Startups are hoping to change almost every aspect of the way we eat, developing technologies to bring new efficiencies to almost every part of the food chain. Restaurants are boldly assessing how the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics in food service tasks might pay off in this demanding and fast-changing sector.
People usually want restaurants to meet or exceed their expectations. The technologies discussed here won’t provide the answers in all cases, but they could bring positive changes. Many forward-thinking brands are experimenting with AI or robotics (or both) to meet their needs.
Here’s a look at some early examples of how restaurants are using robotics and AI for everything from ordering to preparing and serving your food.
AI in ordering
McDonald’s intends to eventually bring an AI ordering system to all 1,400 of its U.S. restaurants. It makes the menu dynamically change depending on things like what’s popular at a particular location or to encourage people to order items that are quick to prepare during the busiest times of the day.
Smaller chains are also eyeing AI to see if it could bring them benefits. Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard is a chain headquartered in Colorado that has a few dozen locations. It’s starting to use an AI order helper called Holly that handles some of the breakfast and lunch orders for people who come to the drive-up window.
Employees report having help from technology can make the day go more smoothly. Holly’s AI is not perfect, though. Sometimes it gets confused when people make special requests or order combo meals by the number alone instead of the name. Inconsistencies in how people order food can even cause humans to ask for clarification. Things get trickier for the AI if customers use slang or have strong accents.
Holly collected and processed more than a million phrases from customers so far, and the tech gets smarter with use. That means many of these minor shortcomings will likely become less problematic with time.
Robotics and food preparation
Some use-cases for robotics in the food industry center on how the machines could pitch in to keep output levels consistent. When a restaurant gets busy, or the kitchen is short-staffed, those factors could cause quality levels to drop. Brands may use robots to get food and drinks ready for customer consumption.
In a Tokyo cafe, a robot assumes the role of a barista and starts making coffee after scanning a code from a card a person purchases in a vending machine. The code tells the robot what drink the individual ordered. Besides brewing black coffee, the robot can use a separate machine that makes several other drinks, including hot chocolate and green tea lattes. A manager at the cafe says the robot makes it possible only to have one person overseeing the coffee shop instead of a staff of several employees. That benefit helps keep costs down.
There’s also a San Francisco burger restaurant called Creator where a robot makes burgers to order. People can choose from 15 sauces and a dozen seasonings to customize their orders.
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A non-robot aspect that makes this brand stand out is how it plans to allocate more than 40% of its revenue to cover ingredient costs. People can feast on high-end additions to their burgers, like mango chutney aioli and Persian lime pepper, but the most expensive burger is only $7.07.
Deploying robotics to assist or replace serving staff
Working as a server in the food industry can be grueling, involving long hours of standing, walking and trying to balance heavy trays of cuisine and beverages while winding through crowded areas of a bustling restaurant.
A now-closed restaurant in California called the Kang Nam Tofu House tried to make things easier for its servers by introducing a pedestal-shaped robot that carried food and bills to customers. The human employees split their time in the small establishment by either preparing side dishes and loading food onto the robot or interacting with consumers and handling the cash register.
This setup reportedly required a shift in thinking from the servers because it made them feel their productivity had dropped after the robots started bringing food. But, they eventually realized this new way of working gave them more time to focus on customers.
However, other efforts to bring robots into the food services workforce do cut human workers out. At a Chinese diner chain called Robot.He, the robots roll up to tables to distribute food carried in covered compartments. They even tell customers to enjoy their meals.
A representative for this experiment with robotics in the food industry said it costs the equivalent of up to $1,500 per month to hire one server in Shanghai. This application of technology could ultimately reduce costs. But, the lack of human contact in the restaurant makes it unclear what a person should do if they receive the wrong order or encounter a billing error.
AI helping with new flavors and recipes
Tastes can change rapidly in food service. Brands consider some of their options as tried-and-true standbys. Many of them know it’s essential to change what they offer to keep people interested and intrigued, too. Some food scientists depend on AI to help them come up with the possibilities that are most likely to win diners over.
A partnership between IBM Research and McCormick & Company tested the worthiness of an AI-based system to come up with new flavors and ingredient combinations. For example, the algorithms can suggest substitutes to use when a specific flavor is not available. It can also predict how humans will respond to the flavors or inform a user how novel something tastes based on how similar it is to its nearest flavor family “relatives.”
Based on its satisfaction with the early results of the technology, McCormick & Company plans to roll out the AI tool at more than 20 labs in 14 countries. It says the technology helped it come up with new flavors it wasn’t aware of before. That advantage could boost competitiveness.
Using AI to spot food safety issues
Problems like food poisoning and recalls can be significant in the food service industry, especially if a brand operates in multiple states or countries. Besides avoiding those issues altogether, the goal of most food service entities is to minimize the damage caused. AI can assist with that aim.
A tool called safefood.ai gathers data from multiple sources to make restaurant entities aware of possible food safety issues. It provides a customized news feed associated with the brands or foods a company uses. The platform also has AI-powered incident detection that could help restaurants respond before bad news breaks into the mainstream.
Chick-fil-A is doing something similar with an in-house tool built to monitor for social media mentions that could indicate people got sick after eating at one of their restaurants. It screens data from restaurant reviews every 10 minutes and looks for more than 500 relevant keywords.
The information then passes through a natural language processor that checks the comments for legitimacy and sentiment. This approach has a 78% accuracy rate.
The chicken-focused fast-food chain is also testing AI in other ways that connect to food safety. One of the options teaches users how to rinse their hands thoroughly. Food safety measures like these can support a restaurant’s reputation and build consumer trust in addition to preventing illnesses.
So how long will it be until you start encountering AI and robotics in your typical restaurant experiences? It’s hard to say. But, given the applications of AI and robotics being made already, it seems likely to happen soon.