How Technology is Reshaping Our Dining Experiences
Post by Melissa Castro
Dining experiences have traditionally included a delicious meal paired with impeccable customer service and a nice ambiance. We can agree this was true a decade ago, but the tables have turned and the stakes are much higher now. Eating out is no longer a simple activity. Today, it requires careful thought from food providers and it demands more than great food to satisfy customers. The evolution has manifested itself into experiential eating, retail, and dining. Expectations from the food industry must evolve in order to both stand out and keep up with customer demand. Food providers are at a crossroads in understanding and experimenting with how rising technologies can elevate or demote these experiences. In this article, I examine how AR/VR, artificial intelligence, and, robotics, are disrupting the food ecosystem.
Travel, Peers, and Connection Shape Identity
Experiential eaters are willing to step outside of their comfort zone to seek authentic experiences and are looking for a deeper connection with the food and where it comes from. They are motivated through a number of things including travel, interactions with diverse groups of people, and a strong connection to food. Beyond trying new activities, experiential eaters are looking to be transformed by immersing themselves in the cultural origins of the foods for personal development and enrichment. The question is, how can technology enhance our experiences with food while maintaining the meaningful and personal relationships associated with the rituals of dining?
Robots Make Food
Incorporating human factors within the technology can create meaningful food experiences while solving real problems. One example is the use of robots, which have been designed with this ideology in mind. They are machines with arms, legs, claws, vision, and memory that mirror human characteristics and complete everyday tasks. What can be categorized as mundane tasks for back-of-the-house employees in a restaurant, have now become opportunities for robots to provide value. The goal is for robots and humans to work and coexist more seamlessly together and, in doing so, provide a new experience for diners.
In 2015, a group of four MIT engineering students teamed up with Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud to create Spyce. The Boston-based restaurant has replaced cooks with robots that have the ability to create meals in 3 minutes or less. Spyce is the world’s first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen that cooks complex meals. During a recent visit to Spyce, my friends and I were curious to see how an automated restaurant would feel and operate. We discovered that there are pros and cons to integrating robotics into our dining experiences. When we approached the packed restaurant there were lines out the door with nowhere to sit. The lack of seating added to our increased excitement and validated that we had to try it in order to understand what all the hype was about.
Upon entering the restaurant, our eyes were fixated on the 7 robots that toss, sear, garnish, and place the ingredients in a bowl. But when it was time to order at the kiosks, the process was not easy: ordering for the first time not knowing all the ingredients on the menu caused confusion and was time-consuming. The best part was being able to see your name on the board and when your food is ready to come out. Over time, while ordering at the kiosk should become a faster process as repeat customers become more familiar with the steps involved, Spyce should consider redesigning the ordering workflow to alleviate bottlenecks and enhance the customer experience. Like any customer interaction, managing expectations is critical when introducing new trends in the food industry as customers are accustomed to getting on-demand customer service and great tasting food.
Giving customers what they want through customization is an important element of fast-casual restaurants and a feature most expect in their everyday dining experiences. Spyce should be flexible by allowing customers to add or remove ingredients from their meals. As one of my friends shared during the dining experience, “With the exception of meat or no meat, you can’t really choose ingredients a la carte. I am the type of person who doesn’t want tomatoes, or extra sour cream.” The trick to adding robotic technology to the restaurants is being able to design experiences with the right balance between customization, accuracy, and speed that leaves the customers satisfied with the motivation to come back.
Further research is required to understand the right balance between human interaction and the use of robots. The challenge is that Spyce does not always have someone there to assist you and adding more staff will defeat the purpose of an automated restaurant. In order to bring the experience to a more cohesive and enjoyable level, the automated experience should start outside, only allowing new customers to enter when the robots are ready for them. This can be assisted through an outdoor reservation kiosk that allows the customer to submit how many guests are in the party before entering the restaurant. This would facilitate workflow, robot work capacity, and contribution to customer satisfaction.
AI + Robots: Coordinating a More Intimate Family Meal
Robots are not only infiltrating the restaurant industry, but they are also becoming part of our families. They can cut staffing costs and aid in bringing families closer together. As an example, the robot Jibo can remember the faces of all the family members in the home, read a book to your son, and teleconference abuelita from Peru into the dining room table, among other capabilities. More than just simple video calls, Jibo rotates its head and chooses who it wants to speak to based on facial and body cues. Abuela can have a more intimate dining experience without her being at the dinner table. Making both parties feel connected without being in the same physical space. Social robots like Jibo help us learn, interact, and distill information through an interactive voice commanded interface. Jibo has advance facial and voice recognition technology that enables it to interact with humans and create tailored, meaningful experiences. The thought of an inventive technology entering our homes is both exhilarating but scary as there are so many unknowns.
The ability to interact with a loved one from afar is intriguing and using voice command to request information can add value to the overall dining experience. But, is there space for bots to be our friends and join us at the dinner table? Cynthia Breazeal, the MIT professor and inventor of Jibo says there is. Amazon has tried to fill this void with Echo and the Alexa personality, but its technology falls flat. The issue is that often times we forget Alexa is there as she has to wait for someone to interact with her in order to evoke her interaction. “Jibo brings that sense of high-touch engagement and personal attention” without the need to invite it to participate in the exchange, she explained.
Promoting healthy dialogue has always been the underlying goal of sitting at the dinner table as a family. Cell phones have shown us that technology does the exact opposite, becoming a distraction and preventing us from maintaining focus and promoting meaningful dialogue. Much of Jibo’s accuracy and response time depends on a wifi connection. Any delays in interaction will make for a subpar environment that takes away from the experience instead of enhancing it. It’s important to develop a seamless on-demand integration that is in sync with human interaction to promulgate real engagement when dining. Adding another device may disconnect us even more as the interaction is no longer natural but artificial.
AR and VR Transform Employee Training
The same technologies that are creating artificial environments, as described in this article, are also helping to create positive human interactions in the workplace. As an example, mixed reality (augmented and virtual reality) is transforming the way we learn, make decisions, interact with one another and eat food. Through the use of mixed reality technology, restaurants can now present instructions for employee training in such a way that sparks increased engagement and learning. To refresh our memories, augmented reality (AR) overlays elements from the virtual world (computer generated images, videos and sounds) into our existing view of reality, allowing the user to enhance her view of the world. Virtual reality (VR) is the creation of a computer-generated environment that places the user inside an experience. VR offers total immersion from the user through a mixture of interactive hardware and software. AR and VR are slowly merging the digital world with reality and providing solutions that over time will improve how we design products, serve customers, and train staff.
According to Cornell’s Center for Hospitality Research, it costs $5,864 to replace an employee, a large percentage of these costs include hiring and training. Turnover is not a trend that is likely to go away but there are other methods restaurants can begin to experiment with to reduce such impact. VR is changing the way enterprises train staff and conduct business with a direct positive correlation to quality and productivity.
Reading 2-D instructions are hard to follow. Just think about how long it takes to assemble an IKEA desk. Instructional videos are helpful but can be expensive and lackluster in interaction. Most restaurants do in-person onboarding training but require employees to take time away from their regular duties to train others and is time-consuming. AR is addressing these issues by providing real-time, step by step visual instructions that are thorough, consistent, and save time. Having the ability to safely interact with kitchen appliances alongside instructional guidance is a game changer for the food industry.
You can read step by step instructions on how to make espresso. However, not until you are physically interacting with the machine, make terrible espresso a few times and have someone correct your pull on the portafilter will you achieve the perfect balance of bitterness, acidity, and sweetness. By using mixed reality and layering relevant information onto the employees’ view we can cut down on training time and improve accuracy. Giving employees the tools they need to succeed manifest into more confident and prepared personnel. And when the proper training is married to a passionate employee, it produces a high caliber of customer service that directly enhances the overall dining experience of the guests.
For example, Klip and Honeygrow partnered up to develop a new employee training program powered by AR/VR that is aimed at educating and preparing employees across their stores. Their program teaches employees the importance of preventing food contamination, order accuracy, customer check-points, and company core values. AR and VR enable us to take in information at a much faster rate, therefore, aiding our ability to make more informed decisions and act on them.
The downside to using mixed reality for training is that those being on-boarded will at some point need to ask questions or interact with a human in order to fully grasp the lesson. These training programs will need to find a way to incorporate pauses within the lesson that allow those being trained to step away from the digital world, come back to reality, and interact with an actual employee who can clarify any points of confusion. Also, a fully automated training lesson does not provide insight into company culture and teammate personalities which is a vital portion of the on-boarding process.
Tech Should Always Complement
Robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented reality are just a few of the technologies that are disrupting the food industry. The possibilities are both exciting and questionable as there is so much we don’t know about the long term effects of how they will enhance the dining experience. Technology should complement the overall experience, not overwhelm it, by enhancing the intrinsic value that makes that particular establishment unique. Failing to do so can be catastrophic for both the restaurant and the tech industry. Companies risk tainting their brand, being labeled as inauthentic, and losing customers as well as employees if they don’t take the time to experiment and find the right balance of technology and human touch.
Melissa Castro is an MBA candidate at F. W. Olin Graduate School of Business, Fellow at the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL), and founder and CEO of La Conexion, a Latino marketplace that celebrates, preserves, and builds community. Melissa wrote this article as part of the graduate course Thought Leadership in Technology. You can learn more about the course here.