At the start of 2023, we’re starting to sense a theme in restaurant industry equipment and technology news: AI and labor solutions. In a post-pandemic economy, labor is still challenging (though slowly improving) and restaurants are looking to automate menial work to encourage longer employee tenure. We’ve already spoken at length about robot servers, fry cooks and tortilla fryers, but what about robot dishwashers? Nala Robotics is introducing this new technology
In other news this month, Toast continues to integrate with more technology startups, BurgerFi is turning to in-car ordering to increase omnichannel access, and more.
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:
Nala Robotics introduces Spotless: the robot dishwasher
As automation takes over kitchens, what’s the first position that should be human-free? According to a Sept. 2022 survey released by marketplace vendor Capterra, almost two-thirds of restaurant operators believe that dishwashing can be automated. And that may soon be the case, thanks to technology coming out from Nala Robotics (the company behind the robot-run cloud kitchen) which shifts dishwashing responsibilities to Spotless the robot dishwasher.
According to Nala Robotics, the technology is just as fast as a human and more efficient and thorough as well.
“Spotless replaces once of the toughest jobs in the restaurant space,” Ajay Sunkara, CEO of Nala Robotics told Nation’s Restaurant News. “The technology is good for a high-volume operation, where you need multiple arms free to do dishes. […] As our robot learns its task, it gets smarter and more confident, and we can configure it to go faster, because the technical specifications for these robot arms are much faster than a human’s arms and can move nine feet a second.”
Here’s how it works: first, the robot does a preliminary rinse and identifies the item it’s holding via a camera at the back. And then, based on whether it’s a fork or a large plate or a bowl, the robot arms identify the best algorithm to handle this particular item and begins the cleaning process. The robot also knows when to use a gentler touch as well, like for a wine glass. The entire process — from cleaning and drying to stacking and storage — takes just as long (or less time) than a human dish washer. Sunkara describes the technology as more “cobot” than robot because it’s designed to be collaborative with the humans in its space.
“The first phase [of this type of technology] would have a human involved, but eventually we’ll see totally touchless and human-free restaurants,” Sunkara said.
Spotless is currently being deployed at noncommercial facilities like hospitals and living centers and will soon be utilized at a national diner chain, though Sunkara declined to mention which chain right now. The company is also working on a second mobile robot which is designed for smaller spaces and can move around from station to station to replicate human multitasking.
The Spotless robot measures two feet by two feet and can cost up to almost $3,000 a month.
BurgerFi unveils in-vehicle ordering technology
BurgerFi is partnering with Mavi On My Way technology to allow for direct restaurant ordering via car dashboards, allowing customers to order burgers while in their car and pick up their orders on the go.
"Drivers appreciate the convenience of curbside pickup,”Karl Goodhew, chief technology officer of BurgerFi said in a statement. “The added benefit of being able to shop safely and efficiently from their cars to make the most of each trip is priceless. BurgerFi has been leveraging and testing technologies to keep up with evolving customer demands and remains at the forefront of innovation.”
The technology essentially adds the BurgerFi mobile ordering capabilities to your car’s computerized dashboard, and works similarly to ordering from an app. Of course, BurgerFi is not the only restaurant to debut car ordering technology: Domino’s became one of the first to do so in 2019 I partnership with the AnyWare pizza ordering platform.
The next step would be to create voice-activated ordering technology that offers a hands-free experience for better vehicle safety capabilities while driving.
Soundhound and Deliverect join Toast
Once upon a time, the biggest technology complaint from restaurants is the lack of vendor integrations within their POS systems. Now the big tech companies are playing catchup with these integrations to assure a smoother-sailing tech stack build.
Toast announced this month the integration of two vendors: voice ordering AI company Soundhound and online food delivery management software, Deliverect. With more integrations, Toast customers will be able to plug in their vendors of choice without having to worry about different parts of their tech stack speaking different languages.
"At Toast, our goal is to enable restaurants to improve guest experiences, streamline operations, and support restaurant employees,” Keith Corbin, senior director, business development at Toast said in a statement.
Presto expands partnership with Del Taco
Voice ordering AI is growing in popularity as restaurants begin deploying the technology to lend a helping hand in the drive-thru lane. Del Taco announced that the quick-service brand will be expanding its partnership with Presto voice ordering AI to additional locations nationwide after conducting a preliminary test of the product at select locations last year. The technology can complete orders without human intervention 95% of the time and Del Taco wants to keep up with customer demands for convenience and efficient ways to order food.
Are employee smartwatches the next hardware solution for employees?
Although digital software makes most of the headlines these days, restaurants are constantly looking for tech hardware solutions that are easy for employees to use. We’re almost past the days (thankfully) of multiple tablets clogging up the back and front of the house, and Listo thinks it has a hardware-meets-software communications solution for employees: smart watches.
The Listo software has both employee and guest-facing services: guests can download the Listo app or scan a QR code upon entering a restaurant and use it to request service, and servers will get notifications on their smart watches, allowing for direct communication with staff. For example, a server wearing one of the Android-backed smart watches might get a notification that table 8 needs assistance or that table 6 had bad service. The management console that the package comes with is like command central for programming the different devices, and includes real-time reporting capabilities.
“In an industry with notably slim margins, it’s important to find new technologies and strategies that will help reduce the cost of labor, increase incremental revenue opportunities and provide memorable service that gives guests a reason to come back and provide positive reviews,” said Kallpod CEO and founder Gabriel Weisz in a statement.