Restaurants are investing in-store technology to reduce labor costs, create better marketing tools, and optimize speed of service to better meet the demands of today’s on-the-go consumer.
Operators across segments are embracing digital innovations. Tabletop tech, such as tablets and QR codes, for example, can allow guests to order and pay for meals at full-service restaurants. Such deployments can free up restaurant staff for more complex tasks, or allow restaurants to shrink their wait staff counts.
It's not just the dining room that is getting a technology overhaul. Smart technology in kitchens can alert managers if a freezer unit went out overnight. Robotics are also increasingly being used to work alongside employees in the kitchen at QSRs like White Castle and McDonald's, though this solution isn’t one size fits all, restaurant leaders have cautioned. Chains are also adopting automated phone systems and drive-thru ordering technology to take pressure off of employees and collect more valuable diner data.
This report covers key in-store innovations as restaurants continue to adapt, including:
How many diners expect ordering technology at casual restaurants
How automated phone technology can improve restaurant performance
Why Brinker paused its robotics server test
How Chipotle is bringing artificial intelligence to its kitchens
Wy McDonald’s CEO thinks robotics only work in specific restaurants
These are just a few of the ways restaurants are bringing technology into their stores. We hope you enjoy this deep dive on how technology is changing restaurant dining rooms and kitchens.
HungerRush, a restaurant tech company, also found digital visibility is significant factor in driving new customer visits, with 85% of consumers saying it’s important to them to find reviews and other information about restaurants online.
Sixty-five percent of respondents under the age of 30 reported ordering online, 62% order by phone, 51% through a restaurant’s app, and 38% through third-party apps or at the restaurant counter, per the survey.
Online ordering is the most frequently used ordering technology covered by the survey, especially among younger consumers. But younger consumers (18-29 years old) are actually less likely to use some tech-heavy ordering channels compared to customers aged 30-39. Only 8% of the younger consumer set said they would use text ordering, compared to about 18% of customers in their 30s, according to the survey.
Other findings from HungerRush’s study show macro-economic pressures are changing consumer behavior, as well. Forty-four percent of consumers are consciously opting for local restaurants as a way to save gas money, and 50% are limiting their frequency. Despite falling gas prices, HungerRush found that inflation still outpaces wage gains, meaning most consumers have seen their disposable income shrink even as some price shocks ease.
Recent data from the National Restaurant Association reinforce HungerRush’s finding that consumers are cutting back. The NRA found diners are trading down for value, even as large majorities of customers want to eat out during the holiday season.
Still, savvy technological investments that drive convenience may still entice customers experiencing economic hardships, the survey suggests. Seventy-two percent of consumers feel it is important that a restaurant personalizes their communications to them.Casual eateries can achieve personalization with a range of applications, from tailored email promotions to surveys that collect diner information, such as birthdays and menu item preferences, that can be used for targeted offerings.
Article top image credit: Permission granted by Uber Eats
Automated phone tech may ease restaurant labor, boost consistency
Robotic answering services promise increased consistency and ticket sizes, but customer adoption remains low.
By: Aneurin Canham-Clyne• Published Oct. 6, 2022
During a restaurant’s dinner rush, a ringing telephone can go unheard, pushing customers waiting on a busy line to visit a competitor or cook at home. As inflation forces consumers to be cautious with their spending, the competition for consumer dollars has grown more intense. Restaurants can’t afford to miss phone sales, nor can they afford to leave their front-of-house understaffed.
Companies like Goodcall, Popmenu and HungerRush have landed on a possible solution to capture consumer spending and ease labor pressure: automated restaurant phone systems.
While not as eye-catching as a fry cook made out of machined aluminum, or a robot busser, these systems are designed to meet specific operator pain points. Automated phone tech uses conversational artificial intelligence to take customer orders, answer questions about operations or direct customers toward digital channels.
“We came up with the idea because of firsthand experience of sitting with restaurant owners and watching the disruption that they had to experience,” Tony Roy, Popmenu’s president and co-founder, said. “Because they didn't have enough staff to simply answer the phone.”
Some large chains have recently invested in voice ordering tech, with McDonald’s testing AI drive-thru voice ordering. But others are deploying automated phone answering systems. Pizza brands like Jet’s Pizza and Marco’s Pizza have both tried phone ordering systems. Applebee’s offers phone ordering at about half of its locations, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Automated phone answering companies are still relatively new, and when given a choice, many customers still opt to talk to workers or managers. But these firms claim to offer several advantages for restaurants.
At the most basic level, phone automation tech offers labor savings by freeing up staff from answering the phone. At Bevri, a Georgian restaurant in California, owner Pavel Sirotin said staffing shortages following the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to answer the phone and balance other tasks, like front-of-house operations or preparing pickup and delivery orders.
“We were hit with the labor shortages and essentially, sometimes there would be like one server. Sometimes it's just one of us,” Sirotin said. “We could never answer the phone. And it was just ringing and ringing. People had all sorts of questions: they wanted to place an order, they wanted to check if we're still alive.”
Sirotin knew Goodcall’s founder and CEO Bob Summers, and was excited to try Goodcall’s automated calling system at Bevri. Once installed in September 2021, the system, which Summers said would be able to answer thousands of calls simultaneously, proved an aid to Sirotin’s operation.
“Goodcall helped us answer more than 4,000 calls,” Sirotin said in August. “Multiply that by about, on average, five minutes per conversation, [and] that's how many minutes we freed up.” He added that this phone technology has led to improved experiences for customers who dine in, as servers are freed up.
Labor savings may be difficult to quantify, Aaron Nilsson, COO at Jet’s Pizza, said. Jet’s Pizza uses HungerRush’s automated phone answering system at about one-third of its 400 stores. Despite the difficulty determining the precise savings from one tool, Nilsson said, the automated phone systems can relieve pressure on the staff by directing customers to digital channels.
Jet’s Pizza uses HungerRush’s text-to-order feature, in addition to its phone answering tech. The text-to-order feature works with customers to ensure their orders are comprehensible and accurate before sending them on to Jet’s. That feature compliments the labor saving potential of a robotic phone answering system by diverting customers from the phone.
In addition to labor savings, AI-powered phone answering systems offer another advantage: consistency. A computer won’t forget to upsell, and can follow the rigorous instructions laid out by operators. This means the technology can add incremental sales while preserving order accuracy, at least in theory.
“The bot is smart enough [to know] if you order X, that means you may want Y, and then at the end…[ask], would you like a two-liter Mountain Dew with that,” Perry Turbes, CEO of HungerRush, said.
Nilsson said the bot’s consistency is a more significant feature than its labor savings.
“We always ask for an upsell,” Nilsson said. “There's actually a ticket improvement for using this right now, compared to [an employee] taking it over the phone, because the robot never has a bad day.”
Jet’s orders taken by the robot are about $1 larger because the robot tries to upsell on every order, leading to a marginal gain in sales, Nilsson said. Turbes noted that the voice-recognition technology underpinning automated phone ordering systems becomes more accurate as more customers use it, since data gleaned from interactions can be used to improve the robot’s responses. But those answers are only as accurate as the data the bot can access.
Much of that information the bot pulls from Google listings, as Popmenu’s platform is integrated with Google, Roy said. But operators have the ability to change or customize that information, enabling the bot to keep up with menu shifts, hours changes or other operational differences.
If the robot doesn’t know what a customer is asking, the systems used by Popmenu, Goodcall and HungerRush have failsafes that connect calls to the store.
“We don't guarantee that it can manage every call,” Summers said.
Most of these companies are trying to keep costs low enough to encourage adoption. HungerRush charges a fee consisting of a small percentage of an order total, rather than charging a subscription or a per-call fee. But HungerRush declined to specify how large the per-order fees are.
Popmenu’s phone tech offering costs about $349 per restaurant unit per month, though the company frames this cost as about 47 cents per hour, as the phone system can answer calls 24 hours a day. The company does offer some cost breaks for large multi-unit operators, but did not specify what those were.
Goodcall’s costs scale depending on how many calls the robot is expected to receive, and how many skills it comes programmed with. Each skill is a discrete function, like the ability to answer questions about pet allowance in stores, or the ability to take orders, which, Summers said, is the most used feature. The company offers eight skills and 60 calls per month for free, and 16 skills and 600 calls cost $19 per month per location. The company’s premium offering — unlimited calls and some features not available on lower plans like a hold function — is available for $49 a month.
All three systems still use the restaurant’s employees as the ultimate backstop, as conversational AI isn’t something all customers are comfortable interacting with. At Jet, which uses HungerRush, the company’s phone system offers customers a coupon if they order through the phone bot. Currently, Nilsson says, a minority of callers order through the bot, but that number is rising, and customers who order through it once are likely to do so again.
While Summers touts the ability of automated phone systems to convert phone orders to digital orders, thereby securing for restaurants valuable customer data, he said only between 10% and 20% of callers shift from ordering by phone to ordering digitally.
Popmenu has tried to circumvent that low level of adoption by sending customers an SMS message directing them to order online. Tony Roy, Popmenu’s president and co-founder, demonstrated the technology for Restaurant Dive during a video call. Roy called a restaurant that uses Popmenu’s product and asked the bot if the restaurant served liquor.The bot said it did and rattled off several name-brand tequilas carried by the restaurant. When Roy asked to place an order, the bot told him the restaurant accepted online ordering and offered to text him a link. He asked to speak to a manager, and the bot put the call through to the restaurant.
There are other limits to the technology, however. Phone bots don’t always understand accents, and process a limited number of languages. Popmenu, HungerRush and Goodcall are limited to English at the moment. And it’s not clear if the claims to accuracy and labor saving will hold up on a larger scale.
Article top image credit: Permission granted by Goodcall
Top trends for your omnichannel restaurant strategy
Big questions remain as restaurants become bigger players in the digital world. How are consumers digitally interacting with brands? What challenges are customers facing with omnichannel restaurant orders? Has new tech enhanced the ordering process? Or is it more of an inconvenience and causing low customer satisfaction?
To better understand how customers feel about their digital ordering experiences, we gathered feedback from more than 15,000 consumers. Here are the top digital ordering trends we uncovered.
Trend #1: Apps are the most favored tech
Not too long ago, most restaurant brands didn’t put a lot of effort into their omnichannel strategy. Digital ordering was dominating the retail world, but omnichannel restaurant ordering simply wasn’t in much demand—until the pandemic accelerated the need for off-premise ordering and forced restaurants to rethink their digital offerings.
Today, mobile apps have come a long way and are a huge presence in the restaurant industry, with 3 in 4 customers reporting using app ordering to place their digital orders. The popularity of mobile apps is much higher than other digital channels, with only half of consumers using tablets or kiosks for their digital orders and 1 in 3 consumers making orders via QR codes.
A previous SMG study showed similar trends in the rising adoption of mobile apps. In 2017, 62% of respondents reported they had zero restaurant apps installed on their mobile devices. In 2022, 83% of respondents said they have at least one QSR app—with 36% saying they have 5 or more.
But as a KPI, total number of downloads pales in comparison to actual usage metrics. Of the 83% of consumers who have at least one QSR app installed on their phones, more than one in three had not used a restaurant app to place an order in the past 30 days.
To evolve past being a novel touchpoint, QSR apps must provide a convenient, seamless, and satisfying customer experience. But too often, brands are falling short. Today’s consumers keep running into app-related issues—creating a barrier to convert downloaders into repeat users.
Trend #2: Digital orders have a high problem rate
Though mobile apps are the most favored tech for digital orders, 1 in 4 users have experienced a problem with their order. The most common issue mentioned? Lack of customization/substitution abilities.
User issues only get worse when we look at other digital ordering channels. Kiosk/tablet orders and QR code orders each have a problem occurrence rate of about 40%, with “difficulty using tech” the most mentioned issue.
Brands that can iron out these issues and provide a more seamless digital experience will have the advantage. Our research shows mobile apps can actually be great for business and bring in incremental visits—in fact, when a customer doesn’t experience a problem from a mobile app, 25% are more likely to visit the restaurant more often.
When we compare that to kiosk or QR code users, we don’t see an uptick when their ordering is free of problems. But if there are issues, we see more serious impact—38% of QR code users and 36% of kiosk/table users say they plan to visit the restaurant less frequently after they experienced a problem with their ordering.
Trend #3: There’s still a desire for in-person interactions
While digital ordering continues to increase across the restaurant industry, there is still a big part of the population that prefers human interaction. Not surprisingly, hesitance to use digital touchpoints increases with age, with data showing nearly 60% of customers over 55 preferring in-person ordering.
Other barriers to tech ordering that were mentioned: Didn’t want to download another app and using technology doesn’t make it easier. It’s also important to note here that though it’s the older customers who prefer in-person interactions, guests of all ages don’t believe digital food ordering channels are enhancing the ordering experience.
Keep your customer at the center of your omnichannel restaurant strategy
As more restaurant brands make headlines with app-exclusive menu items + promotional campaigns, a longer term strategy focused on user experience and customer engagement metrics must be in place to ensure your digital ordering channels deliver ROI.
Brands that stand up active and passive feedback channels at this pivotal touchpoint will be better positioned to take a customer-centric approach to innovation. To learn how SMG’s in-app feedback capabilities help brands drive smarter engagements across the customer journey and increase adoption, reach out to one of our digital CX experts.
Article top image credit:
RBI opens first virtual food hall in Miami, with plans for a second
By: Emma Liem Beckett• Published Nov. 10, 2022
Restaurant Brands International has opened a digital food hall called Kylo (Kitchens You Love) at a former Burger King location in Miami, the company wrote in an email to Restaurant Dive. Diners can order food for takeaway from in-store kiosks, or order pickup and delivery via the Kylo website and app or through major third-party delivery platforms.
Kylo includes menus from RBI brands Burger King, Popeyes and Firehouse Subs. The food hall also offers fare from local restaurants Spris Artisan Pizza, Ms. Cheezious and Sergio’s Cuban American Kitchen, as well as ice cream from Jeni’s.
RBI has been developing Kylo for more than a year, Luis Maia, head of Kylo and vice president of dark kitchens and virtual brands at RBI, told Miami New Times.
RBI already has plans to expand the Kylo store format over the next year, the company wrote. Kylo’s website notes that a location in Kendall, Florida, is “coming soon.”
“Guests increasingly expect a flexible and on-demand dining experience, so we saw an opportunity to create a digital-first, multi-brand concept to better meet these needs,” Maia said in a statement.
To promote Kylo’s launch, RBI will serve exclusive menu items from the Miami location that mash up RBI menu items with food from the local restaurants operating in the space. These offerings include the Popeyes x Spris Chicken Sandwich Pizza, which uses the RBI chain’s chicken, and the Burger King x Ms. Cheezious Short Rib Melt, which uses Burger King fries. The menu items will be available for two weeks.
The Kylo launch builds on recent RBI investments in its digital business. In September, the company announced it was pouring $30 million into Burger King’s digital channels to improve integrated payment processing and the chain’s Royal Perks rewards program, as well as develop personalized digital offerings. Digital sales made up almost $3.4 billion in sales during the third quarter, making up one-third of the company's consolidated systemwide sales, CEO Jose Cil said during the company’s October earnings call.
This development also comes just a month after Business Insider reported RBI was ending its relationship with ghost kitchen provider Reef, which delivers restaurant food ordered through digital channels and prepared across a network of kitchen vessels. RBI didn’t disclose why it was no longer working with the platform. Reef shared this summer that it was shifting to a multi-brand approach similar to what RBI is offering at Kylo.
Article top image credit: Permission granted by Restaurant Brands International
Tim Hortons offers Scan & Pay option for loyalty app
By: Emma Liem Beckett• Published Nov. 11, 2022
Tim Hortons rewards members in the U.S. and Canada can now use a Scan & Pay feature in the restaurant’s app to pay for orders and earn and redeem rewards, the company wrote in an email to Restaurant Dive.
Customers must link a credit card or Tim Card to the app in order to use the feature. Users can store multiple payment methods within the app and pick between them.
The move could encourage customer adoption of and engagement with the coffee chain’s loyalty program. It’s the latest in a string of QSR investments in rewards programs to improve sales and frequency.
The convenience of Tim’s Scan & Pay technology could make it easier for diners to swallow menu price hikes, which are partially responsible for double-digit sales growth at the chain, parent company Restaurant Brands International said during its November earnings call. The company didn’t disclose the percent increase for Tim’s menu prices.
“Our strong digital capabilities, including the No. 1 food and beverage app in Canada, have enabled Tim Hortons to better cater towards guests, deliver a great experience, increase brand loyalty and drive over a third of sales through digital channels while growing digital sales dollars,” RBI CEO Jose Cil said on the call.
Innovation that eases the payment process for diners also seems a safe bet within the scope of possible loyalty program upgrades, especially given the backlash rival Dunkin’ received from fans when it altered the value of its rewards.
Coffee is an especially personal foodservice category because of how frequently customers order from their favorite chains, Stephen Zagor, an adjunct assistant professor of business at Columbia Business School, told Restaurant Dive in a recent interview. Because of this, chains need to tread carefully when altering coffee rewards.
Tim Hortons will offer bonus reward incentives throughout the upcoming months to promote the offering.
Article top image credit: Courtesy of Tim Hortons
Subway plots growth through automated vending fridges
By: Julie Littman• Published Nov. 14, 2022
Subway has expanded its nontraditional development to include interactive, unattended smart fridges at Grab & Go retail locations, the company announced.
The smart fridge, which uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing to allow guests to ask about products inside before purchasing, is stocked daily by a franchisee’s nearby restaurant. The equipment uses weight-sensor shelves to ensure guests are charged accurately via contactless, cashless transactions.
In September, the first Subway smart fridge opened at the University of California, San Diego, and the chain is seeing strong interest from franchisees wishing to expand their portfolios.
Non-traditional locations are becoming a growing emphasis for the sandwich chain. Subway expects to expand Subway Grab & Go and its smart fridges into places like airports, colleges and hospitals in the future, Karla Martinez, Subway’s director of innovation for non-traditional development, said in a statement.
During the first three quarters of 2022, about 5,900 non-traditional Subway locations in the U.S. and Canada — or about a quarter of the chain’s North American footprint — saw same-store sales rise an average of 13% compared to 2021 year-over-year. Locations that saw the largest sales drops at the height of pandemic restrictions, including airports, colleges and hospitals, saw an average 22% increase in same-store sales.
“As Subway focuses on strategic and profitable growth, there is a significant opportunity to expand our footprint in non-traditional locations and for franchisees to generate incremental revenue for their business,” Taylor Bennett, Subway’s VP of non-traditional development, said in a statement.
In 2020, the company began testing Subway Grab & Go so franchisees could increase off-premise occasions for diners. Franchisees prepare sandwiches daily and distribute them to select Grab & Go locations, including at casinos, convenience stores and gas stations, hospitals and airports. The program has since expanded to over 400 locations in North America, with plans for more growth this year. The smart fridges are an extension of this program.
Subway, which has undergone two menu revisions in the last two years, has seen rising sales during the last 18 months. The Subway Series, which the chain called its biggest menu update in its history, drove a same-store sales increase of 7.4% in the eight weeks following its July 2022 rollout compared to the eight-week launch of its Eat Fresh Refresh menu the year before, Subway said in an email to Restaurant Dive. During the third quarter of 2022, same-store sales were up 8.4%.
Article top image credit: Courtesy of Subway
Chipotle tests AI kitchen system, location-based technology
By: Julie Littman• Published Sept. 27, 2022
Chipotle is piloting several technologies designed to streamline operations and reduce friction for guests and employees, the company announced.
The technologies include a kitchen management system from PreciTaste and location-based technology through FlyBuy to enhance app functionality. The chain will also begin testing its Chippy pilot in-store at a Fountain Valley, California unit in October.
These pilots build on the company’s ongoing deployments this year, which include a pilot of radio-frequency identification to improve tracing and inventory management in the chain’s food supply.
Adding technology to boost growth and productivity is one of Chipotle’s main strategies, CEO Brian Niccol said during the company’s Q2 2022 earnings call. The company is deploying technologies that can help support “strong execution of the basics,” he said.
The kitchen management system, which is being tested in eight Orange County, California, locations, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to inform staff of ingredient levels in real time, telling workers how much prep is needed and when to start cooking. It also automates real-time production planning for each restaurant.
At 73 restaurants in Cleveland, Ohio, the company is piloting FlyBuy, a technology from Radius Networks that provides arrival and real-time data for customers using the Chipotle app. This technology provides order readiness messaging, incorrect pickup location detection and reminds users to scan their Rewards QR code at checkout, among other uses. So far, the test has improved in-store rewards engagement and order alert notifications and increased efficiency with earlier assignments for delivery drivers, the company said.
The company will use its stage-gate process to gather guest and crew feedback before deciding if it will Chippy nationwide. Its Chippy test, a partnership with Miso Robotics, automates the chip-making process.
Chipotle is deploying an update to its POS hardware, intended to increase accuracy and throughput, which it expects to complete by year’s end, Niccol said on the call. The company has added new customer-facing pin pads to offer contactless payment options, and a labor management tool to improve scheduling.
More technology and innovation is likely, especially after Chipotle created its $50 million Cultivate Next venture fund to support emerging technology aligned with the company’s mission. The first cohort of funds went to Hyphen, a foodservice platform that automates kitchen operations, and Meati Foods, a mushroom-based food company. As of July, the chain had received over 200 inquiries for investment, Niccol said.
Article top image credit: Permission granted by Chipotle
Danny Meyer’s investment arm injects $10M into voice AI tech firm
By: Alicia Kelso• Published Aug. 24, 2022
ConverseNow, which provides voice artificial intelligence technology for restaurants, has secured $10 million in funding from Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality Investments, according to a press release emailed to Restaurant Dive.
This technology enables operators to automate order taking from high-volume voice channels, like phone systems and call centers.
ConverseNow plans to use this funding, which brings its total money raised to $28.8 million, to scale its technology across quick-service and full-service brands.
ConverseNow’s growth reflects intensifying restaurant demand for labor-saving solutions as the industry struggles to navigate an historic talent shortage. The company has recorded 12-fold revenue growth over the past year, and CEO Vinay Shukla said in a statement that corresponding demand has been difficult to keep up with.
The tech firm claims its offering nearly doubles peak-hour volume ordering from restaurants’ voice channels, and that it has helped operators boost same-store sales up to 30%. ConverseNow can also raise average ticket prices up to 20% and provide up to 12 hours of additional labor per restaurant per week, the company claims.
ConverseNow believes mainstream adoption of its technology is “imminent.” Currently, the company’s technology is live in over 1,200 restaurants across 40 states, including Domino’s and Fazoli’s.
Danny Meyer said in a statement that this technology can also improve the guest experience by optimizing labor allocation at restaurants.
“We’ve seen a dramatic shift in the way consumers engage with restaurants over the past two years, and for restaurants to earn customer loyalty today, they must deliver memorable experiences,” Meyer said.
ConverseNow has a growing list of patents to improve its AI’s capabilities, integrate with hardware and software providers and give restaurant partners access to analytics, COO and Chief Product Officer Rahul Aggarwal said in a statement.
Several major restaurant chains have bet on AI-powered solutions from different technology firms to take pressure off of their teams. Checkers & Rally’s has deployed AI drive-thru tech from Presto and Valyant AI, for instance, while Papa John’s added an AI-assisted call center, called Papa Call, in March 2020. Fifty-percent of U.S. restaurant operators plan to implement some form of automation technology in the next two years, per a Lightspeed report.
Article top image credit: FG Trade via Getty Images
Brinker pauses robotics server test
By: Julie Littman• Published Aug. 25, 2022• Updated Aug. 26, 2022
Brinker International has paused a robotics test with Bear Robotics, which deployed server robots at 61 Chili’s restaurants, CEO Kevin Hochman said during a Brinker earnings call.
Instead, the company will accelerate deployment of its “Kitchen of the Future 3” equipment, which includes technology that will consistently reduce cook times on a majority of menu items, he said.
Brinker wants its technology to boost margins, which fell to 10.3% compared to 16.9% during the year-ago quarter due to inflation’s impact on food and labor costs, CFO Joe Taylor said on the call.
After Hochman became CEO, he met with leadership to determine which technologies could best impact the company’s sales and profits over the next few years. Now it appears Brinker is unsure if projects like Bear Robotics’ Rita the Robot are worth the investment.
“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.
While restaurants with Ritas will continue to use them to host, buss, run food and sing birthday songs, they will not be introduced in new Chili’s restaurants, a Brinker International spokesperson said in an email to Restaurant Dive. The company saw great test results, but is shifting its focus to “prioritizing and acting on simplification ideas and growth opportunities to strengthen the core Chili’s business, improve retention and deliver a better [team member] and guest experience,” the spokesperson said.
By contrast, Brinker believes its Kitchen of the Future 3 equipment could cut down table turn times and drive higher sales, he said. The company will make a decision on a full-scale rollout of this initiative after further testing, a spokesperson said. The company is seeking opportunities to reduce back-of-house friction and offer a better guest experience, by improving kitchen display systems to optimize order flow at the to-go area. To-go items make up 35% of the company’s business, Hochman said. Brinker is also looking to improve its mobile order sites to make checkout faster and secure more repeat customers.
In addition, Brinker is testing how to offload certain restaurant operations — such as seating guests, ordering and payment —from employees to diners themselves to free up staff, he said.
Article top image credit: Permission granted by Chili's
McDonald’s CEO: Robots aren’t practical in vast majority of restaurants
By: Emma Liem Beckett• Published July 26, 2022
McDonald’s is experiencing roughly 10% labor inflation, partially due to strategic wage increases at company-owned stores, CEO Chris Kempczinski said on a Q2 earnings call with investors. Labor inflation is also challenging the system’s franchisees, he said.
When asked if McDonald’s would invest in technology to reduce its labor needs, Kempczinski said automation won’t be a “silver bullet” for the chain’s obstacles.
The accuracy of McDonald’s drive-thru voice ordering — designed to ease labor — at 24 Illinois units hovered around the low 80% range, below the 95% minimum accuracy rate the chain seeks before expanding the tech, per a June BTIG report.
The economic benefits of robotic solutions don’t always outweigh the cost of infrastructure investments around utilities and store footprint that are necessary to make that technology successful, Kempczinski said on the call.
“The idea of robots and all of those things, while it may be great for garnering headlines, it’s not practical for the vast majority of restaurants,” he said. “You’re not going to see that as a broad-based solution anytime soon.”
Instead, Kempczinski said operators can take advantage of customer data to inform staff scheduling decisions to reduce labor demand in restaurants.
McDonald’s company-owned restaurants employ a target staffing roster required to drive speed of service improvements and customer satisfaction, Kempczinski said on the call, though he didn’t disclose specific numbers. These stores are outperforming the chain’s U.S. average, he said.
“We know from our McOpCo business that it is possible to do it. It's not easy. It takes a lot of work, but it is possible for us to get after that,” Kempczinski said of adequate staffing levels, adding that company believes it has found a formula for necessary employee levels.
Many McDonald’s franchisees have rolled out pay hikes and new benefits throughout the pandemic to entice new workers to apply and hold on to existing talent, but surging traffic could challenge retention if it complicates operations. According to Placer. AI, McDonald’s traffic growth may reflect that more diners are “trading down” in food spending, driving them to value-focused brands like the Golden Arches.
Diner visits at McDonald’s rose 16.7% in June compared to the same period in 2021, and 0.6% compared to 2019. By contrast, visits for the QSR category overall rose just 5.9% during the period, according to Placer.AI data. But if McDonald’s restaurants aren’t properly staffed, franchised and company-owned restaurants may not be able to fulfill rising demand and satisfy customers.
“We need to make sure that our restaurants are properly staffed ... that we're getting our crews trained and make sure that we are, operationally, delivering on things like service times that we know can have a big impact on customer satisfaction,” Kempczinski said.
Article top image credit: Justin Sullivan via Getty Images
The tech trends transforming restaurant operations
Restaurants are investing in-store technology to reduce labor costs, create better marketing tools, and optimize speed of service to better meet the demands of today’s on-the-go consumer. From tablets and QR codes to predictive analytics and smart technology, restaurants are adopting transformational technology at a record-fast pace.
included in this trendline
Survey: 79% of diners expect option to use technology to order from casual restaurants
Automated phone tech may ease restaurant labor, boost consistency
Subway plots growth through automated vending fridges
Our Trendlines go deep on the biggest trends. These special reports, produced by our team of award-winning journalists, help business leaders understand how their industries are changing.