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Futuristic Restaurant Tech Comes Closer Because of COVID-19


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The move toward more digitally driven operations has been happening since the first digital calculator hit the market in the 1970s. But the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed restaurant operators to accelerate their adoption of cutting-edge technology to adapt to this new normal of extreme focus on health. 

The push to new health technology is being driven by the consumer. Whether it’s social distancing and reduced contact or keeping sick people out of a facility or enhanced cleaning, a large portion of consumers are wary to return to restaurants. 

In a recent survey by traffic analytics and consumer surveying company Sense360, 49 percent of respondents said they were not convinced it was safe to dine in a restaurant yet. And traffic patterns since that survey have largely proven that consumers are still worried about getting sick. 

“We definitely have seen consumers really care about that, it’s one of the top drivers of their decision-making process,” said Sense360 founder and CEO Eli Portnoy. “The general trend we’re seeing is that, at a high level, consumers are slowly and skittishly coming back. But they’re not coming back on local regulations but on their own own comfort level.”

He said brands that have a higher perception of cleanliness are getting better traction in the sales rebound. 

Brands large and small are communicating their new disinfection and cleanliness efforts, but the new technology helps the leaders really stand out. 

For one, Flippy, the burger flipping and fry-frying robot developed by Miso Robotics, is getting an upgrade via a partnership with PathSpot, a hand-scanning device to determine if employees have washed their hands. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 73 percent of hand washes fail to meet disinfection requirements (ew). With PathSpot in the facility, that changes dramatically. 

“With PathsSpot you see 97 percent effective hand washing after a few months,” said Miso Robotics CEO Buck Jordan. “That’s incredible, that’s an order of magnitude in improvement right there. You can’t underestimate that when people are watching you, you behave differently. The fact that you’re going to have your handwash checked changes behavior.”

The first iteration of the partnership is just adding a PathSpot scan to standard operating procedures for stocking or cleaning Flippy. But he said further integration might utilize machine vision of Flippy to watch for employees who go to the bathroom, and require them to scan their hands before they can operate Flippy at all. 

The company, which is going through Reg A+ crowdfunding right now, also integrated with PopID, another peer technology company under the Cali Group umbrella (which also owns CaliBurger) and that allows for facial payment. The company uses thermal cameras to determine if someone has a fever, alerting staff for another layer of infection prevention. 

Kogniz takes that fever tracking and mask-checking to the next level, using AI to spot fevers and people without masks at high speed at the door. The company began as an AI solution for watching security footage, but pivoted to watching for sick people. It’s a novel way to look for people at corporate facilities, large venues or in high-traffic restaurants and malls. Areas that are still closed in most regions and would see incredible wait times with traditional temperature checking. 

“Right now, we're doing pre-screening and people are confirming with a thermometer. We’re going to want to reopen at some point,” said CEO Daniel Putterman. “And correspondingly we’re seeing 30- to 40-minute wait times. So, it’s a question of what can we do with technology to make it easier for staff while still protecting them.” 

He said with proprietary cameras and the AI behind it, the system can spot warm people, but also measure that against the ambient temperature to account for the as much as 7-degree difference of people’s skin throughout the day. If someone is flagged for a high temperature relative to that ambient temperature and other people, a staff member can be alerted. It’s the same for people not wearing a mask. So instead of having a staff member standing at every door with a long line of people waiting to get a temperature check and reminding people of the mask policy, the system can watch multiple entrances and alert a dedicated staff member to respond. 

He said the company started to integrate with a number of food processors to help at the most sensitive end of the restaurant supply chain, but at under $10,000 it could be an option for high-volume foodservice operators or venues as well. 

Even the chatbots are helping in the new normal. 

Valyant AI, which has been integrated with a chatbot named Holly into a drive-thru to relieve staff of most order-taking duties, is moving indoors to integrate with ordering kiosks in a partnership with KIOSK Information Systems.  

“As we see dining rooms open up, we want to make it really safe and easily accessible environment for consumers.  I think speed is going to play a more important factor, so being able to use your voice is a good use of that technology, you’re still saving that employee talking to people and you have a lot lower chance of spreading a virus,” said Valyant AI founder and CEO Rob Carpenter. “Then it saves the consumer from having to touch anything and make it all quick and efficient so you can have less of a queue in line. Getting people through the process is going to be an important piece.” 

Basically, the AI works the same as the drive thru, asking if people want fries with that order but doing so intelligently to speed things up and allowing customers to use key phrases like “that’s it” to complete the transaction immediately. 

Kim Kenney, president at KIOSK, said the technology can work on both large-format kiosks or counter-top devices. But there’s no AI Alexa employee quite yet because seeing those fries and that cool drink is still great marketing. 

Carpenter said they’ve signed several deals around the conversational AI, and are currently in talks with “one of the largest QSRs” to roll the technology out at massive scale. 

Certainly, if a vaccine comes sooner than later, a lot of the acceleration may slow down. But as consumers in the near term look for less contact and more peace of mind, these technologies and others are going to be novel ways for restaurant to demonstrate their safety. And even after this new normal gives way to just normal again, the efficiency and safety brought by these tools will still be important. 

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The latest news, opinions and commentary on what's happening in the franchise arena that could affect your business.

Laura MichaelsLaura Michaels is editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3210, or send story ideas to lmichaels@franchisetimes.com.
 
Beth EwenBeth Ewen is senior editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3212, or send story ideas to bewen@franchisetimes.com.
 
Nicholas UptonNicholas Upton is restaurants editor at Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3226, or send story ideas to nupton@franchisetimes.com.
 
Mary Jo LarsonMary Jo Larson is the publisher of Franchise Times Magazine and the Restaurant Finance Monitor.  You can find her on Twitter at
 twitter.com/mlarson1011.
 

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