Roving server robots are old news: How the latest in AI and automation is going to make an appearance at the big show in Chicago this year . . .

4 Technology Trends We’re Hoping to See at the National Restaurant Association Show

Robots have been dominating the National Restaurant Association Show’s tech pavilion and equipment booths for years, and in 2022, we saw everything from robot dogs that can carry your delivery order up the stairs for you, to several different versions of the robot server that can carry trays of drinks and appetizers. For the most part, AI and automation at the 2022 National Restaurant Association show were focused on robots as labor-saving tools, as that was the number one concern of restaurants coming out of the pandemic.

But this year, we predict that much of the newest technology at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago next week will be less flashy and more software-focused as data-based digital technology rises in prominence. Of course, automation will still be fully on display as technology vendors tout all-in-one automated solutions for operators, from kitchens of the future to AI-based drive-thru lanes.

Here are our tech predictions for the 2023 National Restaurant Association Show:


Cobots, as the name implies, are robots that are designed to work alongside humans, particularly in the kitchen, and are not meant to replace humans. The robots that were initially introduced to the foodservice space weren’t necessarily created with human coworkers in mind, like server robots and automated bartenders that were on display at last year’s show.

But at the North American Foodservice Equipment Manufacturers conference this year in Orlando, many cobots were on display, with sensor capabilities to determine if a human is walking by, or with a narrow design to make room for people in the kitchen as well. Earlier this year, we wrote about a dishwasher robot designed by Nala Robotics (which will also be at the NRA show next week) that knows the difference between washing a fragile wine glass and a heavy-duty pan and can also collaborate with humans.

We predict that many robotics companies will be displaying these out on the show floor to showcase the next stage in robotic capabilities that is meant to supplement, not supplant human workers.

Internet of Things

Here’s where we get into software capabilities that aren’t as eye-catching as a burger-flipping or soft drink-serving robot but are nonetheless just as crucial to the future of restaurant technology.

The Internet of Things describes a series of objects or equipment that are connected by cloud-connected sensors. IoT providers help turn a restaurant’s back of the house into a smart kitchen by using notifications to help operators more efficiently manage things from energy consumption to employee scheduling.

In looking at the exhibitors set to take the floor next week, there are over a dozen IoT providers that can help improve the efficiency of a foodservice operation by connecting all of your “things” via cloud-based technology. Many major chains are already implementing this emerging digital technology: KFC is currently using IoT to help reduce administrative time.

Drive-thru technology

It seems like every other day, a new restaurant chain is implementing drive-thru technology—from upgraded digital menu boards and omnichannel-forward drive-thru designs to the most popular drive-thru trend of all: AI.

Expect to learn a lot more about voice AI in the drive-thru lane at the National Restaurant Association Show this year as several companies are competing to be the first and best in upgrading AI assistant technology to be able to perfectly understand and interact with humans placing orders in quick-service drive-thru lanes.

Kitchen of the Future

We know we said that tech trends at the show this year will be decidedly less flashy, but that’s not the case for everything. As more and more tech vendors try to be everything to every operator, we are more likely to see examples of all-in-one automated equipment packages that will look a lot like a (very expensive) kitchen of the future, especially if you purchase each component.

These automated kitchens are not comprised of just one robot or just one AI component, but can pretty much do it all, from robot chefs to automated refrigeration sensors, and recipe management. The kitchen of the future takes components of each of these categories, including AI, robots, and IoT technology and puts it all together to show you how restaurant efficiency could look like in the next decade.  – Source: NRN.



It could be an artificial intelligence that takes your order the next time you get a craving for a Baconator and Frosty.

Wendy’s to partner with Google Cloud on AI for drive-thru orders.

Fast food chain Wendy’s is partnering with Google Cloud on an AI chatbot to take orders at a drive-thru, the company announced Tuesday. Wendy’s FreshAI will be launched in June as a pilot in a Columbus, Ohio area restaurant. Based on how the AI-ordering system performs, the pilot will be expanded.

The AI could potentially handle a huge portion of service; around 75 to 80% of customers prefer to order through the drive-thru, according to the chain. Wendy’s is not the first fast-food chain to turn to automated processes. McDonald’s launched an automated restaurant in 2022.

CKE Restaurants Holdings, the owner and operator of fast-food chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, is also rolling out artificial intelligence at its drive-thrus, the company announced earlier in April. Experts with the National Restaurant Association have said using AI can help cut back on labor costs and address staffing challenges.

Generative AI, which are tools designed to generate text, images, or other media from user prompts, will have the ability to converse with Wendy’s customers, understand made-to-order requests, and create answers to frequently asked questions, according to the company. It will be integrated with restaurant hardware and the sales system.

The technology could mean faster service for customers, Wendy’s President and CEO Todd Penegor said. The restaurant chain said they’re hoping that using AI at the drive-thru will let employees focus on making and serving the food, while also building relationships with customers.

Wendy’s and Google anticipate some possible challenges due to the complexity of the menu, special requests, and ambient noise. With so many menu items and customization possibilities, there are “billions of possible order combinations,” according to a press release. That can lead to miscommunication and incorrect orders being served.

Some have expressed concern about quick pivots to using AI technology. For instance, some worry it could take jobs away from people. A March Goldman Sachs report found that AI services could automate as many as 300 million full-time jobs worldwide.

Industry leaders have looked closely at the potential problems AI could cause. Geoffrey Hinton, a man known as the “godfather of artificial intelligence,” recently quit his job at Google so he could freely speak about the dangers of AI. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has also called for AI advancements to be released in a responsible way. In an April interview with “60 Minutes,” he said society needed to come up with regulations for AI in the economy, along with laws to punish abuse. Source: CBS News


How Brinker International is approaching a ‘new way of business’ around efficiency.

Chili’s and Maggiano’s parent company has removed menu items, eliminated unnecessary back-of-the-house processes, and did more to improve margins and make team members’ jobs easier at the restaurants.

If we were to declare a word of the year so far, it would likely be “efficiency.” Though not a new concept for any business, the approach – and perhaps definition – of efficiency has changed by necessity throughout the past three intensely challenging years. Efficiency has moved beyond a balance sheet focus to an itemized deep dive assessment of every part of the operation – from the pantry to the parking lot.

One restaurant company that has embraced this sort of holistic approach is Chili’s and Maggiano’s parent Brinker International. Since Kevin Hochman took on the CEO role last year, Brinker has moved away from bells and whistles like a robotic server test, a to-go-only model and Maggiano’s Italian Classics virtual brand. The company has also eliminated fry baskets and shrimp portioning during prep time and has added faster-cooking equipment. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s yet to come.

Brinker pulling plug on Maggiano’s Italian Classics virtual brand.

“There is no end to this. This is a new way of doing business,” Hochman, below left, said during a recent interview. “There is a convergence of factors making efficiency a hot topic right now and that won’t likely change.”

The first factor, he adds, is wage rates. For context, during Brinker’s most recent Q3 quarter, reported last week, the wage rate inflation was approximately 5%.

“The minimum wage is part of it, but really, it’s the market wages increasing. Nobody really sees an end in sight in these increases. Every year, it’s a headwind and we must figure out how to pay for it. It becomes difficult to add more things to the business – whether it’s channels or innovation – because it’s not easy to just add labor to build sales if labor is already starting at a 5-to-6% headwind,” Hochman said.

A second factor is employee turnover – notoriously high in the restaurant industry and even higher since the onset of the pandemic. To improve retention, Brinker is working to add more value to team members’ jobs by eliminating “things that get in the way,” Hochman said. The elimination of shrimp portioning is an example here and was recommended by a back-of-the-house team member who simply stopped the 8-count process so she could focus on other guest-facing work.

“These team members came to our industry, versus driving an Uber or working at Amazon, so they can delight the guests, whether by making food or engaging with them. When they have to do things not necessary to delight guests, that work is not enjoyable,” Hochman said.

Brinker’s efficiency efforts have helped, as managerial turnover levels are now lower than pre-pandemic levels, while hourly team member turnover is trending in the right direction, Hochman said during the Q3 call.

The third factor pushing efficiency top of mind is speed. More restaurants are now driving more throughput through more channels and so, for its part, Brinker is examining anything in the operational process that may hinder speed. The company is currently phasing out its small wares, for instance, used to measure certain ingredients.

“As we’ve gotten to know our teams, many are telling us they’ve stopped using small wares to measure different items because it’s confusing. There is a red spoon for this ingredient or another spoon for this one – all different colored spoons, and they’re getting slammed while trying to figure out which spoon goes with which ingredient,” Hochman said. “The more experienced folks know how to use finger pinches instead of spoons and the food is still consistent; maybe even more so because they’re not using the wrong spoon. And it’s faster.”

So, Brinker has made those finger pinches the standard. The move has saved money on small wares, and time on plate assembly, and team members no longer must wash those dishes or get bogged down by spoon training. Hochman is comfortable pulling the plug on process hurdles as he’s found success in doing the same in his previous roles. While he was leading Pizza Hut, for example, the chain eliminated the use of plastic rings and cups to add sauce and toppings.

“There were like 13 different rings based on crusts and size, and maybe eight different topping cups and if it’s just a cheese pizza, you must use 1.5 cups. It was just confusing, so we got rid of them, and nothing happened. There was no big waste increase or consistency issues,” he said. “I do think the industry has the best intentions when we put systems into place to create more consistency, or when we put in a process, we think might be easier to train. But over time it sometimes has the opposite effect and things become more complex.”

That said, those best intentions were simply not enough during the past three years as the industry faced unprecedented cost and labor pressures. And so, the line-by-line examination of what is working and what is too complex has become critical. For Brinker, this has led to the elimination of not just processes, but also offerings. Chili’s menu now has 74 items, from 94 when Hochman started last year, for instance. The chain has also deleted over 30 pantry SKUs and “continues to find opportunities.” One pantry example is the company’s artisanal pickles for two of its menu items. Those pickles were only available in gallon-sized buckets that required a metal tool to open.

“Our team members had to pry these buckets open one side at a time, just like you would a paint bucket, and when they got the lid off, pickle juice would get everywhere, including on them. It makes me angry talking about it,” Hochman said.


The company is phasing out these pickles in favor of jarred pickles, and Hochman said this decision will not only make things easier for team members but is also expected to yield about $500,000 in annual savings for the company.

“Why did we get to that point? That’s why you need checks and balances on your food and business,” Hochman said.

Now, often, those checks and balances come from the team members themselves.

“You might not think something is going to make a huge difference, but it will to the team members, and it will lead to cost savings. You must get your hands dirty in this business and ask your team members what’s going on,” Hochman said. “They will tell you.”

Hochman noted it’s easy to quantify cost savings for the removal of items like artisanal pickles, but other efforts toward efficiency are a bit harder to pinpoint. Ultimately, Brinker is measuring its progress on these efforts based on margin improvements. Of note, Brinker’s consolidated restaurant operating margins were 13.1% last year. Last week, the company reported they were 13.4%.

“My job is to continue to see progress on restaurant margins and that has been evident year-over-year,” Hochman said. “We want to improve the returns and the way we’re doing that is by improving the four-wall economics. That’s why we’re focused on being more efficient across the board.” Source: Brinker



Former Darden CEO: How to Create a Restaurant Culture of Aspiration

It’s a fact. High talent turnover is inherent in the restaurant industry. It’s estimated that three out of four restaurant employees are planning to leave their job. Furthermore, the average restaurant loses $150,000 yearly in just staff turnover, while losing a front-line employee costs a restaurant an average $5,864.

Companies are introducing new incentives to attract employees, but hiring alone won’t address the situation. Instead, it is my experience that to build a stronger organization with lower turnover it’s imperative to do two things—create incentives for your existing employees to stay and grow future leaders from within your company.

This becomes more important in an economic downturn. When employees realize that even if times are tough, they are going to stick with your commitments to invest in their education and development, that drives even more engagement and motivation to perform.

As a former CEO of Darden Restaurants, I’ve found that a key starting point for investing in your people is to tap into their aspirations. When you believe everyone who walks through your doors has the capacity to rise to the level they aspire to, and you make it known that you are willing to help them advance by providing the development they need, that’s powerful.

The next steps involve acting. Below are some key strategies for turning those beliefs and aspirations into career progression within the company, in efforts to retain your people and expand your internal talent pipeline.

Build a strong culture: One where people want to be there At Darden we talk about nourishing and delighting everyone we serve. This refers to more than the food and service we provide guests, but also extends to our team’s professional and personal development. We saw opportunities to help our people grow personally, especially considering they were working in a diverse environment with an ability to connect with different types of people.

We also created a culture amongst our managers to encourage understanding of what their employees’ professional aspirations were. This can be as simple as having a manager ask, “Where are you headed professionally?” A lot of young people don’t know. We spent a lot of time helping our employees understand what was possible, especially inside our organization.

All this works together to create a strong culture and make people feel your organization is a place where they belong and want to stay.

Recognize we all learn differently: There is no one-size-fits-all approach As we think about the workforce it’s important to understand that our public education system is geared primarily to one learning style—a traditional classroom learning style. I came from a background where education was very important. My parents’ educational attainment level was relatively low, but while they were in school, they were good students and so they stressed classroom learning to me. It was very important. I went to school with people who were great classroom learners and many of us went to college. However, I also went to school with a lot of people who were not great classroom learners. That was not their best learning style. Fortunately, many of them went into areas where apprenticeship learning was valued, and they did very well.

During the first 15 years of my professional career, I worked on Wall Street where almost everyone was a great classroom learner. I had lost touch with that other part of the community, those that had a different learning style. Coming back into the restaurant business, I reconnected with that. I realized just how important it is to have a range of different learning experiences and education paths to match the diversity of learning styles out there in the population.

At Darden, a lot of our people are capable of more than they thought. So, it was incumbent on us as leaders to look deeply and understand our people and the diversity of their learning styles. That was the key to maximizing everyone’s contribution and ensuring all employees in the organization had the opportunity to grow.

Reimagine workforce education and training: Beyond traditional tuition reimbursement A majority of employees say they are more likely to stay with a company that invests in their future. That includes education and development.

Many companies think about workforce education very narrowly. We thought about it more expansively. For example, any hourly employee could raise their hand and say they wanted to be in our restaurant manager training program. And several hundred people a year did just that.

The fact that the opportunity was available was something that resonated powerfully with those who didn’t choose to take advantage of it. Everyone understood that we were serious about their development. That drives engagement, the kind of engagement that motivates people to put in the extra discretionary effort that goes above and beyond what they’re paid to do.

All of this leads to lower turnover, which results in significant financial savings and—even more importantly for a hospitality company like Darden—enables us to provide superior guest experiences. I’m convinced that thinking about investing in your people’s education more expansively, as something that is more than a simple tuition reimbursement program, is the path to creating a culture of lifelong learning and professional growth. With this mindset, you’ll begin to view workforce education programs as an investment that pays for itself many times over.

Grow talent throughout the organization: Support all career journeys Often you have people who are on a journey elsewhere, and working at a restaurant or at your company is a means of getting there. But then in that process, some fall in love with the industry. So, it’s important for people to understand what others in the organization are doing, and sometimes that exposure to the range of options will trigger curiosity and ultimately passion. They will see an exciting future remaining with your organization.

Darden’s current CEO, Rick Cardenas, is a great example. Rick worked at Red Lobster while earning a degree from the University of Central Florida. He liked the industry and company, so decided to stay and become a salaried employee in Darden’s restaurant support center. Eventually, he left to go to business school at Dartmouth University, and did a brief stint in consulting, but ultimately returned to Darden. Rick’s an example of a young person who we were able to convince that working with us could become a rewarding career, and he made it that.

Regardless of industry, all companies must look inward to find the talent they need to succeed in the short and long term. Education can help future-proof your business by investing in your people and inspiring them to build fulfilling careers.

Clarence Otis is the former CEO of Darden Restaurants. Under his leadership, the Darden restaurant portfolio grew from roughly 1,300 restaurants to over 2,200. – Source: fsr.





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