ResTech

Taking A Bite Out Of Smart Self-Serve Kiosk Trend

Picture this: a customer walks into a café. The barista recognizes her face and asks if she’d like the usual. No need to go through the “double venti wet cappuccino with soy and four pumps of pumpkin spice” rigmarole; the barista knows the order by heart and even recommends products that would go well with the customer’s order.

Also, the barista is a computer.

Self-service kiosks are appearing in more and more restaurants, especially outside of the U.S. The latter still seems to be catching on, though the ones using it have reported great success with the technology so far.

For instance, McDonald’s is on its way to making “wait time zero” a reality, with kiosks playing a big role. Early stats are showing a 20 percent higher average ticket being placed at the self-service kiosk versus the counter.

Panera made news when it decided to start using touchscreen order kiosks to solve crippling bottlenecks in its stores. It’s rolling out the technology along with simplified kitchen displays across the chain.

Subway is hoping that new tech, including touchscreen kiosks, can save it from a three-year sales slump before it has to close more stores. Hundreds are already on the chopping block this year.

There are common problems that a self-serve kiosk can alleviate in almost any establishment.

They boost labor efficiency, especially at peak hours, when productivity once relied on how many cashiers a restaurant had on hand rather than on how fast the kitchen could prepare food. If a cashier could process one order every three minutes, that meant 20 customers per hour times the number of cashiers on duty. In many cases, that just wasn’t enough to support the lunch rush.

Kiosks in the restaurant industry give customers freedom of pacing, whether they need time to choose and customize their meal or simply want to grab it and go without waiting in line forever. The ability to browse without feeling that they’re holding up the line means customers are likely to add additional items to their order or plan a return trip to try another dish that they skipped this time around.

Bite takes the touchscreen kiosk a step further by adding biometrics. It uses guest recognition and a learning algorithm to provide the best possible guest ordering experience based on previous orders (if the customer has visited before), or standard recommendations if they’re new — say, a manager’s favorite or a suggestion by the franchise.

Guests at restaurants using Bite don’t have to opt in for the facial recognition program, but if they do, the system will store their preferences and track and apply any loyalty points, such as discounts for a 10th visit. If they don’t, they’ll just see targeted recommendations based on what they’re looking at.

Facial recognition gives power to the dash-and-diners, because now they can order “what I had last time” with just a few taps. And it gives power to the browsers by taking the pressure out of guest-cashier interactions, helping customers avoid ordering an item they may not have really wanted.

“Our take on it is that we’re all different,” said Bite CPO Steve Truong. “Our recognition and learning algorithm allows us to give each guest a different experience — and cater to their personal needs.”

Not everyone is ready for this Cheers-of-the-future setup, where every computer knows your name. Bite has found that, at the Connecticut locations where it’s in use, about 90 percent of guests opt in for the biometric recognition feature.

“I get it!” said Truong. “There’s always a trade-off between convenience and privacy. It’s more about, ‘Do we offer something compelling enough that you’d be willing to give up some personal information?’ Emails went through this; same with cell phone numbers.”

The company encrypts biometric data by turning the photo into a hash, an abstract series of letters and numbers that is the output of the measurements taken for facial recognition. That’s what gets stored in the system so it can recognize when the customer comes back.

As for payment information, Bite doesn’t store any at all. It does accept credit cards, Apple and Android Pay, and (soon) other alternative payment forms such as WePay. But the company doesn’t think people are ready to have restaurants store their payment information for repeat visits, no matter how securely it’s done.

Instead, Bite is focused on riding the facial recognition wave as the company deploys its kiosks in chains beyond the borders of its home state, Connecticut.

The company is shrewd enough to see that its kiosk isn’t the answer to every food service question. In settings where guests may be more discerning (think celebrities), a self-service kiosk probably isn’t the best route. Truong said it also hasn’t worked out in food-service facilities such as the ones within military installations.

But there are likely more applications for smart kiosks that people haven’t even thought of yet. Bite sees a future place for technology like this in limited- and quick-service restaurants, concession stands and even in retail beyond the restaurant industry. Similar tech is already being tested by certain airlines for flight check-ins.

“We’re seeing more and more about facial recognition coming through,” Truong said.

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