Rise of the machines: how technology is changing F&B

Read our February cover story on the difference being made by tech
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Technology comes in many forms, including robot bartenders
Technology comes in many forms, including robot bartenders

According to film legend, Skynet became self-aware in 1997 and by 2018 the Earth was a post-apocalyptic wasteland completely controlled by computers.

A quick look out my window in 2020 suggests that James Cameron’s 1984 Terminator film series was slightly off-base with these predictions, but as I watch electric cars and the fully-automated Dubai Metro whizz by, it’s clear that technological advances are making a significant impact on the world as we know it.

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But, how has that translated into the hospitality sector? On the face of it, not much has changed. The basic restaurant experience remains the same. You go to your favourite outlet, the front of house staff take your order, the back of house staff make your dish, and it gets served, by a human, to your seat.

There have been attempts to change that. In 2015, in Japan, a hotel staffed entirely by robots opened up. From the concierge to housekeepers to wait staff, it was to be a fully technological operation. By 2019 it had ‘sacked’ half of its mechanical help, citing unpopularity with guests and that they actually created more work for humans to do.

The personal touch between customers and staff has always been a key factor in the success of any hospitality venture, so the robots’ lack of warmth was probably no surprise in its demise. But, the failure of the Japanese hotel hasn’t stopped restaurateurs from experimenting with non-human front of house staff.

Cavalli Club in Dubai has introduced the region’s first robotic bartender. Created by Makr Shakr, Toni, because of course it has a name, can mix up to 100 drinks per hour, and general manager Hayan Abou Assali says it has been a hit.

“Our customers are amazed by the robotic bartender, it could feel a bit intimidating at first for some guests, removing that level of human interaction, but once they try it out, they just love it. Customers always record the robotic cocktail experience and share it on their social media.”

The benefits are clear: Toni won’t take sick days, it’s a one-off cost rather than having to pay a salary, and the drinks ordering process is simple and quick, with the customer simply inputting their choice via tablet.

Japanese restaurant Tanuki at Dubai Mall has also introduced a front of house robot, Apoll0. It puts on hourly shows, can recognize regular guests’ faces, and answer questions. Bulldozer Group operations director Oleksii Kolomiiets says guests “love” him, but due to space issues, he can’t be utilized as a waiter as he is supposed to and Kolomiiets doesn’t believe he’s likely to be replacing Tanuki’s hardworking human staff any time soon.

He says: “Replacing waiters with only robots could potentially take the ‘hospitality’ out of dining. I think that the F&B industry will continue to introduce innovative technology solutions and we’d like to have more robot hosts in Tanuki, but we pride ourselves on our fast and friendly service, so we would never replace our floor team with a dozen Appoll0s.”

At Cavalli, Assali is similarly pessimistic that we’ll be seeing a Skynet-like takeover of robot barstaff. “Technology is perfect for creating consistency. It will always give you same drink, taste and presentation. Technology is also a perfect tool for the bar industry in regard to inventory, as, for example, our robotic bar gives us an exact consumption on a daily basis. Saying this, we don’t think that robots will ever overtake real life bartenders as people like that human interaction and the skill and flair of a human bartender. It’s often the staff that can really elevate a bar to new levels.”

So while robot staff haven’t yet hit the mainstream, Cavalli has had success with letting customers order their food and drinks using an app, saving on customer queueing and allowing its bar staff to concentrate on making the drinks rather than taking the orders – which can be difficult in a busy, loud club.
QSRs have seen great success in this department, with McDonald’s one of the leaders when it comes to introducing touchscreen ordering technology that requires little-to-no human input.

McDonald’s UAE general manager Walid Fakih says: “The self-ordering kiosks offer our customers the convenience of ordering in a more efficient way while enabling them to take their time browsing through the menu without feeling rushed.

“The kiosks serve as enablers to transform the ordering experience from ‘order here’ to ‘order anywhere’. By giving consumers a choice, we are also reducing the flow of traffic to our counter staff, meaning everyone can have a speedier and more efficient experience.”

Feedback has been positive, with an ever increasing number of customers choosing to use the touschreen kiosks rather than go up to the counter, but Fakih says McDonald’s still believes in “the power of the human touch” and there are “no plans in place to phase out our counter staff”.

Digital menus are also being used at Leen’s Casual to Gourmet restaurant chain due to the advantages they offer of traditional paper menus.

All four locations can have their menus updated simultaneously, with images giving guests a clear idea of what their dishes will look like also – key in our Instagram-obsessed society. It’s also better for the environment, with no need to reprint paper menus every time a dish is updated. Leen’s takes advantage of the unlimited space provided by digital menus to offer full nutrition and allergen advice for each dish, making it safer and healthier for customers.

But while robotic bartenders remain restaurant oddities, and touchscreen and digital ordering is in its infancy across the industry, there has been a widespread uptake of technology in other ways.

At number one in our Power 50 list for influencers this year was Donna Benton whose The Entertainer discount app changed the way F&B worked in Dubai. With a database of restaurants willing to offer two-for-one on meals and brunches, consumers had access to more information and more savings at their fingertips than ever before.

It held a virtual monopoly on the market for years, and has faced a backlash from some restaurateurs who feel it has devalued their product, but now a range of competitor apps, some from the operators themselves and some from independent companies, are battling it out to save consumers money.
With some restaurants trying to move away from discounting, Peter Smith’s Let’s DXB app positions itself as an information platform first – albeit one with discounts also.

“We aim to provide a one stop shop for everything F&B in Dubai. Happy hour info, ladies nights, restaurants, bars and, of course our most popular section, brunches. We bill it as the ultimate guide to eating, drinking and brunching in Dubai”

Having listened to clients’ feedback, Let’s DXB hasn’t gone down The Entertainer’s strict buy-one-get-one route. Smith says: “We differentiate by offering percentage discounts which gives our clients flexibility - it isn’t an all or nothing discount like a two-for-one. It also means we can offer members top quality venues which wouldn’t give two-for-one but can do 20% off for example. That middle ground is where we place ourselves, looking for quality deals.”

Let’s DXB also differentiates itself by being completely free of charge, unlike The Entertainer which customers must buy in the first instance.
Examples such as Let’s DXB showcase where technology is making the biggest difference to the F&B industry. Through data.

Now, more than ever, restaurateurs have access to a wealth of data about their businesses, their customers, and how the two are interacting, with the key battleground being ensuring they are using this information correctly.

Anjum Sadaqat, CEO and founder of Intellytics, tries to help restaurateurs make the most of the data at their disposal.

He explains: “Restaurants generate immense amounts of data through their POS, online ordering, aggregators, CRM, food safety, customer feedback, brand audits, financials, IOT data from equipment, BOH solutions, labor planning etc. Not having easy access is a huge challenge. Traditionally all these provide data in silos and are extremely difficult to mine for insights as they are all unstructured from an analytics standpoint. So in effect, most companies are only tapping into 15%-30% of the basic data without any real insights. I would call this confirmatory insights, i.e. validates popular belief and understanding of the business performance at a high level only. However, no new insights are driven by any data mining tools where it would help decision making, improve your understanding of customer or their buying behavior etc.

“If the data was structured for analytics properly, the restaurants would be able to better understand their customers, their purchasing behaviors, their preferences of what they buy, when they buy it and how they consume it, like at a restaurant or have it delivered. Restaurants will be able to use the data to improve their operational performances leading to improved speed or service, quality of food (hot and fresh), reduce waste and improve margins incl. customer satisfaction etc.”

One example of where restaurants can now take advantage of that data is through online reviews. Customers have been leaving reviews on a variety of websites and apps for years, and now online management tool Localyser can help restaurants manage and understand exactly what is being said about them.

“Our data indicates that the average restaurant location receives 10-15 reviews per week, scattered across an average of seven different sources, including Google, Zomato, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Talabat and Reserve Out. Brands with over 10 locations, for example, would need to have 70 different touch points in order to monitor and respond to all reviews on time,” says Localyser founder and CEO Tarik Qahawish.

It’s an example of using data to be more hands-on with customers who appreciate receiving responses from restaurants when there’s an issue, while reaching out to potential customers who can witness the interactions and see a restaurant operator who cares.

Localyser is already working on giving restaurateurs more way to utilize the data, says Qahawish.

“Looking ahead to 2020, we intend to introduce a more sophisticated AI analytical tool that helps restaurants identify problem areas much faster and in more detail. Not only that, the AI capabilities allows our customers to discover new opportunities by analysing thousands of reviews, which in turn provides intel insight on consumer trends such as new menu items, service delivery and new outlet expansion.”

So while it may look like technology is having a limited impact on the restaurant industry from the front of house perspective, the deeper you go, the more that committed restaurateurs can use data and information provided by technology to ensure a smoother customer experience.

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