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Restaurant operators take facial-recognition at face value

Restaurant operators take facial-recognition at face value

New POS systems recognize customers, speed throughput

Restaurants operators are beginning to take facial-recognition point-of-sale systems at face value.

Since the November release of the iPhone X, which unlocks by scanning the owner’s mug, facial recognition has started to rear its head at fast-casual restaurants.

“Every generation is having fun with it,” said Jon Alexis, partner in the fast-casual Malibu Poke in Dallas, which opened Nov. 28 with three kiosks that allow guests to save their order history and access them again through facial recognition. “It has exceeded my expectations.”

Malibu Poke partner Jon Alexis andFT33 chef Matt McAlister

And the facial-recognition capabilities are expanding beyond the scattered independents to isolated tests at multi-unit brands like North Palm Beach, Fla.-based BurgerFi International Inc., Plymouth Meeting, Pa.-based Bryn + Dane’s, and Burlington, Mass.-based UFood Grill. A KFC affiliate in China tested facial-recognition earlier this year.

“I would say a minority of guests use it, but it’s a growing minority,” said Alexis, who also owns two full-service T.J.’s Seafood Market & Grill units in Dallas, said in an interview.

“Our concern in the beginning was that it was going to be a parlor trick and no one would use it,” he said. “But the biggest thing that happened was iPhone coming out with its X [model] and facial recognition capabilities. That was the seal of approval that this is real.”

In the weeks since opening, Alexis said he and his team have been watching customer feedback and making almost daily tweaks to the kiosk interface, which has increased Malibu Poke’s speed of service.

The average user spent 157 seconds at the kiosk when the restaurant opened, and by the first week of December that had been trimmed to 126 seconds, Alexis said.

“We’ve shaved 30 seconds off the experience already, and we’re also getting other data that we can use,” he said. “It’s everything. It is my entire front of house staff. It’s my steps of service. It is my training documents.”

Some of the interface changes have included, for example, adding an information button on each bowl so customers can get a detailed list of ingredients for the menu items, which were created with chef Matt McAlister, owner of the popular FT33 fine-dining restaurant in Dallas.

“People were craning their necks to look up at the menu board,” Alexis said. “One click on the little button offers that now. The customer is in complete control. Response has improved, and it’s getting more intuitive.”

Alexis chose the Malibu Poke kiosks from Troy, Mich.-based Nextep Systems, the foodservice technology company that took the facial-recognition software live in January 2017.

“It personalizes the guest experience,” said Liah Luther, Nextep Systems marketing manager, in answer to emailed questions. “Who doesn’t love the convenience of walking into their favorite restaurant, where they’re recognized immediately and asked if they want the usual?”

Luther said facial recognition gives the guest that experience after just one visit. Alexis noted that most customers decide to use it on the second visit, after they have become more familiar with the menu.

“Use the kiosk once, opt into facial recognition and the next time you visit you can reorder and pay for your favorite dish in less than 10 seconds,” Luther said. “This level of personalization gives guests two gifts: control and time.”

Luther said speed of service remains one of the biggest benefits of facial recognition.

“We’ve seen that fast-casual restaurants have benefited from facial recognition the most, because they tend to have so many build-your-own options,” she said. “A few decades ago, the assembly line was the best and only way to handle these complex orders quickly.

“Customers love customizing their food, but don’t love the pressure of walking down the line, making choices while people wait for them,” she continued. “Now, self-order technology has eclipsed the assembly line. Guests order easily and — with facial recognition — incredibly fast.”

Alexis added that the face recognition helps differentiate the new Malibu Poke brand. “Our motto is customization, and we want to put out fine-dining food in a fast-casual setting,” he said. “The facial recognition helps guests remember what they’ve ordered and, with one click, reorder their entire bowl.”

That one-click ordering makes the customizing process easy and painless, he said.

“But all of that is inconsequential if it doesn’t work,” he said. “It really helps our throughput. Imagine one person taking orders one by one instead of at three kiosks. At the lunch rush, people fly through there.”

Kiosks with facial recognition are more expensive than traditional point-of-sale systems, Alexis acknowledged.

Typical POS systems can range from several thousand dollars to tens of thousands, depending on the hardware, software and monthly service fees. Luther said Nextep Systems doesn’t publicize its pricing because it varies so much from customer to customer. “We really tailor the solution to fit each restaurant’s needs,” she explained.

Alexis called Malibu Poke’s facial-recognition the Ferrari of POS systems.

“I paid for a Ferrari,” he said with laugh. “But I’m really happy with my Ferrari.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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