Everyone loves to think about what the future will be like. Not the short term one, the thinking about which involves setting up college funds for the kids and wondering if you’ll ever be able to retire comfortably. I mean the distant future, where technology makes everything possible. It’s fun to think about the a world where the even the most mundane aspects of our daily lives are elevated to a fantastical status: robot dog-poop scoopers; instant pizza (just add water!); holographic television; functioning democratic societies in which the fact of humanity’s interconnected oneness spawns a civilisation based on love, compassion, and respect. You know: fun little pipe dreams.
But what about more specific futuristic flights of fancy? What’s the hospitality industry going to look like in 25 or 50 years? This post over at eater.com lays down a vision for what it could like like and, honestly? It’s not that much different than the present. Vince Dixon, the writer, imagines a restuarant that’s all touch screens and automation and technology driven foodservice.
Of course, that’s happening right now at a place called “eatsa,” where lines and cashiers are things of the past. You order on your phone, or at an iPad based kiosk in the store, you’re notified when it’s ready, and your food is picked up from an enclosed cubby with a touch screen door bearing your name. Behind the scenes, humans are making each dish to order, but no one ever sees how they do it. If diners see anybody working there, it’s just the ones who step out from behind the curtain and clean up the dining area. For eatsa, though, the revolution isn’t in the process that makes the food. It’s the food itself. The menu is entirely vegetarian—a variety of quinoa bowls packed with protein and vegetables and flavors from around the world. This kind of menu is one that would, by its nature (pun intended), cost much more than your average fast food chain cheeseburger. Wholesome, fresh ingredients tend to cost much more than the processed creations of food science. With the heavy automation and reliance on technology to efficiently power everything behind the scenes, they’re able to keep costs down considerably. Every entree on the eatsa menu is $6.95, and they don’t skimp on the portions. That’s more than enough to give McDonald’s a run for its money. Too bad they’re only serving quinoa bowls. It probably won’t be long till this model extends to other quick-serve concepts: grass fed burgers, artisan pizzas, street tacos—any type of food lends itself to his model, and every type of food gets better in the process.
But the restaurant of the future needn’t be some impersonal, soulless, quinoa shilling factory of hipster vegetarianism to learn from the eatsa model. Some of the magic that happens goes on behind the scenes that are already behind other scenes. With every transaction, eatsa adds new data to the customer’s profile, and to the company’s sales statistics as a whole. Gathering and analysing that data is a core component of the restaurant’s operating model, creating benefits that aren’t restricted to quickserves. As the eater.com restaurant-of-the-future fantasy describes it, a complex wireless infrastructure of in-store beacons can automatically check people in, recognise them from past visits and generate personalised menus and recommendations based on them. Rewards/loyalty program enrollment is automatic, and without even trying customers can receive and redeem offers. Imagine a waiter presenting you with your bill and saying, “Your last visit qualified you for a 10% discount, so we’ve automatically applied it here,” and you get the idea. Imagine a world where customers didn’t have to tell their waiters about their food “sensitivities,” because the restaurant’s database already knew. This makes ordering easier, but it also makes things more pleasant for everyone involved. Your gluten-free dinner companion will be shown a menu through a dynamic touch screen app, and the two of you won’t have to have a conversation about what is or is not gluten free. Even better, you won’t be subjected to the list of symptoms that accompany gluten intake, none of which are things you want to discuss over dinner. It’s that kind of business intelligence that’s going to be the hallmark of the restaurant of the future. Cashier-less transactions and food delivered in a cubby hole behind a touch screen are the kinds of things that get attention, because they’re alien enough to look futuristic and simple enough for everyone to understand. A big-data driven restaurant that relies on back-of-house applications and data to streamline and personalise the customer experience is way more complex. It’s also most likely going to be the defining characteristic of most successful restaurants—from small time, single location outposts to massive chains. I can say this with confidence because the technology is already here—and affordable. It’s almost as if the future is now. But it isn’t—I’d never say something that cliche. The future is tomorrow, and it always will be. The foundation of that future has already been built, though, and the restaurant of the future is slated to open in two week. Give or take a few days.