The Evolution of Foodservice Technology

A look at where technology is taking the industry and the evolution that could come with it. 
Restaurant worker inputs information on a touch screen

Mounting profitability pressures continue to drive restaurant operators in search of new ways to make their business more efficient and more profitable. From cash registers to computers, technologies have always driven process improvements—and technology-driven efficiencies remain the surest route to streamline operations, lower costs and build sales by increasing the speed and methods you conduct transactions with consumers. 

Doug Owens, Gordon Food Service Commercial Segment Manager, recently explored foodservice technology issues with two experts: Adam Niemur, Director of Digital Experience for Gordon Food Service North America, and Mack Tilling, President and Chief Innovation Officer of Relish Works, a Chicago-based Gordon Food Service subsidiary tasked with researching and identifying the developing trends and biggest challenges facing the foodservice industry.

Here are some highlights of their conversation.

Owens: Where do you think operators are today in terms of technology?

Tilling: I started my career in foodservice, transitioned into foodservice tech and then went away from the industry for 20 years or so. When I came back, I was shocked at how little progress had been made. This is a conservative industry that is slow to adopt technologies. Some of that is because we’re busy putting out fires every day, and implementing new systems can be problematic when you’re consumed with cranking out breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week.

That said, there has been a phenomenal shift in the last few years. We’re still lagging behind other industries, but a new generation of workers is exerting its influence. They’re seeing and using tech everywhere but on the job, they’re good at it and they like it, so they’re pushing employers to embrace it.

Owens: Adam, you oversee everything from the Gordon Food Service corporate website and social media presence to apps and other online tools that help operators more efficiently order product, manage recipes and track inventory. What are you seeing from our customers?

Niemur: Like Mack, I’m seeing a much more rapid pace of adoption than just a few years ago. There’s definitely a generational change going on. Plus, everybody uses social media now—it’s how they connect with customers and how they find labor—and that’s gotten all ages more comfortable with technology. Also, labor is such a struggle today that operators are looking for anything that can help them become more efficient.

Adoption is also tied to complexity. The simpler the technology, the more likely it is to be implemented.

Owens: When it comes to tools like Recipe Manager and Inventory Manager, are certain types of customers adopting them more readily?

Niemur: I would say that operators who are more successful and forward-thinking in the food space seem to be in the technology space as well. It’s not a function of type or size—a small café or family diner can be just as progressive as a franchisee of a national chain. 

Tilling: There’s not a ton of data on this, but anecdotally I see that adoption of systems like Recipe Manager and cloud-based POS tends to correlate with the age of the company. New restaurants start fresh with these tools but existing restaurants struggle with the time and capital needed to switch over to something new—it’s a real barrier for them.

Owens: I agree—but if you’re an advocate or an owner who is driving the adoption of new technologies, it makes a huge difference in cost management and success. With that in mind, where are we going? What kinds of technology will operators have to look at in the near term, say the next one to three years?

Niemur: Portability—allowing time-strapped consumers to enjoy restaurant-quality food where they want, when they want—is huge. Operators need to have some sort of digital presence that allows customers to order and pay online for takeout and delivery. This is where the real growth potential in the industry lies in the near future. Doug, you say that less than 10 percent of the independent operators you talk to have some sort of mobile ordering and payment system, so there’s work to be done.

Also, consumers have exhibited a growing need for ready access to information about food attributes, such as non-GMO, local, sustainably sourced, etc., and technology solutions can provide that access. This is going to be a big thing for operators. 

Tilling: When it comes to product and food safety information, we’re going to see the use of blockchain technology—grocery stores use it today to track the shipment of a particular item all the way back to the original producer, in a matter of seconds.

Labor is going to continue to be an issue, so any systems that can reduce non value-added labor, like inventory and time tracking, will be critical. We have to attack it from both sides—reduce the need for labor and get more hires in the door. Operators are telling us they also need help training people and keeping them longer. There are some systems to help with different aspects of this but nobody’s got it completely solved yet. 

Owens: What about a little further down the line? What kinds of tech can we expect in five years?

Tilling: Still talking about labor, we’re going to see more robotics—hamburger flippers and the like in limited service restaurants. If you’re a new operation, you may be looking at automated equipment in the back of the house to help reduce human labor.

There’s going to be incredible intelligence built into that equipment. It’s not just a more efficient oven, it’s an oven that will tell you what’s going on with an order and where the order needs to go. It’s really going to speed up processes.

But all of the artificial intelligence and equipment comes with high price tag. Full-service restaurants and chains will need to consider return on investment before making a commitment.  Over time, the payoff could be technology that improves forecasting and reduces operational costs.

Owens: A word I keep hearing from operators is “integration”—as in, we want all our systems to work together. Is that feasible? 

Niemur: We’re certainly seeing more people asking for this and more technology trying to play in this arena. It’s not there yet, but in the next few years, some tech company is going to figure this out and create a one-size-fits-all turnkey package.

Owens: What happens when we get to a point where virtually everything is automated? What does that mean for the concept of hospitality and personal service?

Niemur: It’s true that everybody has less time and technology is helping restaurants account for that. I may only have 20 minutes for lunch, and there will be restaurants that can accommodate me. But many still want a leisurely dinner. Restaurants could have two service models—quick and casual at lunch, full service at dinner. I don’t think hospitality will ever go away.

Tilling: We see the most success in using tech to enhance, rather than replace, the human connection. I think that will continue to be the case. While robotics will grow over time, going out for a meal with family and friends will continue to have a personal aspect, satisfying a need for social interaction.

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