Flippy fast food robot at the fryer

The future of fast food

Image credit: Miso Robotics

The fast-food sector has been an industry staple for 100 years and is the leader in the restaurant industry when it comes to convenience and customer engagement. With the pandemic accelerating innovation, what future technology is set to change the face of the fast-food business forever?

There has been a century of innovation in the fast-food sector since White Castle, the first quick-service restaurant (QSR), opened in 1921 in the USA. Now in the light of the pandemic, QSR companies are leading the restaurant sector into a digitally enhanced and automated future.

In the wake of Covid-19, many QSRs have had no choice but to change tactics to cope with minimal-contact demand for food. Expanding drive-throughs and staff numbers, digitisation transformation and streamlining menus are just some of what fast-food giants are bringing to the table. Will this continue? And what does the future have in store?

Not much has really changed in terms of ‘drive-through’ innovation, yet according to Deloitte’s 2020 report ‘The restaurant of the future arrives ahead of schedule: Time to get on board’, American QSRs that only had 20 per cent drive-through business before the pandemic are finding it to have rapidly increased, often up by 90 per cent.

To cope with the pandemic, as well as up their business, some outlets installed express lanes for those with small orders, like a drink or one snack, which increases convenience for everyone, including drivers with multiple orders.

For the near future, Danny Klein, director of digital content at QSR magazine, says digital integration with store designs and mobile technology is the best place to start when it comes to upcoming fast-food tech. He adds: “You see this with the ‘restaurant of the future’ models being unveiled by the largest quick-service players of late, everyone from Taco Bell and its Go Mobile model to McDonald’s various designs.”

Essentially a smaller restaurant, Klein says the entire experience is integrated. “Taco Bell is fitting its prototype with ‘smart kitchen’ technology integrated with its app,” he adds.

“The Go Mobile restaurant can detect when guests arrive and suggest the quickest route for a seamless experience. All of this is going to work around mobile apps and trying to gather customer data through loyalty, which is one path around the third-party delivery effect.”

Go Mobile restaurants will have two drive-through lanes: one for drive-through and the other for mobile order pickup. Many chains are adopting the drive-through business as a response to the pandemic, but Taco Bell is the first fast-food chain to announce a ‘Chipotlane’-like mobile ordering and pickup system.

Another QSR giant, Burger King (BK), unveiled its own ‘restaurant of tomorrow’ in January. Its digital transformation will feature multiple drive-through lanes, dedicated parking spots for kerbside orders, pickup lockers (which we see with retailers like Amazon) and an external walk-up window, in response to the pandemic. Forbes reported that this was the food giant’s first rebrand after 20 years and says that as well as added lanes, the chain will deploy a proprietary machine-learning system, called Deep Flame in its exterior digital menu boards. This system should mean BK better learns customers’ habits and can better communicate with them.

US tech company Dynamic Yield is similar. Acquired by McDonald’s back in 2019 to support its digital transformation, Dynamic Yield’s decision technology is integrated into Maccy D’s digital menu displays. This means McDonald’s enhances food recommendations based on situations like time of day, weather, current restaurant traffic, and trending menu items. It also has a car licence plate recognition, so the system’s algorithm can tailor suggestions for returning customers, and those who have pre-ordered online or through its app can skip queues.

How permanent could this be? According to Deloitte, consumers said they would pay about 14 per cent more for the chance to use apps rather than cashiers. Also, 70 per cent of consumers surveyed by Deloitte said they prefer digital interaction to people.

Intelligent voice-recognition algorithms could be commonplace. For example, Swiss IT company Veovox specialises in audio and speech-recognition solutions, offering its expertise to optimise operations in the restaurant industry, especially QSR restaurants. McDonald’s tested the idea of voice assistants to run its drive-through services in suburban Chicago back in 2019.

The pandemic has certainly changed the look of QSRs and it could well stay that way, as people may find it more comfortable to be in a ‘ghost’ environment as the pandemic continues.

Klein believes restaurants must look at technology as a consumer-experience enabler, and Covid-19 did a good job of resetting this. “Too many brands were growth obsessed ahead of the crisis. They lost sight on what customers wanted. These past few months, they haven’t had a choice.

“That’s why you see all these kerbside, dining-room-free restaurants with seamless integration. That’s what the customer was asking for. More convenience. Less contact. Covid-19 has really defined the lines in food service. And I think the guest is going to win. Things like virtual brands and in-house delivery are going to make dining out more accessible and plentiful, from a quick-service standpoint.”

One company driving data solutions is Fingermark, which released Eyecue, a customer and operations analytics system. It is said to offer quick-service restaurants insight into their drive-through performance with more accuracy. QSR says the system’s built-in AI uses machine learning to analyse trends, collate and display data, identify slowdowns, and suggest changes brands can make to help optimise operations. For example, CEO Luke Irving told QSR magazine that Eyecue might tell managers when it’s time to open a second drive-through window, or when to deploy another drive-through team member, rather than waiting for the restaurant to become busy before reacting.

Richard Downs, Northern Europe director of Applause, a venture-funded company that tests software and conducts usability feedback research, says fast-food chains, restaurants and takeaways are adapting to lockdown conditions with new strategies to drive sales and maintain customer loyalty, and the fast-food segment has always been quick to address digital disruption. “The emergence of platforms like Just Eat, Deliveroo and Uber Eats has given chains and independents a new lease of life, enabling them to reach customers via web and mobile apps,” he says, adding that the scale of Covid-19 accelerated plans to embrace digital operations.

Businesses have ramped up promotions, loyalty programmes and personalised offerings to incentivise customers. Mobile ordering and contactless payments are now standard processes. Downs believes these new marketing, payment and fulfilment methods are proving to be successful and there’s a strong possibility that businesses will persist with them in the future.

Deloitte says brands that are nimble and experimental have a chance to attract the digital customer, and user-friendly ‘frictionless’ digital platforms is the least of what QSRs should do to attract and keep customers.

Dr Roberta Re, director of Cambridge Food Science, believes that in the future consumers will want QR codes and apps so they can ‘communicate’ directly with their food, enabling choices that match their own personal health regimes. Consumers pay attention to what they eat and how it makes them feel. “Health has a new broader meaning – an overall wellbeing of physical and mental health. This extends right across the food supply chain and now consumers expect the same health benefits from their fast foods, an area not traditionally associated to health,” she adds.

Diet trends have taken a less restrictive and more mindful or intuitive relationship with food and Dr Re thinks companies will need more ways to provide reliable and immediate information about their products using technology such as QR codes and apps so that consumers will be able to personally monitor the benefits they are striving for through wearable devices.

Restaurants are now having to jump on the convenience bandwagon too, which could take away some QSR business, but also drives innovation. Digital is the best way to deal with the switch from face-to-face customer interaction.

How do future customers want to interact with restaurants in a digital world? And what’s going on in the kitchens? Deloitte’s survey results indicated that when customers choose how to get their food, convenience (58 per cent) and speed (49 per cent) are the highest drivers.

Klein says convenience is the main attribute consumers want from restaurants, adding that “digital is the way they want to receive that convenience – and their food. The emphasis on touchless service and off-premises dining spiked with Covid-19, but it’s unlikely to return to old levels.”

This could take the ‘chef’s pride’ out in on-premises restaurants, but a robot kitchen or assistant seems more feasible in the fast-food sector.

Buck Jordan, CEO of Miso Robotics, said on Market Scale’s ‘The Main Course’ show that Flippy – the world’s first autonomous robotic kitchen assistant – could handle most of the back-of-house cooking, and explained its integration with food-delivery apps.

“It knows when delivery drivers are going to arrive and can calculate when to finish the meal so that it’s ready when the driver arrives,” he said.

Jordan explained the company is working on more automation software for its platform and reducing costs. “Automation is a necessity now for restaurants to keep the doors open,” adding that kitchens could become completely autonomous.

Another company venturing into robot cooks is British venture Moley Kitchens, which unveiled its $340,000 fully autonomous robot kitchen at this year’s virtual CES. As well as in the domestic kitchen, the company plans to commercialise Moley to keep up with the fast QSR environment.

The bot has a pair of robotic arms, developed with German robotic gripping specialist Schunk, and comes with bespoke culinary products like pots and pans, a touch-based induction cooktop and cookware. Chefs actively prepare recipes for live 3D-recording and the Moley system relies on custom algorithms to translate from human to digital movement.

That’s the cooking: what about delivery?

As the shift to takeout and delivery increases, freshness of food that customers receive must be improved, or menus streamlined to include only products that can maintain the ‘just-out-of-the-oven’ look. This means that QSRs could also expand their geographic reach, so will need more efficient ways of delivering to the consumer.

Companies have already been trialling bots, and driverless drones and cars could reduce costs and time in future delivery technology.

Starship Technologies’ robots operate in several cities around the world. They are self-driving and can carry items within a four-mile (6km) radius. The robots deliver parcels, groceries and food directly from stores to homes, at a time the customer requests.

The delivery platform runs entirely on electricity. Once ordered, the robots’ entire journey and location can be monitored on a smartphone. The bot moves at a pedestrian speed, weighs up to 100lb (45kg) and is equipped with sensors and AI to map and understand the world around it. It has an advanced object-detection system running at over 2,000 frames per second, and a mapping system that allows the robot to understand its location to the nearest inch.

In the future, as QSRs extend their geographic reach of delivery and freshness of products, consumers will want to know more about what’s in their food in a way that’s convenient to them.

In the next decade, Cambridge Food Science’s Dr Re reckons consumers will be looking for changes to improve important societal issues such as sustainability, ethical business practices and public health.

She adds: “Quality is also redefined, and products have the challenge to meet enhanced expectation, opening new opportunity for differentiation. Consumers are looking for trust in brands that reflect the individual needs, but also their own personal beliefs.”

In the UK, Dr Re feels consumers are concerned about issues related to the origin of products but struggle to act on this through their purchasing decisions. She says: “Technology such as blockchain allows consumers to know they are supporting companies who share the same values of > < environmental stewardship, sustainable manufacturing and fair ethical trade.

“Consumers are willing to pay a premium for foods that meet such criteria. Smart menus could be connected in real time with the blockchain of food to provide the actual history of specific produce.”

Nutrient composition will also be of importance to people, and tools that allow easy access to information and services “are the ones that appeal the most to consumers”, Dr Re says. “One upcoming change in food regulation for the out-of-home food services is the mandatory requirement of calories on menu. Therefore, technology that can provide the information to help the consumer make the best choice based on their own requirements will help differentiation,” she adds.

The likelihood is, more food will be vegan or made from cultured meat. Re reckons the release of two high-profile reports recommending curbs on meat and dairy intake for health and environmental reasons, combined with mainstream media coverage around the topic, has supported the continued strong growth of the plant-based/ meat-free trend.

She adds that “a plant-based diet resonates with all types of consumers, meaning demand for plant protein is coming not only from vegetarians and vegans”. Food-to-go giants including KFC and McDonald’s have launched new plant-based options.

As well as greatly reducing the slaughter of animals, manufacturing meat products through tissue-engineering technology means meat grown in an aseptic environment “has the advantage of food safety and can be modulated to be ‘healthier’ by controlling the nutritional content, removing the bad, such as saturated fats, and replacing them with the good, such as Omega oils”, says Re. “Increased accessibility demonstrates the opportunity to appeal to a much broader consumer base; this is not just a trend but is now the norm to be able to find a vegan option.” She does say, however, that prices of meat-free items must become cheaper to encourage consumers to eat more plant-based fast-food meals.

It seems the winning formula to keep QSRs in business, for now and in the future, is digital integration and engagement, open communication with consumers, and, according to Deloitte’s report, visible cleanliness and safety. Customers don’t just want to be told that their food is coming from a hygienic environment, they want to see it.

Four out of five people surveyed by Deloitte said they’d be more likely to patronise a restaurant if they knew what steps it was taking to enhance cleanliness, food safety, or guest safety, and when they did they would be willing to pay an average of 10 per cent more. Therefore, if the customer is seeing the changes made to keep everyone safe, they will be more likely to return.

Prior to the pandemic, there was already a rising demand for digital engagement and more convenient service from customers. Yet Covid-19 has seemingly accelerated the advancements in technology for QSRs all over the world, and many changes are expected to stay.


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