How AI is trimming the fat in foodservice

Artificial intelligence may be in its infancy in the foodservice industry but it’s got huge potential

August 26, 2020

From reducing food waste to predicting what customers will order, artificial intelligence is already streamlining the restaurant business – and this is just the start.

Though the thought of AI in a restaurant may bring to mind Pepper the robot taking orders at Asian branches of Pizza Hut, it’s more about software that helps personalise customer service and re-order stock more accurately.

At American chain BurgerFi, self-ordering kiosks use AI-powered facial recognition to suggest menu items to returning customers. In the UK, the Tenzo AI platform helps brands such as Caravan and Pizza Pilgrims to forecast footfall and sales in order to better manage staffing and stock levels – something which is more important than ever in the current economic climate. 

“AI goes beyond automated technologies to learn about customers in order to optimise operations and increase profit margins,” says Richard Moulds, Director, Foodservice Consulting at JLL. “Though not yet prevalent throughout foodservice, in the next three to five years, a few AI processes will emerge as successful and integral to restaurant operations.”

Fast food first to AI

Quick-service and fast-casual chains have been the earliest adopters, trialling AI systems that link front-of-house and back-end operations to learn a restaurant’s sales patterns and make predictions. 

At Starbucks and McDonald’s drive-throughs, AI analyses the time of day, weather and individual store transactions to customise digital menus. Fast-casual chains such as by CHLOE and Buffalo Wild Wings streamline their online experience with AI that manages website reservations and pre-orders for those lunching on the clock.

“AI is especially helpful for restaurant brands where speed is a critical factor in customer experience,” says Moulds.

Implementing appropriate technologies can, however, be a challenge, especially when many represent a sizeable investment for the brand at a time when cost is forefront of mind.

Consumer concerns around privacy are another key consideration. Some AI analysis that relies on sensitive customer data – such as facial recognition – could discourage some people from returning – or even visiting in the first place.

“Personalisation is a major benefit of AI, but it’s critical that brands make clear their data collection policies, with options to opt out,” says Moulds.

Humans working with tech

Restaurants will also need to invest in upskilling staff to ensure they understand the technology and can use it successfully to get the insights they need. 

“From the restaurants’ point of view, understanding the most effective data types to collect is key for accurate predictions that optimise stock ordering and avoid limiting customer options,” Moulds says.

Yet with food waste an industry-wide issue, spending on AI to reduce the amount thrown away could slash the budget: research from resource efficiency charity WRAP found that on average, for every $1 restaurants invested in reducing waste, they saved $7 on operating costs.

Indeed, some AI tools not only forecast demand, they also monitor individual kitchens’ practices.

HSBC and the Sofitel Bangkok, for example, use smart bins to track which foods are routinely chucked out, helping streamline menus and purchasing. Down the line, AI-enabled cameras could analyse the parts of meals that diners leave behind, while smart refrigerators might detect food nearing expiry and remind chefs to use those items.

“Reducing food waste improves sustainability throughout the supply chain, from shrinking the carbon footprint of delivery trucks to making each served meal eco-friendlier,” says Moulds.

And for restaurants aiming to go greener by growing their own ingredients, AI, which can improve agricultural harvests, could help monitor gardens and optimise yields. 

Future smart service

As AI becomes embedded in the restaurant business, the customers of the future stand to gain from increasingly personalised service that enhances the experience of eating out.

Digital menus might automatically order celebration cakes on diners’ special days, or display customised perks to regulars, while food-scanning apps for restaurant buyers could allow managers to provide assurance on the origin of ingredients.

“Customer expectations have gone through the ceiling,” says Moulds. “AI will segment the foodservice industry further, enabling fast, automated service at one end, while allowing other restaurants to offer the tailored experience people are seeking out.”

Foodies need not worry. As Moulds concludes: “There will always be a place for traditional restaurants with great customer service and chefs on show, cooking good food. AI will simply make operations more efficient, freeing waitstaff for more personal attention.”