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Tech Trends at the National Restaurant Show

From the front of the house to the back office, foodservice is teaming up with tech

If you’re looking to check the collective pulse of the foodservice industry, the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago delivers. Mission Data attended to meet with industry friends new and old, gauge the landscape of technology products, and learn about the unique challenges and growth opportunities of the current market.Technology vendors could mainly be found at the show’s Tech Pavilion, Innovation Hub, and Startup Alley, but many other providers were spotted throughout the sprawling event. The largest annual gathering of the restaurant, foodservice and hospitality industry, the NRA Show attracts more than 67,000 food professionals. Aisles and aisles of anything and everything foodservice, from robotic bartenders and frozen yogurt vending machines to the latest in meat slicers and ceramic plates, not to mention the endless mouthwatering samples (cheese, pickles, sundried tomatoes, vegan butter, gluten-free pizza) makes for an overwhelming experience.

While we’re sure we didn’t see everything on display, here are the foodservice tech trends that did catch our eye:

Data Rules

While admittedly not as sexy as sushi-making machines or Bluetooth-connected soda dispensers, data-driven digital services are clearly all the rage for foodservice operations. From the competitive field of cloud-based POS providers to hardware vendors like temperature probe-makers and food label printers, it seems everyone is opening their technology stacks to add business intelligence software to their offerings. As restaurant chains upgrade their legacy POS systems, they are now met with an array of data analytics platforms that can help manage a plethora of critical operations, including inventory, staff schedules, accounting, food safety, task management, demand forecasting, reservations, loyalty programs, and even delivery.

All of that data from the front-of-house and the back office can be combined to create comprehensive, contextualized insights. This ensures that managers and their staff have the right information at the right time, improving efficiencies and compliance across multiple locations. Ultimately, a streamlined operation means a better customer experience.

Customer Convenience

In-store technology designed to quicken the customer journey and boost engagement is taking off, as we previously reported. At the NRA Show, Diebold Nixdorf exhibited a bevy of sleek kiosks with self-ordering and self-pay capabilities. Apex, known for its hot food lockers such as the “Pizza Portal” co-designed with Little Caesars, showed off its latest shelf design for mobile order pick-up. The new system eliminates the lockers and instead features open shelving outfitted with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) activated sensors. When customers arrive to pick up their orders, their items light up on the shelf. If someone grabs a different order by mistake, the device can use visual and audio cues to alert them.

Another exhibitor, TableSafe, offers an elegant solution to pay-at-the-table. Its device, called the Rail, looks like a typical check holder, but allows customers to swipe their own card — or easily split the bill — and pay right at the table, within 90 seconds. Other features include the ability to auto-calculate tips, and restaurants can add quick survey questions to the end of the transactions to gain real-time feedback and help ensure customer satisfaction. Pay-at-the-table solutions not only save customers’ time, but also enable restaurants to turn tables more quickly to serve more guests.

Robots to the Rescue

If you’ve ever worked as a restaurant server, you know that one of the most intense parts of the job is carrying a tray full of food and drink — stemmed Champagne and martini glasses are especially tricky to balance. So, aesthetics aside, it’s easy to see the appeal of Bear Robotics’ Penny, a remote-controlled robot designed to run food and drink orders as well as deliver the check to guests’ tables. Utilizing AI, Penny learns the layout of spaces and self-navigates, avoiding obstacles like people and furniture.

Other robots on display at NRA included Generation NEXT’s frozen dessert vending robot, a standalone booth that features an interactive touchscreen for ordering and a robotic arm that delivers frozen yogurt, ice cream, gelato, custard, or sorbet with up to six toppings, all in less than 60 seconds. And robotic bartenders like the Barsys machine and Somabar create cocktails just how you like them, in seconds.

Although roving robots would likely be a jarring sight at more high-end dining establishments, in more casual spots where convenience trumps atmosphere, automated interactions are quickly becoming more than just a novelty.

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