Restaurant innovation

When Restaurant Tech Sees Your Face And Identifies Your Taste

Facial recognition tech could give the old restaurant axiom “service with a smile” a whole new meaning, by allowing customers to reorder meals with just a glance. In the latest Order To Eat Tracker, Dallas-based QSR Malibu Poke Owner Jon Alexis tells PYMNTS how facial recognition tech helps build customer familiarity, and enables the restaurant to reallocate its workforce.


“Service with a smile” has been a foundation of the consumer-facing restaurant industry, implying that warmly welcomed customers keep coming back. A new technological advancement could flip that model on its head, however, and enable customers to start the service process with their own smiles. 

A handful of restaurants have run facial recognition technology experiments at their self-service kiosks. A recent pioneer is Caliburger, which is utilizing facial recognition ordering technology at locations in Pasadena, California, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. UFood Grill of Owings Mills, Maryland, and a KFC in Beijing are also enabling the technology, which allows customers to simply look at the facial recognition kiosks and reorder previous meals. 

Malibu Poke, a higher-end QSR establishment with Texas locations in Austin and Dallas has also rolled out these capabilities at its self-serve kiosks. Jon Alexis, owner of Malibu Poke, said the biometric system has proven to effectively retain customers and help them quickly reorder their favorite meals. 

“In the restaurant business, we are always looking for deep loyalty,” he said. “That familiarity is how you build customer relationships.” 

Facial recognition technology has helped distinguish Malibu Poke from other brands, but the restaurant does not consider it a replacement for human work. Alexis recently spoke with PYMNTS about how biometric technology and the Malibu Poke rewards program encourage customer loyalty. 

Adding Biometrics To The Self-Service Menu

Malibu Poke’s restaurants offer a range of poke bowls, a Hawaiian-inspired dish with raw ingredients that include salmon, octopus and tuna. Diners can build their own bowls, resulting in more than 63,000 potential order combinations. Alexis said the restaurant’s self-service kiosk investment aims for seamlessness in remembering customers’ specific order combinations so they can easily reorder those meals. 

“We thought poke – with all of the different combinations you can put in a bowl – really lent itself to a self-serve kiosk,” he said. 

Users who approach the self-service kiosks are asked if they are placing a repeat order. The machine offers those who answer yes the option of remembering a previous order either by facial scan or by personally identifiable information (PII) — perhaps a credit card used to place the previous order or a phone number. Users ordering with the kiosk for the first time are prompted to receive a facial scan to remember the order for a future purchase. The kiosks do not store payment information locally and can present a customer’s order history at each location. 

The restaurant offers these services to enhance the poke ordering experience, which can be new and overwhelming to some people, Alexis said. Simplifying reordering encourages customers to consider coming back. 

“We thought we could use tech to accomplish the goal of having old-fashioned hospitality-driven human relationships,” he said. 

Responsible Restaurant Tech Investment

The self-service technology’s availability enables the restaurant to reallocate labor and take more orders. Alexis emphasized that the technology is intended to enhance the customer ordering experience, not to scale back its human workforce. 

“When tech is a cost-cutting effort, the customer sees right through that,” he said. “When technology is clearly an investment to improve the guest experience, then the customer is going to go along on that ride with you.” 

Each kiosk, he noted, has a “Poke Pro” stationed nearby that greets customers when they walk in, navigates them through their first time ordering from the machine and fetches sauces or samples from the kitchen. Alexis said these workers play an important role in encouraging consumers to use the devices successfully, leading them to return. 

“[With] one guest walking in who is completely comfortable with the kiosk and the next guest who is a little spooked by it, having a human there to gauge that, use good judgment and give those people hospitality in whatever form they need it — that’s been a difference-maker for us,” he said. 

The technology might be new and overwhelming for many customers, but Alexis believes it will ultimately enhance the Malibu Poke ordering experience. He compared the technology to the early days of self-serve gas station pumps, which became available in 1947 as alternatives to full-service stations. The new technology became the norm in time. 

“We are now seeing people open to it saying, ‘If this is a smooth system, I’m going to be cool with it. If this is a janky system, I’m not going to come back,’” Alexis said.

Encouraging Return Customers With Rewards

Customers are able to earn stamps through a Malibu Poke digital rewards program and redeem them for free bowls or discounts after downloading the app to their Apple or Android devices. The program aims to add value for customers and also encourage them to return. 

“It is significantly easier to get a customer to come back than to find a new customer,” Alexis said. “Rewards are just a really easy way to give a value add to your loyal customers.” 

He added that because Malibu Poke’s restaurant offerings tend to be more expensive than many other QSRs’, loyalty programs work better. Opportunities for customers to seamlessly access discounts can provide the restaurant with meaningful ways to retain customers. 

“We’re not the cheapest place in town, but people who have the loyalty card can find a way to get an even better value out of us,” Alexis said. He added that some customers act as brand ambassadors by encouraging their friends to enroll in the program to access the savings. 

“They tell their friends, ‘That place isn’t cheap! Get the loyalty card. You’re a fool if you pay full price there!’” he said. “It’s been a cool marketing effect.” 

Restaurant patrons expect to seamlessly order from their preferred brands. Balancing a technologically innovative ordering experience with a rewards program that discounts pricier meals could help put a smile on many customers’ faces and encourage them to use those biometrics to place future orders. 



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