Do you know that automation is changing the restaurant industry?

Published April 26, 2021

It's a question that's on everyone's mind: what is the world going to look like post COVID-19? When the giant pause button that pushed everyone into their homes for months and forced businesses to make major changes almost overnight is released, what are we going to see— particularly coming at a time when technology is so advanced that driverless cars are already a reality?

Yes, it's a challenging time for people and business owners, but change can also be exciting.

“When the giant pause button that pushed everyone into their homes for months and forced businesses to make major changes almost overnight is released what are we going to see?”

For the restaurant industry there is no doubt that the way it operates and the customer experience it provides will never be the same again. Automation trends and technology adoption are already accelerating, driven by the pandemic. Your customers already wanted to interact with technology more. A great example in the retail industry are self-checkout machines in grocery stores—87 percent of consumers last year said they preferred robust, instore self-checkout.

Restaurant technology and trends that were already on the rise globally, like pay-at-the-table, kiosks in fast food restaurants, contactless pay and mobile ordering apps are experiencing accelerated adoption. Now they are poised to transform the customer experience—and boost customer satisfaction. And that is the ultimate reason a restaurant owner will continue to adopt more automation in their restaurant: to improve the customer experience and make it the best it can possibly be.

Related: How pay-at-the-table really pays off

Benefits of automation in the restaurant industry


You only need to look at pizza chains to see that automation is the wave of the future. It started with Domino’s delivering pizzas via autonomous cars in Germany. Later they added delivery drones while Little Caesars received a patent for a robotic arm to help make pizzas. And Zume, the California-based pizza chain, is using robotics to make pizzas in trucks as they’re on their way towards customers’ doors.

And pizza chains are not alone in understanding the benefits of automation in the restaurant industry. McDonalds, which has been taking the lead in improving their customers’ experience in the fast food industry for years, introduced kiosks. And now they're working on enabling technology that will personalize their customers’ experience.

Many other food and beverage businesses will also be adopting more automation because of some of the following benefits:

Focus on the customer experience. The primary goal of increasing automation is to provide your customers with excellent service. When you bring ease and convenience to the ordering process, decrease the time it takes to receive their food and provide them with excellent food, beverage and service you can significantly increase your customer loyalty.

Check out how NCR enabled contactless payments using QR codes with Mad Mex’s Aloha POS system and offers their customers a completely contactless payment option.

Increase production and efficiency. The thing about robots, kiosks and a mobile app is that they don't need to take any breaks—ever. That means they can produce food and beverage orders at much higher speed than humans can and they can do it without making mistakes. That means serving more customers and doing it so that they are satisfied.

Reduce labor costs. Even a partially automated restaurant means that you'll be able to operate with less staff members which could mean big savings. Labor is the largest cost for restaurants with an average of between 30 and 35 percent of your sales going to your staff. If you could reduce that by even five to 10 percent, you'd be able to invest it in your restaurant to increase business.

“Labor is the largest cost for restaurants with an average of between 30 and 35 percent of your sales going to your staff.”

Bring more innovation. Your customers really like innovation, a lot, particularly millennials and Gen Z's who grew up in a technology fueled world and now it's what they are used to. Not only that, people are drawn to new things. By bringing in automation you'll introduce more innovation in your business which will attract more customers, increase their positive perception of your restaurant and set you apart from your competition.

Give employees a break. What many restaurants that already rely on more automation realize is that their customers still want the human touch. And what they automate are the repetitive, time-consuming tasks, like washing dishes for example. So that can free employees up to perform more value-added services like interacting with your customers in genuine ways, presenting food and helping ensure that your customers are receiving a great dining experience.

Using today’s artificial intelligence is a great way to upsell and easily increase revenue


Quick service restaurants have been asking their customers “Would you like fries with that?” for years for a reason: because often their customers say yes, and that extra two dollars adds up quickly. It’s called upselling and it’s one of the easiest ways to increase your revenue. And with today’s technology, every restaurant should embrace it at every turn.

As you think of ways to incorporate upselling, do it in a way that pleases your customers and stays far away from annoying them (it’s a balance, but you can do it). Keep in mind that many of your customers enjoy interacting with electronic devices so ask them if they want extras through digital ordering, whether that’s through your mobile app, a third-party’s or from your website.

The artificial intelligence (AI) you can rely on to put a great upsell plan into place includes:

  • Getting prompts on your POS system that reminds your staff to ask customers if they would like to add a particular item
  • Using information from your digital loyalty program to gain insights about what items your customers are ordering and target your upselling accordingly
  • Planning and executing an email campaign that can be personalized to your customers particular previous orders offering deals on repeat items
  • Using facial recognition via kiosks, drive throughs and in-store cameras to keep track of your customers’ ordering behaviors (keep track of what, when and how they order)

Get creative with your upsells and stay on brand. When you know what your customers like, you can create upselling experiences that will delight them. After all, you are asking them if they want something that you know they like, so you automatically personalize the order and remind them why your restaurant is one of their favorites.

Even before you’ve successfully implemented an upselling plan, create an ROI strategy to track profitability and customer satisfaction. Then use it to further guide the whos, hows and whens of your restaurant’s upselling. 

Challenges with automation in the restaurant industry


While automation in restaurants is certainly a growing trend, it's not coming without some growing pains.

Resistance from unions and the public. Not everyone is going to love hearing about your plans to replace humans with a type of automation. Unions who work to protect restaurant worker's job and the public in general may push back if they hear that your automated restaurant is going to put people out of work. The public in general may also voice some concerns so being prepared to handle criticism should be a consideration.

“Unions who work to protect restaurant worker's job and the public in general may push back if they hear that your automated restaurant is going to put people out of work."

Don't lose the human touch. Because the very nature of your business is social, interaction with your staff is something your customers want. So, while automation can take on tasks like dish washing and order taking, the personal interactions between your employees and your customers should be enhanced. Finding the right balance between how much you automate and the number of staff you employ is key. The bottom line is that you want to improve your customer's dining experience, not replace your employees.

It can be intimidating. While most of your customers will see your automation as a welcome change, there will also be some people who might have trouble using it. For example, a kiosk will be intuitive to most of your customers who are used to pushing buttons and scrolling on their devices, but if they're not they will need some assistance. And that may be a good place for one of your employees to step in and enhance the dining experience.

Sometimes automation complicates rather than simplifies. One disadvantage that comes with automated ordering rather than in-person is that it may not allow order customization. For example, if a customer wants something very particular about their order and the kiosk doesn't have that option how will you solve for that problem? Those are the sort of considerations to keep in mind as you implement your automation.

“If a customer wants something very particular about their order and the kiosk doesn't have that option how will you solve for that problem?"

There may be privacy concerns. Even though contactless pay is safer than inserting a card into a POS system, some of your customers may be wary of it until the use becomes more widespread. And if your automation involves any cameras or sensors that may also cause some of your customers to not fully embrace automation.

But what about how automating restaurant service can improve the customer experience?


The customer experience is ultimately about the relationship your customers have with your restaurant, and that definitely includes emotions and perceptions associated with your business. Automation can help you foster a strong, positive and loyal relationship with your customers.

Give the customer more control. The various ways that your customers can now order their food and beverage, from kiosks to a mobile app and tablets at the table, puts them in the driver's seat. That can be alluring for many of your customers, particularly if they need to get their food quickly.

Reduce the time they have to wait. With less time having to wait to place their orders (whether they are ordering from a kiosk or various pay-at-the-table ways) your customers will appreciate not having to wait. That's not a small thing in a fast-paced world.

Provide ease and convenience. From easy access to menus and the ability to order their food at their own pace—and pick it up how and when they choose—gives your customers the convenience they're demanding.

Improve the accuracy of orders. Automation eliminates a lot of human error which greatly increases the chance of getting your customers order right. That way customers can feel confident that when they place their order at your restaurant, whether they're dining in, picking up or receiving a delivery, they'll feel confident that you'll get it right.

“Whether they're dining in, picking up or receiving a delivery, they'll feel confident that you'll get it right."

Give them more time to focus on their friends and family. Without the need to wait for a server to come to their table multiple times, when they can use ways to pay-at-the-table, customers can enjoy their food and beverages and engage with the people they came with.

Offer a more welcoming experience. When your staff spend less time on routine things like taking orders or washing dishes they can concentrate on making each of your guests feel genuinely welcomed. They can also attend to any of their needs while they're dining in and make sure they're properly thanked for coming into your restaurant.

Automation technologies in the restaurant industry


The range of ways restaurants can introduce automation into their business is growing. Kiosks were introduced years ago and seem to be just the tip of the iceberg with things like robotics entering the picture. Here's a look at some of the other automations:

Digital ordering. With COVID-19 entering the picture, the number of digital orders is now much higher. As reported by Restaurant Dive, a new report by market research company Incisiv says digital sales will make up more than half (54%) of limited-service and quick-service business by 2025. The digital orders are largely made through your restaurant website or app and third-party restaurant apps.

Robotics. Whether they're flipping hamburgers, making pizza or pouring coffee, robots have become a game changer in the restaurant industry. They go a long way in not just eliminating the need for employees to do menial tasks, but they can give your restaurant a large innovation boost. Check out how one restaurant is using robotics to make gourmet hamburgers.

QR codes and mobile pay. Ways to pay like Google Pay and Apple Pay can provide your customers with a lot of convenience by simply scanning their phone. And that frees up your staff to work on other more productive things. They also enhance contactless payments which, with COVID-19, are only going to increase in their amount of use.

Pay-at-the-table. This dine-in way to pay has been growing globally for years and when the pandemic is over, it's likely to become the new normal. When your customers can, through various ways, pay for their orders without having to wait for a check it reduces human contact and it's much more convenient. Plus, it's another way to free up your staff and increase productivity and efficiency.

“When your customers can, through various ways, pay for their orders without having to wait for a check it reduces human contact and it's much more convenient."

Kiosks. According to a press release by Business Wire, the kiosk market “is expected to reach a CAGR of 13% over the forecast period 2020-2025.” Considering that it has been a largely successful trend with customers enjoying the ease of ordering as well as the interaction with technology—particularly during the pandemic—the predicted increase in the kiosk market isn’t surprising.

When your restaurant is backed by NCR, it's simple to stay out front.

Whether that's literally up front with your customers, or out front of your competition.

Need more information?