Digital Innovation at NRA 2018 in Chicago

July 2018

Digital Menu OrderingThe unprecedented level of technological change on the horizon has huge potential benefits for foodservice suppliers and operators alike. So it’s not surprising the world’s largest foodservice event – the National Restaurant Association Show, held each year in Chicago at the end of May – includes a technical pavilion and ‘Innovation Hub’ devoted to showcasing the latest industry innovations and tech developments.


Attending the 2018 show, FI Foresight Director Rod Fowler was curious to see how much of this technology had penetrated the mainstream US marketplace. “There’s a huge amount of activity, but not so much that’s yet come through into the mainstream,” Rod reports. “But of course many of these concepts are being developed by startups and it is going to take a while yet for prototypes to be fully developed and make their way out into the marketplace.” That said, early adopters are often quick to reap the benefits of such technology, and given Australia’s entrepreneurial spirit and early tech takeup, some of the innovations on show will be sure to be making their way to our shores, if they’re not already here.

With the widespread adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a customer assistance tool on websites and mobile order platforms, it’s no surprise to learn that a multiple of mobile apps were on display – from virtual assistants for ordering online, to menu selection, meal pickup and delivery, queuing and table management.

The market potential for these, especially in the US where Quick Service Restaurants predominate, is strong as they provide a point of difference that helps the business stand apart from its competition while also facilitating greater customer convenience through improved service efficiency.  

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Publicising itself with the tagline of “put more ‘fast’ in your food”, the Apex Order Pickup System utilises a system of food lockers reminiscent of the old Automat system, but incorporating the latest technology to simplify order pickup and eliminate queuing. The consumer places their order via the restaurant’s mobile app, then arrives at the premises to collect it. They scan a QR code that’s been emailed to their smartphone to access a four digit code which unlocks the locker containing their order.  

There was also mobile POS technology showcased for drive-through orders, with the old system of a microphone into which consumers dictate their order being replaced by employees with tablet screens coming out to the consumers’ vehicles to interact with them and take their order in person, which is relayed by wi-fi to the kitchen staff.

“The range of services which was covered by apps was extremely comprehensive,” Rod reports. “One tableware supplier had an app which allowed restaurant owners to choose their plates, placemats, tablecloths and table settings via interactive photographic imagery – almost like a VR display, in that you could see the table setting as it would actually look and so conceptualise various concepts and combinations.” DSC_0583

Facial recognition software was also on display, with Bite’s intelligent kiosk system utilising this technology to improve order taking by being able to identify regular customers and their usual meal preferences. It can also be used to run a customer loyalty program – making traditional punch-hole loyalty cards as redundant as the bus conductors who used to punch your ticket. Instead, orders are simply tracked within the system and matched to the customer’s facial identification.

Digital menu inputs in the form of in-store touchscreens are making inroads in QSRs throughout the US and are now here in Australia. Not only do they reduce labour and save time, the data capture provided by the technology also allows you to make real-time menu adjustments in response to changing stock levels and customer demand. From promoting specials or adjusting pricing downwards or upwards in realtime – for example in response to overstocks or shortages – all can be done remotely via a digital app.

“Ultimately, these technologies are built around maximising efficiencies in terms of service, wait time, cooking speed or delivery,” Rod points out. “From automating order taking to removing some of the steps in the service process, it’s all directed at enabling foodservice operators to get food to the customer faster.”