A handheld revolution
Rom Krupp, founder and CEO of dining and hospitality platform OneDine, says tech innovation might be headed for a slowdown in the coming months. COVID unleashed a torrent of solutions and technologies over the past couple of years, he says. But instead of more flooding in, it’s likelier it’s going to take three to five years to unpack what’s been introduced.
“I’ll tell you this,” he says. “We’re still 95 percent inbound sales. People are trying to still catch up to COVID. I think the next wave [of innovation] might be further out, like five years out.”
However, there is one technology that’s begun to proliferate full service as operators work to balance labor challenges while still delivering sit-down experience.
“The hottest thing we do is handhelds,” Krupp says. “People are just dying for labor optimization, table turn optimization, order to table, pay-to-table technology. … The next five years, I think it will become a standard in the U.S. There won’t be a restaurant, except maybe the fine, fine dining, where you’re not going to get your order taken next to the table and paid right there.”
Broadly, it’s a sentiment plenty of industry pundits share. In an interview with QSR, Meredith Sandland, CEO of Empower Delivery and the co-author of Axiom 2022 Business Book Award Winner, “Delivering the Digital Restaurant,” noted restaurant technology has begun to zero in on near-term solutions versus some of the flashy, long-term angles you saw last year. “As we’ve seen in cars, electrification and smart augmentation of human operators are pre-conditions to automation,” she says. “I think we will see increased adoption of electric cooking equipment, smart ovens, and software that increases human productivity in the restaurant."
This mindset has been clear at Chili’s under new CEO Kevin Hochman, a former KFC U.S. president. Earlier in the year, Chili’s suspended its test of “Rita the Robot”—a self-functioning machine that could play host, waiter, and busser. Now, the company plans to accelerate what it calls “Kitchen of the Future 3,” or equipment that improves speed of service and table turns. Chili’s is also testing technology that can enable guests to seat, order, and pay on their own, and it's working to enhance its mobile site interface for off-premises customers.
“We're going to stop some of those projects that we just didn't have a line of sight to a return on the business, but we're going to double down and accelerate the ones that we think will have a more meaningful impact on restaurant margins and a quicker impact on our business,” Hochman said.
Black Bear is currently testing handhelds and Adams says servers are buying in. “One of the things that we had an ‘aha’ about is because of the turnover [we’re seeing], what it’s forcing is when you take the order on the handheld, it prompts you through our menu,” she says.
So if a guest picks a certain breakfast dish, for instance, it will direct the server to ask about potato choice. “In some ways, it’s helping because now as a server, I don’t necessarily have to thoroughly learn that menu to recite it to the guest. A handheld is walking them through that, which was a bit of an unintended consequence. So we’re starting to feel like technology like that makes it easier for the workforce and we can get them engaged and walking through the steps.”
Black Bear also deploys QR code pay-at-the table to further ease its front-of-the-house tasks and allow employees to focus on hospitality.
It’s a conversation that’s progressed of late. “We pride ourselves as this hospitable, engaging environment,” Adams says. “And I was always resistant to that kind of technology because we want that one-on-one experience with the guest. But I think things are just evolving.”