AI is Emerging as the Savior of Restaurant Operators During Covid

The restaurant industry has its fair share of problems at the best of times. 

Overworked staff must navigate long shifts, burnout, high-pressure situations, work-life imbalance, and the dangers of substance abuse. As food business owners tackle rising labor costs, high turnover, and tight margins. 

Not to mention the disruption and uncertainty of Covid-19 restrictions and ensuing public safety fears.

The best way to motivate staff and help them avoid the negative sides of the industry is to give them responsibility and a career path.

Despite concerns that it will take away jobs from human workers, AI could actually help to reduce tedious tasks and improve work-life balance for hospitality workers.

If leveraged properly, AI could be the key piece in the puzzle to enable human operators to work smarter and more efficiently, and focus more on high-level tasks.

All while increasing sales and productivity and reducing labor costs for restaurant owners. 

AI is emerging as the gamechanger the industry needs, not just to recover, but to thrive over the coming decade.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the extent of the problems restaurants face and how AI can be used as the savior of the industry as it bounces back from the shock of Covid-19.

What are the top problems restaurants are facing?

Apart from the obvious challenges facing the industry in 2020, there are a number of issues that restaurant owners face perenially. Many of which have only been amplified even more by the difficulties presented by extra restrictions and dining room closures.

A recent industry report surveyed 295 key decision-makers at large restaurant chains. When asked to identify the primary hurdles to driving "consistent team execution and customer experiences", the top three results give an insight into the problems they face:

  • 48% cited rising labor costs

  • 44% cited employee turnover

  • 39% cited employees not being properly trained

Clearly, staffing issues are top of the restaurant manager’s list of headaches. Solving these key problems would make a huge difference in helping restaurants recover in 2021 and beyond.

In short, restaurateurs can go a long way to solving some of their biggest problems by looking after their most prized assets – their best members of staff.

The problem of work-life balance for staff

Anyone who’s worked any serious time in the restaurant industry knows that it can be the best and the worst job in the world. You’re going to miss spending time with loved ones, birthday celebrations, and major life events. And if you don’t get on with your crew, it’s not a happy life. 

Work-life balance is very difficult to achieve, even when you’re being treated well by your employer. It’s just the nature of the industry and the times at which it operates.

But an improper work-life balance quickly leads to burnout, a lack of motivation, and even substance abuse.

The good news is that in attempting to minimize the problem of high employee turnover, you can also help to improve work-life balance and keep staff happier. As we will see, AI can be used to improve conditions for staff, solving multiple problems at once.

How can AI help to solve these problems?

Restaurant operators need to be brave enough to embrace new strategies, new processes, and new technologies to overcome these challenges.

The key goal is to empower staff with tools that enable them to focus on higher-value tasks and work more efficiently. To get the best out of the human operator and the technological components of the system, each should play to their strengths.

To give staff more responsibility and more power to work efficiently and effectively in all areas of operations, here’s how technology can be leveraged, in the front and back-of-house.

Improving employee morale and training while reducing turnover

If workers are focused on achieving targets, moving up, and taking on more responsibility, they will be more determined to succeed and less likely to burn out or turn drugs and alcohol. They will motivate themselves and their colleagues in a virtuous circle of positivity and hard work.

If we could reduce the drudgery, the split shifts, the weekends and evenings, and give more responsibility to staff at every level, we could go a long way to solving some of the biggest problems facing the industry.

In fact, studies show that over 60% of workers feel that a promotion would markedly increase their workplace happiness. They want the opportunity for promotion, more money, and more responsibility.

Happily, AI is well placed to help make this a reality in many areas of the modern restaurant.

The customer-facing side of the business is where human workers excel. Using natural empathy and face-to-face interaction, they can make or break a customer’s experience of your brand. 

But the very same human qualities that help to give a memorable experience, can also be their downfall. Human error in taking orders for example, or changes in mood and attitude which can cause a member of staff to be rude to a customer. 

By deploying AI for taking orders on voice channels, you can take the best elements of the human operator and back it up with AI. Automatic upsell suggestions help to keep minds focused and increase upsells, for example. Or if you need more help and don’t have enough staff to answer the phones, you can use AI to fill the gaps. 

This means staff don’t have to be “on” for as long. You can reduce the length of shifts, and help them achieve a better work-life balance without taking away their ability to earn a living. It will also free up time for better training on the job at higher-level tasks.

AI can help human operators take more responsibility while increasing upsells, giving better customer service, and working fewer hours, increasing job satisfaction in the process.

Reducing labor costs while promoting staff well-being with AI and robotics

Kitchen automation and robotics are at an exciting tipping point. The technology is getting sophisticated enough, and increasingly affordable enough, to be deployed at scale.

Robots like Flippy from Miso Robotics – which is turning heads and flipping burgers at CaliBurger and White Castle already – are showing us what the restaurant kitchen of the future will look like. The burger-flipping robot is able to determine the temperature of a patty on the grill using thermal sensors, flip it, and then remove it and place it on the bun. 

It uses AI to process all the information coming in, prioritize tasks, and carry out routine work like dropping fries and flipping burgers, and even cleaning up, to a high degree of precision. It can even communicate with workers on cook times and tell them exactly when to perform certain tasks for maximum efficiency.

This smart robotic arm works with human staff members to increase efficiency and consistency for the fast-food chains, and will only get better as it learns and is upgraded. 

Robots in the kitchen and automation in the ordering system help to cut down on the hours chefs and other workers spend on menial tasks. Leaving staff free to spend their time on more rewarding tasks: using their brains more, and giving them a higher level of job satisfaction.

It doesn’t stop there – let’s talk about the more tangible benefits

A few years ago, no one would have imagined every other household would have a smart virtual assistant that could hold a conversation and accept voice commands. It’s also now commonplace to interact with a virtual assistant when you call a customer service line.

Restaurants are now catching up to this unstoppable consumer trend.

Improving work-life balance for employees and helping them focus on high-value activity is just the beginning. AI in the restaurant has also been proven to produce tangible benefits to the bottom line.

ConverseNow is already helping restaurants using AI-powered voice command technology. In fact, its voice AI technology has already been shown to increase average order value by as much 23% and save up to 10 hours per week of labor costs. Overall, the technology has enabled restaurant chains to achieve a revenue increase of around 20%.

That’s an astounding revenue jump for such a simple implementation of technology.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget that AI can also have a positive impact on the customer experience. Smart assistants can offer a new level of personalization that can transform the experience from viewing a static menu, to a welcoming experience where your favorite options are recommended on dynamic menu boards or via an automated voice assistant. 

This benefits the customer, offering better choices and a seamless checkout process, but it also reduces the time at the window for each customer and increases average order value.

In US trials, McDonald’s has used smart ordering screens to offer new levels of personalization achieving a reported 30% rise in order value and reducing total time at the window by 30 seconds.

AI offers a positive path out of the Covid crisis

The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Restaurants have turned to takeout, delivery channels to stay afloat during the crisis, and some restaurants have even managed to increase revenue by focussing on these avenues.

The industry’s hand has been forced but that doesn’t change the fact that the need for new technology has been laid bare. An industry traditionally reluctant to embrace new tech is realizing the benefits as it faces extraordinary challenges.

The technology is here, but it must be implemented in the right way to empower workers and improve efficiency overall. Not to mention, ensuring the customer experience remains positive.

In the near future, when you log in to a restaurant app or pull up at the drive-thru, your purchasing history and tailored recommendations will be waiting for you. Smart decision-making AI systems will factor in everything from the time of day, to the weather, and even your age and mood –  facial recognition has been trialed by KFC in China to offer recommendations based on facial expressions.

The market will dictate that once robots and automation become available and affordable, they will enter the kitchen and the front-of-house. It’s up to operators to ensure this happens in a way that improves the experience for staff while also reaping the rewards this new technology offers.

With the pandemic hugely increasing the demand at the drive-thru and for delivery orders, but the restaurant industry facing a staffing shortage, there is a perfect storm on the horizon.

AI is poised to help restaurants make the most of the opportunities being presented by the current situation.