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How Emerging Tech Is Transforming the Food Industry

As technology advances, we will undoubtedly see more and more processes being enhanced by automation. Inevitably, though, such advancements raise the philosophical question: How much is too much? As robots and machines become more capable of providing services previously performed exclusively by people, are we losing sight of the importance of the human touch?

Let's take a look at three of the most celebrated innovations in the industry lately: predictive machine learning, automated processes and personal advisory tech.

Predictive Machine Learning Algorithms

The fast food industry is continuously experimenting with online or in-store digital ordering, which when done well can offer a smoother experience for customers who prefer that type of purchase process. With the aggregated information provided by repeat customers' habits over time, these systems can build individualized profiles including a user's preferred store location, usual transaction time of day and menu preferences. So your friendly neighborhood algorithm can review your purchase history and offer personalized recommendations.

DoorDash is an online ordering platform offering delivery from partner restaurants local to users. They've built their delivery system on artificial intelligence — not only does AI offer individualized suggestions to users, it also optimizes delivery drivers' routes for traffic and maximizes efficiencies in accordance with the peak hours of each restaurant.

DoorDash and its competitors occupy a win-win business niche, helping both consumers and restaurants. Customers get quick, convenient delivery from their favorite restaurants, many of which don't offer delivery services themselves. Restaurant managers see a lift in sales they might not generate on their own. Importantly, when the ordering process is shifted from a phone call or counter visit at the restaurant to an online transaction, the key to ensuring the all-important human touch is to refine and perfect the real-world interaction between the delivery driver and the consumer. That can potentially be problematic, as regular users of companies like Lyft or Airbnb can attest. In today's gig economy a customer's experience may vary wildly depending on which non-staff part-timer or loosely screened contractor is selected to deliver service in the company's name. When companies reserve the right to distance themselves from incidents of poor customer service, there's the risk — however small — of all parties walking away disappointed.

Automation of Processes

Creator, the brainchild of the start-up Momentum Machines, is a restaurant in San Francisco built as the showcase for a burger-building robot capable of producing up to 400 hamburgers per hour. Customers use tablets in the restaurant to order, and the orders are sent to the robot to prep, cook and assemble. (Check out this Tech Crunch video to see the process in action and hear Creator's founder talk about the technology.) With such highly customized automation, the concept could be seen as an end to inconsistent product quality and human error — or it could be perceived as a threat to the livelihood of fast-food workers.

But while automated machines could potentially replace some aspects of human labor, let's remember that they wouldn't be appropriate in all (or even most) restaurants. It might be cheaper and more efficient in the long term for tablets and robots to do the job, but generally speaking wouldn't most diners prefer to interact with walking, talking waitstaff? How should a restaurant with a high level of technical automation position itself in the market with regard to attributes like luxury, warmth and professional service?

Personal Advisory Technology

By now most of us are familiar with wearable devices and smartphone apps for personal fitness tracking and lifestyle advice. These applications track your everyday habits and make recommendations to improve your diet and fitness routine based on your digital and physical inputs. Some consumers have grown to see these devices and apps as their own personal life coach. Applications like Freeletics use AI to create workout regimens that fit your individual goals, with the algorithm capable of creating virtually infinite variations to ensure users are never bored.

The shortfall of advisory apps, of course, is that the results are limited by a device's physical and software capabilities, so it has no way of acquiring full-scope insights about the success of the user. Unlike a human trainer, these applications can't anticipate and individually address questions, concerns or issues the user might encounter. While the AI can make recommendations based on what information it can gather, it can’t check in like a dietician to know whether a user's meal schedule is going to plan, whether safe preparation techniques or proper ingredients are used, or whether the user is satisfied with the choices they were given.

The Takeaway

Invention and innovation have been constants since the beginning of the food industry. With each generation's breakthroughs has come industry-wide discussion: Are we doing this just because we can, or is this really a better way? Is this a competitive advantage, or a marketing gimmick? Advancements in technology can add efficiency, improve convenience and even reinvent the consumer's experience. But we should always remember that eating is not just sustenance for the body, but nourishment for the soul. So when it comes to tech in the food industry, we advise clients to investigate all feasible options and to stay current on the latest trends and disruptive innovations; then test the new solutions that appear to match the organization's goals and strategy. When testing is successful, implement the updates and reap the benefits — or review learnings and move on when results don't pan out.

We may not all be ready to use our smartwatch to order up home delivery of a robot burger just yet, but continual curiosity and willingness to try out appropriate new methodologies is almost always the right approach.