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Tuesday's CREATE Live discussion touched on topics of automation, labor, and customer loyalty.

‘We’re in the age of convergence:’ How robots, AI, and augmented reality are taking over the (food) world

Capriotti’s David Bloom and El Pollo Loco’s Bernard Acoca on how the technology of the future is already here and can help meet growing on-demand needs

Robots in the kitchen and drones in the sky still may sound like novelty technologies for many operators. But droids, drones and augmented reality are ready to exit the test phase stage and become must-have tech solutions for restaurant operators.

David Bloom, chief operating and development officer of Capriotti’s Sub Shops and Wing Zone, and El Pollo Loco CEO, Bernard Acoca, discussed Tuesday in Informa’s CREATE live discussion webinar how investing in people-free automated technology could be the key to meeting the on-demand needs of today’s restaurant customer.

Capriotti’s and Wing Zone, for example, began testing robotic cooking systems and are making the move from not only cashless but cashier-less operations.

“All of this technology, while they're in the early stages, it all exists; this is not yet-to-come technology,” Bloom said. “So, AI, virtual reality, augmented reality, autonomous vehicles, and face recognition technologies all exist today. What’s different today is we’re in the age of convergence: Suddenly you can get all of these technologies to talk to one another in real time.”

But restaurants are not just testing out these drones and robots because they’re cool novelty experiences: they can help reinforce operational weak points like the restaurant industry’s current labor pains:

“We’re testing back of the house robotics and artificial intelligence to get more efficient, not just by reducing a few labor hours, but actually taking entire bodies out of the operation,” Bloom said. “Just finding people to run our restaurants is going to be more and more of a challenge, regardless of what you're willing to pay them. And consumers are going to expect to get whatever they want, whenever they want. That means 24-hour food service operations delivered by autonomous vehicles with much lower delivery costs than we have today.”

Acoca is taking a similar customer-first approach to technology investment at El Pollo Loco. While perfecting technologies like the loyalty program, drive-thru, and curbside pickup have become the default “low hanging fruits” in a post-pandemic world, El Pollo Loco takes their investment one step further by testing out drone delivery. They recently launched, which touts the first-ever “drone food delivery pilot program” from a national brand, and is now testing in the Los Angeles area.

“We've really enjoyed testing the boundaries of this,” Acoca said. “One of the key reasons why we decided to explore it is because we are finding that the delivery cost is about 30% less expensive than what the traditional third-party delivery aggregators charge. We’re always looking for naturally less expensive ways to provide our customers with delivery service.”

El Pollo Loco also found that drone delivery could be a new way to reward loyalty:

“Our loyalty program has been the real focus for us in terms of delivering unique digital experiences, which could be anything from drone deliveries — which we've just started to test and provide as a service to our most loyal local rewards loyalty members — to features like GPS enabled curbside pickup, which you need to download our app to tap into that functionality.”

Speed and personalization seem to be the name of the game both for El Pollo Loco and Capriotti’s customers. El Pollo Loco is testing out license plate recognition technology to provide more customized options for loyalty customers when they pull up to the drive-thru. Capriotti’s also now has AI capability for taking phone orders. All of these features are designed to improve, not replace the traditional restaurant experience.

“AI is just a ubiquitous term that applies to everything that you do that makes you better, whether it's managing the grill, working the fryers, or coordinating with the apps, AI is the machine learning […] and coaching you and your team to get better,” Bloomj said. “AI is not this magical silver bullet that solves everything, it just enhances what you're already doing.”

Contact Joanna at [email protected]

Find her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

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