High-Tech Takeout

How mobile devices, AI and other technologies could upgrade foodservice
Photograph by Clint Blowers

CHICAGO — Imagine standing in the kitchen in the year 2030.

The countertop pings an alert that the stock of carrots is running low. Because you made carrot stew three times in the past week, your smart home assumes you would like to make it again.

A robotic but pleasant voice asks: Would you like the carrots delivered to your fridge or added to the grocery list to pick up yourself? You opt to add them to the shopping list.

At the grocery store, you put on augmented reality (AR) smart glasses. Product recommendations for bread, wine and cheese pairings flit across the screen of the AR glasses as you walk past the bakery. The store’s artificial intelligence (AI) knows what kind of wine you usually purchase and makes recommendations accordingly.

After reaching the produce aisle, you consider changing the stew recipe, then spend several minutes staring at the root vegetables, hoping inspiration strikes. Cameras throughout the store notice this, and the store’s AI notifies a manager that you might need help. An employee arrives to help work through the options. “Will you be taking your purchase with you, or will you have it delivered to your fridge?” she asks.

Friction Factors

This “Jetsons”-esque future is well within the realm of possibility, according to Michael Sansolo, research director for the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council (CCRRC) in Atlanta. Sansolo presented a similar vision of the future of food-based retail at the 2019 NACS Show in Atlanta. The CCRRC has served as a third-party researcher for both large- and small-format stores to give retailers relevant ideas about the future of store commerce since the 1970s.

But if this future is possible, how do we get there? Gray Taylor, executive director of Alexandria, Va.-based Conexxus, says the key is mobile. Conexxus is a technology standards organization that helps c-stores become more technologically adept and provides tech standards.

“The mobile device is going to be the center focus for the foreseeable future looking 10 years out,” Taylor says. Foodservice has already started transitioning to this new reality. Take the “just walk out,” no-checkout experience of the Amazon Go smart c-store as an example. Customers walk into the store, grab the item and walk out. The process is possible because of the mobile device used to open the turnstile doors at the store’s entrance.

Amazon Go has defined “friction” in the checkout process as waiting in line. But lines are just one form of friction in the consumer experience, Taylor says. “Friction sometimes can be that I don’t have a chance to talk with somebody,” he says. He believes that foodservice operators will give customers the ability to pick from a variety of checkout options in the future. Some customers may prefer Amazon Go’s “just walk out” experience. Others may want to check out with a mobile device.

Taylor says the technology powering mobile devices will extend to in-store kiosks. “There’s technology out there that could literally put a kiosk on a cooler door and project a menu board that you can order from or even pay from,” he says. “You’re going to see a proliferation of consumer touchpoints all over the store.”

The capabilities of mobile devices could be further advanced by 5G connectivity. Taylor says 5G will make apps “redundant” by giving mobile devices faster web browsing capabilities. Instead of switching among countless numbers of apps for loyalty programs, mobile ordering and other capabilities, 5G connectivity will enable mobile devices to do it all without downloading any apps. “That’s going to keep the cellphone fresh in consumers’ hands because now they’re in control,” says Taylor.

Mobile devices already allow consumers to summon food without speaking to anyone, but Taylor says modern delivery must evolve to become economically sustainable.

“The economics of getting a food order out to a consumer is going to be a tough thing that has to be overcome, and it will be over the next five years,” he says. “I’m a big believer that slower electric autonomous vehicles are going to deliver stuff to our houses.” In other words, self-driving cars will carry grapes before they carry grandma.

The exact nature of the vehicle will differ by market, Taylor says. He envisions earthbound drones on wheels traversing cities while flying drones whiz through suburbs and more rural areas. “You can’t have an aerial drone coming in with all of the power lines, 10-story buildings and all of that,” he says.

Taylor cites Mountain View, Calif.-based Nuro, which has partnered with Kroger and Domino’s to test its self-driving delivery vehicles, as an example of one company pushing foodservice toward its autonomous future.

Speak Up

Different technologies could be used at different touchpoints in the foodservice experience. Take the quick-service drive-thru.

“That’s a natural fit for natural language ordering,” Taylor says, referring to a verbal interface that allows people to interact with technology using a human language. “[The customers have] the menu in front of them. They can say they want a No. 5 medium with a Coke, just like they’re doing today with a human being, but the machine is actually going to be more accurate than the human being in getting that order.”

Will voice technology be ready to take accurate drive-thru orders by 2030? Taylor says voice tech is already up to the task.

“Two years ago, my wife and I stayed in a 12-room bed and breakfast up in Selina, Texas, and it had an Alexa at the front desk,” he says. “Anything you wanted to order or anything you wanted to ask about the bed and breakfast was already programmed into an Alexa device. If a little 12-room bed and breakfast can do that, there’s no reason why we can’t do that at retail.”

However, Taylor contends that voice computing will be more useful to the store or restaurant employee than the customer. He suggests foodservice operators upload their staff manual, recipes and other useful training information as an Alexa skill. “Once you get really good at that, then it’s time to launch it on your consumer, not the other way around,” Taylor says.

Matching Up With Social Media

Emerging technologies will affect the back office and the kitchen in more ways than training. Blockchain technology, for instance, could have prevented the multistate outbreak of E.coli linked to romaine lettuce ahead of Thanksgiving 2018.

“Last Thanksgiving, none of us had romaine because romaine was pulled off the shelf,” Taylor says. “It was pulled off the shelf because we couldn’t track and trace that bad batch or romaine back to where it came from. Had we had that in place, we would have isolated only those batches of romaine that came from that day, on that farm from those pickers.”

Taylor also predicts that supply chain will more closely integrate with social media. He points to Popeyes, which used social-media marketing to advertise its popular chicken sandwiches. But the online hype should have been reflected in the supply side of the company’s operations to avoid out-of-stocks.

“This is where machine learning can come into play,” Taylor says. Eventually, he says AI will be able to directly translate social media hype to the correct amount of chicken needed at each location.

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