NRAshowlowres

As I walked about the aisles of the National Restaurant Association Show I was on the lookout for new technology and equipment that can help foodservice operators. Usually, my first stop is at the Kitchen Innovation Showroom, because this space exhibits innovative foodservice equipment and technologies as vetted by a very capable group of judges. As expected, several items caught my industrial engineering in foodservice-oriented eye. Any time I look at a piece of equipment I ask myself how the device can make the employee’s life easier, so that they can drive better hospitality that drives sales, resulting in more profits and better unit economics for the concept – the main goal of any thriving brand.

This year I also secured input from several of our consultants that also attended the show. You can kind of say that I got assistance from Santa’s helpers, so to speak. There was a lot to write about, so I am going to split the write up into two articles. Here’s part one.

Some prominent themes at this year’s show include:

  • Multiuse equipment
  • Equipment that takes less space
  • More compact work stations
  • Plant-based food offerings – definitely a huge presence in the show
  • Technology – the technology pavilion keeps getting bigger each year
  • Artificial intelligence

Automation/robotics remains prevalent, but this topic often comes with an additional twist meant to augment the customer experience, rather than just saving on labor. The number of new pieces on display were less than what I saw last year. The salad-making robot was back again this year. One of my simple favorites in the automation category was a dryer that operates under a wet floor cone. Why is this automation, you ask? Well the way I see it, the floor is being dried by a machine, not a human, so the operator does not allocate labor to accomplish this task. Now remember that automation takes many forms, making it easy to occasionally miss the fact that a product represents a form of automation.

One specific form of automation that caught my eye was voice ordering systems. Part of this exhibit referenced the fact that Sonic Drive-In Restaurants plans to test this technology. Apparently, what’s old is new again. Back in about 1991, as a member of Burger King’s Industrial Engineering Department, I visited the Bell Labs and was able to read paragraphs from the The Wall Street Journal into a voice recognition machine. What was interesting to me is that although the article contained very complex words, the accuracy of my spoken words as they were written by the machine was very high.

Today, most of our cell phones and many other automated systems have this technology and they are somewhat accurate. In my experience, if the background is noisy, the results are not as good. This technology can become innovative and interesting if developers can find a way to make it work more consistently in noisier environments where voices are out in the open with many accents and tones.

I am looking forward to seeing how this technology evolves since it can clearly impact Sonic’s business by reducing the need for labor to take the order. Perhaps they should, or are also already testing, customer order pads at the parking stalls. Kind of like, for those of us that are a bit more tenured, the old drive-in movie theater speakers whre you ordered from your parking spot to a kitchen and then a server would bring you the food.   

I will provide more details with specific examples in a subsequent write-up.  More to come from the recently finished NRA Show!