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This month, we’re talking about new restaurant-vendor partnerships that open the doors for different types of ordering channels, from customers that want to order in their car, to those that want to get their dinner via airborne delivery droid.

Tech Tracker: Omnichannel accessibility keeps expanding in new ways

You can now order Panera via Amazon Alexa, Domino’s via Apple CarPlay, and Sweetgreen via airborne “zipline” delivery droid

Last year, omnichannel was the buzzword of the moment: with practically every restaurant brand across all categories on our radar talking about how important it is to meet your customers where they are. For most brands, since different types of customers have different needs, that means splitting your tech investment resources between on-premises dining, delivery, takeout, pickup, and sometimes drive-thru with (preferably) frictionless experiences for your customer across the board.

But perfecting the off-premises experience — from building multi-lane drive-thrus for different types of orders, to building out your mobile user experience — is still a work in progress. This month, we’re talking about new restaurant-vendor partnerships that open the doors for different types of ordering channels, from customers that want to order in their car, to those that want to get their dinner via airborne delivery droid.

In other news, OpenTable is now offering restaurant recommendations via ChatGPT, WOWorks gets into metaverse gamification, 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 this month and why:

Sweetgreen partners with Zipline as alternate to drone delivery

Even though drone-dropped meals have been tested on and off by various brands over the past several years, including Brinker, Jersey Mike’s and El Pollo Loco, the technology has not yet caught on everywhere. We’re still (mostly) getting our food delivered by couriers and the occasional sidewalk robot.

But fast-casual salad brand Sweetgreen is now partnering with emerging technology company, Zipline, for autonomous robot deliveries that can fly your salad order from store to doorstep. Although it might seem exactly like drone technology, Zipline differentiates itself with its nearly silent hovercraft that can hover 300 feet off the ground. Other competitors fly their deliveries closer to 230-250 feet off the ground, though Amazon’s new fleet of delivery drones can fly up to 400 feet in the air. Once it is at the right address, the droid will hover (quietly) above a home or business, maneuver down a tether (flexible wire or cable that is rooted to the ground) and deliver the food to the correct location. A Zipline spokesperson said that the droids are capable of calculating minute drop-off points through major innovations in aircraft and propeller design, and can tell the difference between dropping a package off at the front steps of a home vs. a patio table in the backyard.

For Sweetgreen, this partnership falls in line with the Los Angeles-based company’s environmentally conscious brand and long-term goal to become carbon neutral by 2027. Zipline claims that their technology uses 97% less energy than traditional delivery methods, by delivering packages in less than five minutes without the usage of automotive emissions.

The Zipline technology, which is designed for use in dense suburban and urban areas, will be rolling out widely in 2024, but until then Sweetgreen will be one of the test subjects to pilot the efficiency and effectiveness of the technology.

Panera announces partnership with Amazon Alexa and Domino’s is partnering with Apple CarPlay

Hovering droids are not the only ways restaurants are upgrading their food delivery and takeout channels. On the heels of Panera’s debut of Amazon’s contactless palm payment solution, the fast-casual bakery café chain is also partnering with Amazon in other ways. MyPanera members will now be able to order via Alexa-enabled and Echo Show devices, adding yet another perk to the Panera rewards program.

Amazon device users can simply ask Alexa to add, customize and order Panera items for pickup or delivery, using a stored payment method and delivery address in their MyPanera account. Panera is the first brand to use Alexa’s updated food skills API, which introduces conversational AI, making it less frustrating to interact with and successfully order food via a robot voice. The technology understands order modifications like “extra bacon” or “hold the avocado,” which makes it part of the trend of upgraded voice AI that understands colloquialisms, changes in speech patterns, and mid-conversation pivots.

In other delivery and takeout news, Domino’s is perfecting its in-car ordering capabilities with the announcement of a partnership with Apple CarPlay, which allows customers to safely order Domino’s while driving. You can either tap to reorder a recently saved order in two clicks, or call to order to be connected to a Domino’s restaurant via hands-free voice ordering. Of course, this is not Domino’s first time offering in-car ordering capabilities: Domino’s first offered hands-free ordering in your car in 2014 in partnership with Ford, and then launched in-car pizza ordering in partnership with Xevo Inc. in 2019.

OpenTable is now using ChatGPT for restaurant recommendations

By now, we’ve seen many examples of how generative AI – specifically ChatGPT – is being used in the hospitality industry. As a reminder, the difference between AI we’re used to (like automated robot technology or AI voice assistants like Siri or Alexa) is that generative AI can create or generate responses or images, rather than just pulling information that already exists from the web.

Throwing their hat into the artificially intelligent ring is OpenTable, which just recently announced a new ChatGPT capability in partnership with OpenAI which lets users ask AI for specific restaurant recommendations. For example, you can ask ChatGPT for recommendations for a great date night restaurant in a specific neighborhood that’s known for oysters and cocktails, or a well-reviewed restaurant to take mom for Mother’s Day brunch. Then, to accompany those recommendations, you’ll be directed to a link to book a table.

“Helping diners discover and book the perfect restaurant is in our DNA,” Susan Lee, chief growth officer of OpenTable told Nation’s Restaurant News. “We're always keeping tabs on the latest in search and consumer trends, and it was an easy decision to partner with the chatbot that's dazzling consumers across the internet. While this is early days, we’re excited to dive into this space and see where it takes us.”

The feature works as a plugin through ChatGPT and is currently in testing and will roll out slowly to users who sign up for the waitlist.  

Zoup and Barberitos introduce gamification to rewards program

WOWorks brands Zoup and Barberitos announced this month a partnership with Atlas: Earth—a mobile virtual real estate game within the metaverse that allows players to link virtual play with real-world rewards. We’ve written extensively about the trend toward metaverse-enhanced loyalty programs, and now WOWorks is joining the fray.

The Atlas Earth metaverse is a 1:1 virtual mapping of the real world which allows players to pay virtual rent that can be redeemed for real-world rewards, like gift cards and coupons for specific brands within that metaverse.

“We love how Atlas: Earth encourages gamers to patronize restaurants with the reward of virtual currency,” Kelly Roddy, CEO of WOWorks said in a statement. “Now customers can expand their virtual real estate empires with each sip of soup or bite of burrito.” 

Essentially, you can earn more in the game world by spending at participating brands like Zoup and Barberitos, which is supposed to be mutually beneficial for both Atlas: Earth and the participating restaurant brands, which also include Burger King, Popeyes, Auntie Anne’s, Jamba, and Sonic.

ItsaCheckmate Acquires Open Tender

Digital ordering platform ItsaCheckmate announced in March the acquisition of first-party digital ordering and guest engagement platform, Open Tender, which provides customized designs for brand websites, kiosks, and mobile apps.

With the acquisition, ItsaCheckmate will be able to integrate first-party ordering with third-party delivery platforms into one login, so that operators can access orders in one place.

The new integrations are meant to compete with larger tech solution companies like Olo, which are also focused on technology viability and integrations, so that all components of a tech stack can be easily accessible and play nicely with each other. Frozen yogurt chain 16Handles is an example of one operator that’s working with both brands:

“As a New York City-based frozen yogurt and dessert franchise with over 35 locations and plans to expand coast to coast, we prioritize digital ordering and measure success by our loyalty retention, check size, and overall guest satisfaction,” Neil Hershman, CEO and owner of 16 Handles said in a statement. “We have already begun testing the combined solution of ItsaCheckmate and Open Tender and can’t wait to roll out the seamless user experience to all of our customers and catering clients soon.”

The latest in restaurant tech funding

Korean sidewalk delivery robotics company Neubility announced in March that the company raised $24.2 million, thanks to an investment from Samsung Venture Investment. With this investment, the company will be able to venture outside of the Korean food delivery market to new markets, including Japan and the United States. When it’s brought to the U.S., Neubility will join competitors including Nuro, Refreaction AI, and Serve Robotics.

Brizo Data — a Canadian analytics platform for the foodservice industry — announced in April that the company raised $12 million CAD ($8.95 million USD) in series A funding, led by Framework Venture Partners and BDC Capital's Industrial Innovation Venture Fund. 

By using data, the platform is able to provide insights to companies on everyday operations decisions. With the new round of funding, Brizo will be able to accelerate growth an expand into new markets throughout North America.

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