Get the latest Startup news and information

Technology trends for 2018: Automated food

Helping restaurants streamline operations, allowing for quicker service and greater customisation with orders, here's how you'll eat out in 2018...

As anyone who's ever worked in the food industry will know, there's nothing quite like the lunch time rush.

Indeed, visit any UK city during the precious hours of 12.30-2pm and you're likely to be met with hordes of office workers all desperately scrambling to ensure they're not the ones at the back of the queue – or settling for the last remaining, rarely coveted, egg mayo sandwich.

It's a stressful time, regardless of what side of the counter you’re on.

But for the myriad of both multiple-national and independent sandwich shops, cafes and eateries, time really is of the essence – as the trade during breakfast and lunch hours will make-up a significant portion of their annual turnover.

While the traditional approach has been to have staff packed to the gills, willing and waiting to fire out orders as quick as humanly possible – some businesses are beginning to think, that this just isn't quick enough.

So much so, this ‘need for speed’ has restaurant chains around the world thinking about entirely automating all stages of their operation – including accepting and serving customer orders, and even, preparing food.

By no means a completely new concept, the world’s first automated restaurant Quisisana opened way back in 1895 in Berlin, Germany, before the idea spread stateside to Philadelphia in 1902 as Horn & Hardart.

Referred to as ‘automat’ restaurants, hungry diners with a nickel could buy home-cooked meals, pre-packaged sandwiches and even apple pie through patented vending machines.

A sure sign that our appetite for innovation remains as strong now as it did over 122 years ago, the rise of mobile ordering and touchscreen tech means consumers are craving less queuing and more customisation.

According to Mintel’s US report on dining out in 2018, nearly one in five diners plans to use mobile ordering for food more often in the coming year, while one in seven wants to see more kiosk ordering options in 2018 – and it's a sign that all the big hitters are taking note of.

While you'll no doubt have noticed your local McDonalds has installed self-serving screens, allowing you to order your Big Mac Meal with the touch of your fingertips before collecting it at a manned counter, entire food chains are now operating sans staff – with regards both front of house and in the kitchen.

Once again looking across the pound, American fast-food chain Eatsa allows customers to place their order, pay, and collect – without any human interaction whatsoever.

Operating like one giant vending machine, customers order their food at an iPad kiosk – before waiting in front of a wall of glass cubbies.

Once their food is ready after being prepared by kitchen staff, the door to that cubbie will light up with the name of the customer, with their order having been placed inside.

Serving freshly prepared bowls of quinoa, rice and grains, with a range of toppings, customers can order from preset combinations or create-their-own.

A process helped greatly by the tech on offer, even the most unique order can be catered for – with the possibility of human error at the point of order eliminated.

What's more, Eatsa's computer system keeps a record of each order it receives so when customers return for a second or third bite, the kiosk will display their previous orders and even recommend new dishes based on their preferences.

However, a sign that perhaps not enough cooks can actually spoil the broth – Eatsa closed down all but two of its cashierless locations in October, stating in its “eagerness to get the Eatsa experience in front of as many people as possible,” it expanded “too quickly.”

Certainly food for thought for any budding food tech entrepreneur.

How automated food works

Bound to have massive, and potentially dire consequences, for people employed in the hospitality sector – the automisation of food is happening, whether we like it or not.

In many ways, restaurants are playing catch-up to other industries. As ATMs have long replaced bank tellers, so too will self-order kiosks replace servers and sales assistants.

But, how will it all actually work?

As mentioned above, with front of house automation, diners can use an in-store iPad or even a mobile app to place their order – allowing for as much customisation as they like.

With the continued rise of virtual reality, customers may also be able to “sample” items off the menu by eating 3D printed food that pretends to be its real-world counterpart.

US-based Project Nourished allows users to eat almost anything they want (minus any calories) by “hacking vision, gustation, olfaction, audition and touch.”

Among its range of tech products designed to mimic anything from doughnuts to dinosaur meat, includes an aromatic diffuser to help create a smell, a VR headset to influence sight, and a bone conduction transducer to create the relevant chewing sounds.

And with AI seemingly disrupting everything but the kitchen sink, it was only a matter of time before robots decided to target that as well.

With heightened industry costs and a suspected shortage of inward migration in the coming years, restaurants have already been buying tech-infused cooking equipment that helps less-experienced cooks take on tasks that would normally be designated to more senior chefs.

Going one step further, fully-automated robotic chefs will soon by cooking and preparing dishes all on their own too.

Using motion-capture technology, digital ‘chefs' will able to simulate the exact movements of a human chef, and with the ability to have intricate recipes and dishes programmed into it, re-creating world-class dishes for even the most modest restaurants.

Add the automisation of food, to the rise of driverless cars, and you could soon have your favourite takeaway prepared, packaged and delivered to your home – without a human hand in the process.