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Fast-food chains befriend technology

03:45 SGT August 22, 2017
Fast-food
Fast-food chains embrace technology in and outside the kitchen to enhance customer experience and ensure faster service

Time is the most important resource in the fast-food business. The turnaround time to cater to the customer at a fast-food joint is measured in minutes and even a few seconds more can become a deal breaker. Fast-food players such as McDonald’s, Domino’s and Pizza Hut strive to minimize the time cost of delivering food. Toggling with efficient practices as in better machinery inside the kitchen or added workforce at the frontline, fast-food chains play with various ways to earn time even if it were just by a few seconds.

In Asia, McDonald’s toyed with innovation with one the largest consumer markets — China. Aided by IT developer systemsGo, McDonald’s implemented a new table service system in its stores across China.

TIME FOR AN UPGRADE
New technology, robotics and artificial intelligence aim to give the fast-food experience a fresh lease of life. From interactive ordering technology to unmanned kiosks and GPS tracking deliveries, the possibilities are endless. The tech revolution in the fast-food retail industry has only just begun.

A major overhaul since its drive-thru days, McDonald’s is cultivating a digital platform to enhance the ordering process. Quite the need of the hour, mobile ordering is not a novel feature anymore. So along with that, McDonald’s is launching the Experience of the Future (EOTF), an in-store technological overhaul that nearly replaces kiosk ordering and table delivery. The “Happy Meal” chain will roll out mobile ordering across 14,000 locations in the US by the end of this year. The technology upgrades include digital ordering kiosks that will be offered in 2,500 restaurants by this year-end and table delivery.

A McDonald’s spokeswoman said in an interview: “Our CEO, Steve Easterbrook, has said on many occasions that self-order kiosks in McDonald’s restaurants are not a labour replacement. They provide an opportunity to transition back-of-the-house positions to more customer service roles such as concierges and table service where they are able to truly engage with guests and enhance the dining experience.”

Just as the drive-thru and home deliveries dictated fast-food trends at one time, modern-day digital efforts are set to cater to a new cohort of fastfood customers shaped by e-commerce, social media, smartphones, streaming video and, in one way or another, a lack of time.

In Asia, McDonald’s toyed with this innovation with one the largest consumer markets — China. Aided by IT developer systemsGo, it implemented a new table service system in McDonald’s stores across China. After two pilot store installations in March this year in Shanghai, the company installed the new technology in a further 48 stores by end-April and is now looking at the potential of 250 additional store implementations across China.

The new table service system allows McDonald’s customers to place orders using a kiosk and pick up a numbered ‘table tent’ once the order is complete. The McDonald’s crew member uses the table service monitor to identify the number’s location and deliver the order directly to the customer.

Not too far behind in the race is pizza chain Domino’s. It is almost safe to say that it is as much of a tech company as a food maker with its continuous innovations in the ordering and delivery process. And now, it has usurped the whole Internet of Things (IoT). Domino’s, with help from agency CP+B, recently announced a partnership with IFTTT, a free online service that allows users to create connections among digital devices and have certain events in one device trigger other events in another device — by using what are called applets.

The alliance will allow users to do a lot more with the already-existing Domino’s Tracker, which follows the progress of their pizza orders. With the help of IFTTT applets, users can trigger events in other devices. For example, when your pizza goes into the oven at Domino’s, you could schedule a social media post asking friends to join in for a pizza party at home. Or, when your pizza order is out for delivery, you could turn off your sprinkler system and turn on your porch lights to make things easier for the delivery person.

The options are endless. Users can trigger various tasks at these stages in the Domino’s Tracker:

  • Order being prepped
  • Order in the oven
  • Order out for delivery
  • Order ready for pick-up

Whenever the order hits one of those events, the user can use IFTTT applets to trigger almost anything in the connected world — from posting to social media, to sending an email or text, to turning on the lights in your dining room.

Domino’s claims it is the first restaurant brand to join the IFTTT platform. And it is getting users started by creating a few applets itself, including one that turns on their Samsung POWER bot when the order is being prepared, which is “perfect for when the house needs a good vacuuming before the gang stops by for a pizza party”, Domino’s says.

“We understand how much people love using Domino’s Tracker, not only to know where their order is in the preparation and delivery process, but also to plan around that muchanticipated pizza arrival,” Dennis Maloney, Domino’s chief digital officer, said in a statement. “And now we’re empowering customers to unleash their imagination as they create new ways to integrate some of our favourite innovations, like Domino’s Tracker, into their everyday lives. Thanks to the endless possibilities of IFTTT applets, customers will be more connected than ever.” .

In addition, Domino’s Robotics Unit (DRU) family has also launched an artificial intelligence (AI)-base technology that will allow customers
to order a pizza using their voice. DRU Assist is an in-app AI virtual assistant that was built in partnership with natural language company Nuance. It is almost like the revolution Dominos created many years ago with ordering pizza via the phone.

Powered by Nuance’s Nina, Domino’s DRU Assist engages with customers in human-like conversation via text or speech recognition. Beyond ordering, DRU Assist can converse with the customer about menus, ingredients, store locations and operating hours from within the Domino’s app.

In the future, Domino’s plans to build on DRU Assist, and is currently developing an AI system that will use third-party AI platforms such as Amazon Echo and Google Echo, which will allow people to order pizza from smart devices within their homes. While this eases pizza ordering for the customer, at the backline it automates a lot of functions too. DRU Manager will see Domino’s AI platform use realtime data to automate rosters, as well as easily manage store stock levels. This year, Domino’s declares that it “is going from mobile first to AI first”.

 

GETTING DUE ATTENTION
Family-owned Nando’s has grown to compete with US fast-food chains. The company too realised the importance of technology as a strategic aspect for growing the business and thus included the role of a technology director in its set-up.

In his current role, technology director of Nando’s, Richard Atkinson,
aims to re-architecture parts of its IT estate and customer-facing applications to provide a more joinedup user experience. For example, customers previously required two different log-ins to access the Nando’s loyalty card scheme and make use of its takeaway service. That has now been streamlined.

The team is also exploring ways to capture business from customers who might not be so brand-loyal to Nando’s through partnering with food-tech apps like Deliveroo, allowing people to order food from its restaurants, with the latter party responsible for ensuring it ends up at its intended recipient’s address.

On the infrastructure front, the team led by Atkinson has paved the way for the company to ramp up its use of cloud technologies from the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS replacing its out-of-place server room on the back of a restaurant in West London, within metres of chip fryers and grills cooking chicken).

He believes that the Nando’s experience is probably a more social experience than some of the more convenience dining offerings, where you just want to get in, order, eat and get out. So, he said Nando’s doesn’t plan to go for self-service kiosks or applications.

It plans to use technology to enhance the humanity and experience. Most restaurants or diners use technology in making their service faster and more efficient, but sometimes at the cost of desensitising the customer from the brand experience, he said in an interview.

They are now making efforts to use customer experiences in Nando’s to infer business insights and track changing expectations of customers in lieu of online shopping behaviours that are fundamentally changing the way people think about ordering stuff.

Just as the drive-thru and home deliveries dictated fast-food trends at one time, modern-day digital efforts are set to cater to a new cohort of fast-food customers shaped by e-commerce, social media, smartphones, streaming video and, in one way or another, a lack of time.

While fast-food giants struggle to minimize order time on one hand, the changing needs of the health-conscious customers, on the other hand, pose a greater challenge in bridging the need for fast, good and cheap food. Adapting to new technology at least helps address one of the challenges effortlessly.

New technology, robotics and artificial intelligence aim to give the fast-food experience a fresh lease of life. From interactive ordering technology to unmanned kiosks and GPS tracking deliveries, the possibilities are endless. The tech revolution in the fast-food retail industry has only just begun.