Restaurant automation has a dark side too

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Automation solutions like self-order kiosks and kitchen display systems make restaurants more efficient, as evidenced by the surge of investments in these technologies.

But managing the data to manage equipment brings its own challenges, according to industry experts participating in a panel at the Fast Casual Executive Summit this week at the JW Marriott in Austin.

Erik Koenig, vice president of strategic marketing and product content at Heritage Parts, moderated the talk, “How technology advancements are changing your kitchen and BoH operations.”

Panelist Geoff Alexander, president of Wao Bao, began by discussing the arrival of self-order kiosks a decade ago and efficiencies gained in both the front and back of the house operations. Alexander, one of the industry’s most astute students of automation, views order accuracy as one of the most important contributions of self-order kiosks.”The guest is in control,” he said.

In addition, “the KDS has made the life of the cook easier,” he said. Other benefits cited are tracking the performance of menu items in 15-minute increments, forecasting daypart traffic and controlling back-of-the-house labor.

“We can be tighter on the labor in the back of the house,” he said, since the technology makes the employees more productive.

In 2017, Wow Bao became the first licensee of Eatsa’s automated technology. In addition to allowing guests to place orders via kiosks or mobile app, the restaurant provides the added convenience of letting guests pick up their orders from cubbies that alert them on the status of their orders.

The technology also allows Alexander to arrange the order of items on digital menu boards based on an individual restaurant basis.

More versatile training

Technology is also enabling more versatile training tools, said panelist Dennis O’Toole, founder of Field Service Technologies and principal consultant at Kitchen Equipment Solutions, which specializes in kitchen equipment repair.

Many types of kitchen equipment now boast touchscreens, he said, which make it easier to train employees. Alexander agreed, noting that “smart” equipment can be monitored remotely, which makes repair and maintenance easier and more efficient. “The manager can always re-access it,” he said.

Automation’s pros and cons

The panelists agreed automation brings more data to manage, which is both beneficial and challenging. “There’s so much information that we’re getting,” Alexander said. Even the hiring process is more efficient as new hires can fill out paperwork remotely.

Kiosk and mobile phone orders also provide Alexander data on customer buying habits, which has created effective marketing. For example, he sends an email with a special offer if a local customer has not visited in three weeks. He sends special offers for as long as 12 weeks to encourage a return visit.

But despite the benefits, the panelists agreed the volume of data that manufacturers are providing often makes it difficult for operators to know what data to use. O’Toole said many operators are not taking advantage of the remote monitoring capabilities of their kitchen equipment, such as combi ovens, and a poll of those in the room verified this observation.

“I don’t need to know when my freezer door is closed,” O’Toole said. “I need to know when it’s open.”

More communication needed

To address the challenge, the panelists agreed more communication is needed between operators and manufacturers. If manufacturers know what data operators want, they will be able to provide it to them. They said that given the data manufacturers are providing, operators need to figure out what to do and not do.

“We need a way to make it easier to understand,” said Alexander, who spends 45 minutes a day reading emails. “Who’s got the time to read this stuff? It’s a lot of work,” he said.

Alexander is looking at building his own dashboard to collect needed information in one place. One reason is because he wants to be able to integrate third party delivery software with his POS. He currently has nine delivery tablets.

The equipment manufacturers will also need to provide the reports to the operator’s dashboard, saving them the need to access it on their own, O’Toole said.

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