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Panera Bread and Taco Bell have both been tech pioneers in the restaurant industry and now both brands are pushing the boundaries of tech-forward store prototypes.

Tech Tracker: Store prototypes keep getting more high-tech; Kraft to launch restaurant in the metaverse

Panera announces a digital pickup-only store, while Taco Bell announces the ‘Defy’ prototype with four drive-thru lanes and QR code ordering

These days, even the most regional restaurant chains are investing in new store prototypes with smaller dining rooms and increased focus on drive-thrus and digital orders. To keep up with consumer demand, the most tech-forward brands are coming up with even flashier, digital-forward store designs, like Taco Bell’s newly announced ‘Defy’ four lane-drive thru design.

This month, the restaurant industry observed several new digital technology-focused store prototypes being announced, including at Taco Bell and Panera.

Robots are again taking up space in the restaurant industry, with Grubhub bringing delivery bots to college campuses and Chick-fil-A investing in AI. Also, the latest food brand to dive into the metaverse is Kraft, which filed trademarks for NFTs and a future digital restaurant.

Tech Tracker rounds up what’s happening in the technology sector of the restaurant industry, including news from restaurants, vendors, digital platforms, and third-party delivery companies. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know and why:

Kraft enters the metaverse

Kraft became the latest — and one of the largest — food companies to enter the metaverse by filing trademark applications for its brands Kraft, Jell-o, Kool-Aid, Velveeta, Lunchables, Oscar Meyer, and Philadelphia. Like almost every other brand before it, Kraft has not made any official announcement of plans for its digital presence, but the trademark includes NFTs, and virtual restaurants, food and drinks. Kraft isn’t the only restaurant to make the digital dive: Tony Roma’s applied for NFT trademarks in the metaverse last month.

Panera and Taco Bell launch digital tech-forward store formats

Panera Bread and Taco Bell have both been tech pioneers in the restaurant industry and now both brands are pushing the boundaries of tech-forward store prototypes.

Taco Bell’s new store offering will be known as “Defy” and opened in Brooklyn Park, Minn. this month with four drive-thru lanes and a host of digital tech conveniences like digital check-in screens that let customers place orders via QR code and get their food delivered by a contactless proprietary lift system, while two-way audio and video features will allow customers to chat with employees throughout the touchless process.

While Panera Bread’s new Panera To Go unit with no seating is not nearly as flashy as Taco Bell, it’s worth noting that Panera has been pushing the boundaries of contactless technology since the pandemic began. Panera to Go follows the announcement of contactless dine-in service, and has both a drive-thru and a pickup area for guests and delivery drivers.

Chick-fil-A now has delivery robots

Chick-fil-A is the latest quick-service restaurant to dabble in AI technology. The chicken chain is partnering with Refraction AI to test autonomous delivery at two locations in Austin, Texas (which is proving to be the hotbed of autonomous delivery and drone tests).

This self-driving robot drives either in the bike lane or shoulder of the road and is designed to complete last-mile deliveries without pressing further labor needs.

“The platform will allow us to provide fast, high quality, and cost-effective meal delivery within a mile radius of our restaurant all while helping to keep the community we serve environmentally clean and safe,” Chick-fil-A franchisee Luke Steigmeyer said about the service being tested at his restaurant.

Grubhub brings autonomous delivery to college campuses

Speaking of delivery robots, Grubhub is investing in AI and bringing bots to college campuses nationally this fall in partnership with Cartken. The pilot was tested in partnership with Ohio State University this spring and will now be rolled out to 250 college campuses when students return from summer break.

"We're thrilled to be working with Grubhub to delight students and campus staff with robot delivery," Christian Bersch, CEO of Cartken said in a statement. "This collaboration perfectly aligns with our mission to use robotics and AI technology to provide friction-free and environmentally sustainable delivery, and have robots serve the community.”

Lunchbox acquires digital ordering provider NovaDine

Tech trailblazer Lunchbox has entered the acquisition space for a second time with the announcement that the company has agreed to acquire NovaDine, which offers an end-to-end digital ordering solution. NovaDine’s roster of restaurant partners includes Firehouse Subs, Torchy's Tacos, Taco Bueno, and Steak & Shake—which have now been added to Lunchbox’s list of partners.   

This announcement comes on the heels of Lunchbox’s acquisition of online marketplace, Spread. With these acquisitions, Lunchbox cements its goal of becoming the go-to end-to-end tech solution.

"Traditionally, restaurants have faced the enormous hurdle of having to choose between multiple different technology tools to run their businesses, understand their digital clients and scale operations,” Lunchbox CEO Nabeel Alamgir said in a statement. “NovaDine has built an entire platform that enables the operator to manage all digital orders from a single operating system.”

DoorDash adds Yelp-like review features

DoorDash has been busy over the past month, with the finalization of food delivery company Wolt’s acquisition, and the announcement that the company would launch and curate in-app reviews, much like Yelp, to expand its algorithm to customer recommendations.

DoorDash now offers customers lists of top-rated restaurants in their neighborhood, with features including written reviews and most liked items, to end the customer tendency of endless, aimless scrolling through the DoorDash app.

DoorDash is the last of the “big three” delivery companies to add written reviews, but the first to include curated top 10 lists for customers based on cuisine, location, etc.

Square launches mobile POS capabilities

POS systems are making the upgrade as operators demand for more capabilities on handheld devices, as opposed to traditional POS systems. Square announced last month a new capability: Square for Restaurants mobile POS, which allows servers to take orders and payments through the device in their pockets. The two devices Square will be using are Square Terminal and the upcoming Restaurant Mobile POS kit, which will be released this fall.

Features of these new devices include order flow management from kitchen to table, route tickets, connections to loyalty programs and integration with OpenTable.

BentoBox now does payments  

BentoBox joins the throng of tech companies racing to add features and become an “all in one” tech solution: the all-new BentoBox Payments is in partnership with Clover and allows employees to take orders, process payments and manage them all in one platform.

“Restaurants don’t have the time or resources to balance countless dashboards and partners. Instead, they need simple, unified solutions that enable them to reach their customers on their terms,” Krystle Mobayeni, cofounder of BentoBox and head of restaurants at Fiserv said in a statement. “We’re meeting this need and bringing restaurants a customizable platform that improves front- and back-of-house operations and delivers an exceptional digital experience for diners.”

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at joanna.fant[email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

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