Brick and mortar restaurant businesses are tough to run – even in the best of times – and the Covid-19 pandemic has decimated it in a flash. While some restaurants remained open for takeaways and deliveries, others operated at a fraction of their overall capacity. In fact, according to research, at its lowest level, the share of diners in the US had dropped 85.2% since the crisis began.
Even as restaurants emerge out of lockdowns and prepare to reopen this week, business would never be as usual in the foreseeable future. This necessitates that these establishments embrace technology wherever they can to help ease some of the challenges the new normal will bring in its wake.
Although food delivery startups have heavily invested in AI to improve customer experience, the restaurant industry has largely been resistant to technological advances. However, to remain competitive and relevant in the future, they will need to devise ways to improve food hygiene and handle crowds of customers amid social distancing protocols.
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While some restaurants have tinkered with AI-based solutions and robotic automation in the past, widespread adoption is yet to happen. From contactless payment systems and smart drive-thrus, to robots working in commercial kitchens and automated ordering systems, the scope and application of AI in restaurants are numerous.
In this article, let us explore some of the ways in which restaurants can leverage the power emerging technologies like AI, as they prepare to reopen amid Covid-19:
Maintain Critical Food Safety Standards
One of the biggest challenges that restaurants are bound to face is maintaining critical food safety standards and convincing customers of the same. To this end, Dragontail Systems has devised AI-powered solutions that can handle end-to-end optimisation of delivery, take-away as well as dine-in.
From kitchen flow management and communication with customers, to scheduling for delivery services and computer vision quality management systems, it offers a range of services to restaurant partners. The last one, in particular, can be greatly helpful in ensuring that proper hygiene measures are practised in the kitchen.
Although ideated to maintain quality control in commercial kitchens, Dragontail’s AI Camera can be customised to adapt to other standards, like detecting if masks and gloves are dutifully worn or if hands are frequently sanitised. The company is already servicing clients in several small and big restaurants, including Domino’s.
Another company that leverages AI to help maintain hygiene in restaurants is Dishcraft Robotics. It uses a combination of proprietary AI, robotics and ‘high-powered scrubbing’ to thoroughly sanitise and deep clean cutlery in commercial kitchens. What is more, automating dishwashing using this solution not only improves efficiency, but also helps avoid overcrowding.
Optimal Seating Arrangements
The second problem in order of priority would be to ensure that mandated distance is maintained between any two people inside a restaurant. There are several AI and computer vision-driven social distancing detection systems that can help these establishments ensure that these protocols are respected.
For instance, Landing AI’s tool can monitor customers to check if they are keeping a safe distance from each other. With the help of real-time video streams from a camera mounted in the restaurant, the system can generate alerts if a violation is detected.
While there may not be a more foolproof way to ensure that safe distances are maintained between customers than erecting physical dividers, these may not look welcoming and may even make the dining experience off-putting. This is where technology can come in handy.
Contactless Ordering Of Meals
Some restaurants may have adopted digital menus as an environment-friendly measure in the past, but this may not quite cut it in the new normal. One-use paper menus also could generate a vast amount of waste, and hence, is not a long-term solution.
This is where a few companies have introduced mobile order for dine-in services in restaurants. In late-2019, Chick-fil-A launched a service that allowed customers to place orders via its app. After placing the order, they simply have to tap their smartphone to the table in which they are seated and using Near Field Communication technology, the order will be delivered to that table.
In another example, KFC has gone a step further and has teamed up with Baidu to develop a facial recognition — an AI-powered system that can provide recommendations based on a customer’s age and mood. What is more, it is also programmed to remember what they ordered last time to further refine its recommendations.
Other Ways In Which AI Can Reshape Restaurants
While the above three points are critical areas that need to be addressed before restaurants restart operations, there are several other use cases of AI and emerging technologies in the restaurant industry which can not only improve efficiencies but also automate certain tasks that can help avoid overcrowding.
Cooking – Robotics startup Moley has created a kitchen that is completely automated. In a first, the prototype, that comprises a fully functional robot in an innovatively designed kitchen, has been 12 months in the making. According to the company, it is adept at cooking with the skill of a ‘masterchef’.
In another example, burger chain CaliBurger takes the help of a robot to prepare, cook and plate up its orders. Named ‘Flippy’, it literally flips the patty after detecting that it has attained the required level of cooking by gauging its temperature.
Waiting on tables – Much has been spoken about SoftBank’s Pepper Robot and its capabilities to wait on tables and process payments. The robot currently ‘works’ in a coffee shop in Tokyo. Even back home in Chennai, a restaurant named Robot employs four robot ‘waiters’.
As restaurants explore ways to integrate technology into its reopening strategy, it should not lose sight of more straightforward but crucial steps, including clear communication with customers on measures taken to promote safety efforts.