Food service is one of the hottest areas of digital innovation today.
Over the past decade we’ve seen the rise of cashless payment, mobile booking, delivery apps and loyalty schemes.
And the pace of food service innovation is only increasing, with the challenges of the pandemic bringing new ideas to the table and rapidly heating up the popularity of emerging trends.
Meal kits were one of the fastest-growing trends of 2020. One of the best-known names, Gousto is reported to have doubled its sales in 2020. Food delivery was another sector that benefitted from lockdown, with Just Eat reporting a 40% jump in orders.
The grab-and-go sector, also known as food-to-go, has also seen a rapid rise in popularity – not only due to the restrictions on dining in but because the public appetite for convenience is continuing to grow.
So what’s next?
Which food service innovations are set to grow in the months and years ahead?
Here are the top three food service innovations you need to know about.
Food service innovation 1: Dark kitchens
Don't worry, this is not as sinister as it sounds. Sometimes known as cloud kitchens, virtual or ghost kitchens, this concept is focused on serving the delivery market.
Dark kitchens enable quick-service restaurant businesses (QSRs) to prepare food in premises that are set apart from customers. With no need for seating, waiting areas or serving staff, dark kitchens are a lower cost alternative to a conventional restaurant. It’s also possible for different brands to operate from the same dark kitchen and there’s scope to experiment more rapidly with different menus.
Deliveroo announced that it plans to double the number of dark kitchens it operates this year. Meanwhile, US restaurant chain Wendy’s plans to open 700 ghost kitchens by 2025 in the US, UK and Canada. Elsewhere in the US, Uber founder Travis Kalanick raised $400m to develop hundreds of CloudKitchens and Kitchen United will build 400 kitchen centers and install 5,000 virtual kitchens over 4 years to service operators like Sweetgreen and Chick-fil-A.
The important point for operators is that dark kitchens don’t become ‘dark operations’. Poor working conditions and staff churn have already been cited as problems. It’s vital that brands keep a close eye on these satellite units, using digital reporting to deliver the visibility required to keep standards high and employees engaged.
Food service innovation 2: Restaurant digitisation
With delivery and domestic meal kits rising in popularity, there’s even more pressure on restaurants to attract diners. Innovation in this area has two main objectives – firstly to enhance customer experience and secondly to drive efficiencies in light of increasing supply chain costs and wage inflation.
Digitisation is sweeping through food service outlets, from front-of-house to kitchen areas. Touch-screen menus, mobile apps, self-service kiosks and digital ordering contribute to a more interactive experience that gives customers a better sense of control over the choices in front of them. These technologies can also speed up service in a world where customers increasingly expect to get what they want quickly – at the time when they want it.
Another advantage of front-end digitisation is that it enables food businesses to gather more data on customer frequency and preferences, opening the door to greater personalization.
Many coffee chains are already utilising personalisation in their apps. For example, the Starbucks app allows customers to specify their favourite drink, including a range of customisations, and have it served to them when they walk through the doors. It also features maps for locating your nearest outlet, loyalty points, integration with Spotify playlists and digital receipts. The recent arrival of Starbucks Pickup points elaborates on this trend.
Similar advances are happening behind the kitchen doors, where paper checklists are being replaced by digital assistants that appear via a mobile app to prompt and guide essential activity from accepting deliveries to cleaning surfaces. In tandem with this, automated temperature monitoring continuously analyses storage conditions in fridges, freezers and hot-hold units to identify an issues at an early stage and save staff from having to carry out regular manual checks. All of this contributes to a more engaging working environment for food service staff and delivers essential analytics to leaders who want to optimize processes, reduce food waste, protect brand standards and build a bulletproof digital food safety audit.
Food service innovation 3: Robotics
Human-to-human interaction will be a key component of the food service experience for a long time to come. But robots will have a growing support role to augment the work of employees.
Startup businesses are developing food service robots to support everything from food preparation to table service in restaurants. Meanwhile, food delivery businesses are exploring the potential of autonomous drones and delivery robots. Looking even further into the future, robotics could have a role in food manufacturing, with 3D food printers enabling personalized nutrition and alternative protein-based meals.
In the near-term, however, robotics are more likely to be an invisible element of employee-supporting technology. Digital assistants with increasing integration of artificial intelligence will guide, support and provide analysis of staff activity.
One of the key advantages will be to take mundane, repetitive tasks out of the hands of busy staff so they can focus on the face-to-face customer interactions that are so important to the food service value proposition.
Gazing into the future gives food service leaders a sense of what's ahead. But what can you do today to prepare for future innovations?