powerful tools in providing the analytics needed to attract and retain customers.
With the recession and inflation, and the rise in contactless ordering, loyalty programs are becoming more important to restaurants of all sizes, says Peter Dougherty, general manager of Hospitality with Lightspeed in Montreal. “Even small restaurants don’t need to re-invent the wheel to create powerful loyalty programs now.”
While the idea of loyalty programs is not new, innovation comes from the ability to integrate with POS systems, website ordering and gift-card programs to build detailed customer profiles and track their preferences.
“Building profiles is the foundation. When people order by phone, online files are saved. If a person is using a gift card, you know who bought it. With that you can go to the analytics engine and build a better profile.”
Wendy’s Canada launched its “Wendy’s Rewards” loyalty program in November 2022 as part of a comprehensive integrated digital-acceleration strategy that also includes enhancements to its mobile ordering, delivery and kiosk programs.
Loyalty programs are key to attracting and retaining customers, especially in times of growth, says Liz Geraghty, Chief Marketing Officer, International, The Wendy’s Company.
A key component of integrated loyalty programs is the power to leverage data analytics to personalize experiences for customers and ensure they return again and again, she says. “One of the things we learned along the way was the importance of making it easy to find the rewards they love, and of making the experience seamless with other functions.”
McCauley says a few restaurants are also intrigued by hologram-effect technology, allowing waiters to use their tablets to show what cocktails or food items will look like at a table. “Wedding cake companies and catering companies are using similar 3D projection technology to help customers make confident decision on expensive items.
“Kabaq uses advance scanning technology to create ultra-high quality 3D models, to create augmented, virtual and mixed reality experiences,” she adds. “It can great for upselling. For example, Vino Levantino in New York City grew dessert sales by 22 per cent using Kabaq.”
Virtual reality could also play an increasingly important role, especially for chain operations, says McCauley. “Imagine if an owner wanted to monitor food safety and make sure kitchens are kept clean and safe. They could just have a bus person put on a VR headset once an hour and walk around the kitchen and stream their observations back to head office.”
NFTs Breaking Ground in Foodservice
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) may still be in their infancy in foodservice circles, but McCauley has noticed more chefs and foodservice operations are exploring the concept. “The place where NFTs are really valuable is copyrighting recipes and registering trademarks. The minute you mint your logo or recipe as an NFT, you have proof it’s yours and the date it became yours. John Higgins at George Brown College NFT’d all his recipes.”
Where NFTs could be interesting is with the metaverse, she says. “That’s a longer runway kind of trend though, but the whole metaverse would make cryptocurrencies and NFTs relative to foodservice.”
BY DENISE DEVEAU