How Food Technology Is Improving the Restaurant Industry
See how your dining experience is getting a tech-savvy upgrade with these new digital tools for customers
When restaurants add innovative technology to the menu, it leads to better service-and food options-for you. Take Pizza Hut, for example-last month, the chain announced it had teamed up with a Swedish technology company to create a Subconscious Menu that uses eye-tracking technology to figure out what toppings you're most interested in before you actually know them yourself. And it's not just Pizza Hut that's tapping into the tech world-here, we explore the latest tech moves within the restaurant world that are guaranteed to enhance your eating experience.
Pizza Hut's Subconscious Menu
In November 2014, Pizza Hut and Tobii Technology announced the launch of the Subconscious Menu in U.K. Pizza Huts. According to the tech company, the menu-which features images of 20 ingredients commonly found on Pizza Hut pies-can determine what you're craving in exactly 2.5 seconds, by recognizing which ingredients your eyes have been looking at longest.
Brian Wansink, Ph.D., and author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life is a bit dubious, saying that the device may not work as well as Pizza Hut hopes. "The results will be 100 percent biased because the eye naturally pauses longer on items on the corners of a menu," he explains. "For instance, if anchovies are on the upper right corner and parsley is on the lower right, your eyes will linger longer there and the menu will say you want those on your pizza, even if you don't." (Can't find anything healthy on the menu? Remember these 15 Off-Menu Healthy Meals You Can Always Order.)
For seven years, Domino's has offered customers the opportunity to digitally follow their pizza's entire journey, from the time it's ordered, through the prepping and baking processes, to when it leaves the store. The Domino's Tracker has developed with technology: It was originally available on computers, then smartphones and tablets, and soon you'll be able to get it on your wrist-the pizza giant recently announced a partnership with smart watch-manufacturer Pebble, so you'll be able to check on your pizza just like you would the time.
Wansink says while the tracker is a lot of fun, both Domino's and Pizza Hut could probably better use data gathered from these programs to further customize the ordering process: "If I were them, I would use data to see what combinations of ingredients are most often ordered together and orient them in clusters on the menu," he said. Not only could this possibly help them sell additional toppings, but it could also offer you delicious new discoveries.
Dunkin' Donuts has its Dunkin' Mobile App and Mama Fu's has its Funatics Club, and now Hooters is getting in on the customer loyalty app game. On their HootClub app, which launched earlier this year as a pilot program in Atlanta, diners can enter a code from their receipt into the customer loyalty app and receive discounts, rewards, and promotions. Wansink says the app is also a great way for the restaurant chain to gather data on order habits and then customize communications about rewards and promotions to individuals based on their purchase history.
Coca-Cola Freestyle Machine
Have you seen those soda dispensers that boast a touch screen and all the different flavors you could want? The Freestyle Machine may have been launched in 2009, but with its 100-plus offerings from all Coca-Cola brands, we're still in awe of it. These 21st century soda fountains-which Coke calls "the ultimate drink experience"-allow you to create a myriad of concoctions, including flavors Coca-Cola doesn't even offer in the bottle, like Raspberry Vanilla Sprite.
Brian Wansink is certainly a fan. "I love it. My family selects a fast food restaurant based on whether or not they have one of these machines," he says. The soda giant just launched an accompanying app, too, so you can create your favorite combination before you're there (or save old favorites)-plus, the machine will connect to the app once you get close enough and dispense your pre-selected flavors. (This technology is cool, but we all know soda is a habit you should kick. Are You Addicted to Diet Soda?)
Tabletop Tablets at Chili's
Recently, Chili's installed more than 45,000 tabletop tablets in its 823 company-owned restaurants in an effort to make the dining experience as frictionless as possible. The tablets, custom-made by technology company Ziosk, allow customers to order food, pay for the meal, and kill time between orders playing 99-cent video games (Chili's servers still bring the food and make sure the customers are satisfied).
The tablets are a convenience for customers, but they also have a commercial upside for Chili's. In an interview with Nation's Restaurant News, Chili's VP of marketing Edithann Ramey reported that while testing the tablets, Chili's restaurants saw increases in per person average check. "People are buying more food and add-ons like desserts and drinks at the table," she said, adding that the significant boon the tablets provided in the collection of customer email addresses, as well as the revenue they shared with Ziosk from the video games, is "the cherry on top."
Taco Bueno's High-Tech Checklists
Not all restaurant tech innovations are for the patrons-the Taco Bueno restaurant chain is using tablets and mobile technology to help manage operations behind the scenes. To save its kitchen staff from having to memorize a litany of recipes and food preparation policies, the restaurant added tablets to push recipes to its line cooks. According to AirWatch, the company that manages the program, "managers use them to digitally track restaurant quality assurance checklists including food temperature readings, pictures of the dining area demonstrating cleanliness, a readiness check prior to lunch and dinner, and security audits." Employees also use the tablets for training purposes, and the AirWatch tablet system helps the corporate office send marketing materials directly to restaurant managers.