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Tech Tracker: Robots, automation dominate at NRA food show Nancy Luna
Software company Apex introduced a slightly elevated experience for its Order Pick Up program.

Tech Tracker: Robots, automation dominate at NRA food show

Vendors debuted robot busboys and bartenders

This is part of NRN’s special coverage of the 2018 NRA Show, being held in Chicago, May 19-22. Visit for the latest coverage from the show, plus follow us on Twitter and Facebook

Mobile delivery. Drones. Robots. Self-serve kiosks. Cashless dining. Virtual check splitting.

In a short few years, the restaurant industry has evolved at a rapid clip to provide the kind of digital wizardry and convenience that society demands today. And many restaurant brands have risen to the challenge. Starbucks was an early adopter of mobile ordering and pay ahead technology, and now consumers can’t imagine life without their latte waiting for them at the pickup counter. But companies of all sizes are expected to keep pace with the demands of hyper-connected consumers.

“People are tethered to digital devices,” Gwen Brannon, director of guest insights and analytics at The Coca-Cola Company, told operators during a panel session held Saturday at the annual National Restaurant Association conference in Chicago.

But, throwing one more app out into a crowded field of rivals is not enough. You must be thoughtful, and mindful of who your audience is, Brannon said.

This column, the first of a monthly Tech Tracker series from Nation’s Restaurant News, aims to address the scramble occurring in the ever-evolving foodservice tech space. Here’s what caught our eye at this year’s NRA Show:

Robot mania

Labor costs are top of mind for operators, sparking a dizzying amount of tech aimed at controlling those costs through automation, while still enhancing speed of service and customization.

The show’s tech pavilion sported a couple of remote controlled robot “busboys” and “servers” capable of delivering everything from a steamy plate of sizzling fajitas to the check.

Representatives for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Bear Robotics said its robot, called “Penny,” can take over “monotonous” dining room tasks such as delivering water or the check. Penny is currently being used by Pizza Hut restaurants in Seoul, Korea, and Amici's East Coast Pizzeria in the Bay Area.

Penny moves around the dining room like an iRobot vacuum but on a pedestal. It can be controlled through a touchscreen tablet. But CEO John Ha said the real value of Penny is that it can be programmed to "self-navigate" in a crowded dining room. It memorizes the layout, and it can even say "Excuse me," he said.

The robot’s serving tray is about 16 inches in diameter, making it possible to send out a large pizza or small plates of food.

During a show demo, it was delivering sushi rolls.

Bear Robotics said a second generation of Penny will be able to deliver cocktails and craft beer.

Penny is not meant to replace employees, Bear Robotics said. Instead, it frees up servers to spend more time interacting with diners to ensure that they are having a great experience.

And unlike a human server who can call in sick or may quit after six months, Penny solves a huge dilemma for operators looking for good help.

“It’s dependable,” co-founder Juan Higueros told Nation’s Restaurant News.

Nancy Luna

Apex takes order-ahead one step further by allowing diners to pick up their food from a compartment using a unique pick up code.

Kiosk ordering, cashless dining

A few years ago, San Francisco-based Eatsa created national buzz for its cashless, self-serve ordering system.

The customer experience at this uber-automated quick-service restaurant includes almost no human interaction. Food is ordered from a touchscreen tablet and prepared by unseen kitchen staff and then it “magically” appears on a large wall of cubbies.

Today, software companies such Ohio-based Apex, which works with restaurants like White Castle and Little Caesar’s, introduced a slightly elevated experience for its Order Pick Up program.

Apex takes order-ahead one step further by allowing diners to pick up their food from a compartment, or locker, using a unique pick up code. (Think: Amazon Lockers.) This way, you know you’re not grabbing someone else’s order sitting on a baker’s rack or a countertop designated for pickup orders.

Nancy Luna

Apex is offering restaurants the option to install a contemporary shelf system that uses beacon technology.

During the NRA show, Apex debuted a stylized version of its order pick-up program.

Instead of using food lockers, the company is offering restaurants the option to install a contemporary shelf system that uses beacon technology. The system detects customers’ mobile devices when they walk in the door, and the correct cubby lights up to let them know which to-go order is theirs.

The advanced system eliminates the step of punching in a key code to fetch your order from a locker-like compartment. And, if you accidentally touch a takeout order that’s not yours, a red light flashes to warn you that you’re grabbing the wrong bag.

Generation and Icetro introduced vending machines that dispense ice cream and frozen yogurt.

Froyo vending machines

When it comes to vending machines, consumers have become accustomed to swiping a credit card to buy anything from a bag of chips to headphones to DVDs.

But ice cream and froyo?

San Diego, Calif.-based Generation Next is taking self-serve froyo to another level with a vending machine that dispenses Dannon YoCream with multiple choices of toppings.

The product can be a disruptor in to self-serve yogurt chains the same way Redbox and Netflix hurt video rental stores, company reps said.

In beta testing, the vending machine, available to lease or buy direct, grossed $91,000 sales a year. The fully-automated machine, which is being billed as a Froyo Robot, can be programmed to dispense up to seven flavors and six toppings. You can even order a “twist” of two flavors.

Generation Next said the Froyo Robots are suitable for gas stations, airports, entertainment venues, restaurants and cafes, shopping malls and convenience stores. Currently, they can be spotted at the Henry Ford Museum, University of Pennsylvania, McCarren Airport in Las Vegas, Indianapolis International Airport, Nissan Headquarters, Austin Convention Center, Hyundai Headquarters, The Kraft Company Headquarters and FedEx Express World Headquarters.

We spotted a similar machine by South Korea-based Icetro that dispensed soft serve ice cream.

Nancy Luna

Barsys introduced a machine that can be programmed with up to 2,000 cocktail recipes.

Automated bartenders

Automated wine dispensers and coffee machines have been around for years.

But, can a machine whip up a margarita or gin and tonic?

Yes, according to New York-based Barsys. The company introduced at the NRA show a machine that can be programmed with up to 2,000 cocktail recipes and can make a classic martini “shaken or stirred,” Barsys said.

The company said the cloud-based system is not about saving labor. Instead, it can capture valuable inventory data for bar and restaurant operators such as drink trends.

Smaller models can also fit on countertops, providing a consumer-facing self-serve cocktail system.

Nancy Luna

SomaBar has a machine that can crank out a mixed drink every 10 seconds.

On the sleeker side, Los Angeles-based Somabar debuted a glossy white machine that can crank out a mixed drink every 10 seconds. Smaller than the Barsys system, Somabar can be programmed to make up to 300 types of drinks.

An independent bar in Los Angeles is currently using the system, the company said.

With mixology a huge trend in the industry, Somabar reps said the touchscreen system can be operated by servers. That allows the mixologist more time to make complicated cocktails.

Other notable tech spotted on the floor

Wisconsin-based Intuitive Concepts introduced wireless tabletop chargers, “table tent” charging devices so diners can charge phones while they fuel up on food at the table.

London-based Fourth said it provide restaurants demand forecasting. According to the company, its analytics can forecast how many employees an operator needs on a shift based on current weather patterns and analysis of POS transactions over a two-and-half year period.

Contact Nancy at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @FastFoodMaven

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