It felt like hundreds of eyes were swarming on me. My pace quickened. ‘What do they want?’ I questioned, eyes locked on my chair, interrogating myself just as they were interrogating me.
I sat down quickly, upright, tensed. My heart racing, eyes wide. I’d not been here before, and yet I couldn’t escape the knowing stares. Suddenly, an icy grip took hold of my shoulder. I convulsed, trembling with fear. Looking up, my gaze was met by hunched, pale-faced man thundering towards me, howling: ‘The usual, sir?’
AI is the stuff of nightmares; a horror story that we’re all too happy to act out because the immediate convenience will continue to outweigh the prospective jeopardy. At least until it doesn’t. Algorithms run the world with minimal oversight. Data is the new oil. AI is now the overwhelming foundation of fast mover advantage. Politicians don’t understand how Facebook works. The starring roles in our shared psychological thriller are set.
Food & drink doesn’t quite have the same killer plotline to worry about. AI and machine learning are several pivots away for an industry that has historically struggled to adopt tech. I used to work in a hotel that had 100 people on the payroll. And 3 computers. This was less than 5 years ago.
Things have changed, but I’m still a hospitality-tech apologist. I nod along with tech founders and sales teams as they shake their heads, perplexed, trying to figure out why perfectly capable people in food & drink don’t see what they see: That they’re failing their customers by not introducing tools to help their teams remember and react to the data they swim in on a daily basis.
Personalisation has existed in hospitality since Jesus prepared 6 Mushroom risottos at the feeding of the 5,000 (come on, there’s no way everyone ordered the fish).
If you’ve worked in a restaurant, you’ve grimaced at a customer asking for ‘whatever, but without the whatever.’ And every bartender knows just how thrilling it is to be confronted by the words ‘can I have what I had last time? No, I don’t what know what it’s called. The other guy made it especially for me.’
Chef Boyardee ravioli. Coney Island Whitefish. A boa constrictor. This is what happens when people are encouraged to have whatever they want.
Waiters and bartenders are not messengers. Their responsibilities do not end – nor start – at ferrying dishes and drinks to awaiting guests. They welcome. They assist. They engage. Savvy operators have long-hired hospitable human beings first and experienced servers a distant second, knowing that all the requisite technical skills can be learned.
But, locked within these skills and the experiences needed to attain them, lies the difference between decent and great service. Nobody, however wonderfully talented and delightfully versatile, is at their best when they don’t know the details of their job role. Sugar carries flavour. Confidence carries talent.
A confident, erudite team member can help a guest navigate through the litany of proprietary flavour combinations that, until tasted, represent a mysterious chasm between notion and knowledge. They are the sherpas to the guest’s adventurous spirits. Sounds great, but – as we know – talent and retention are a real challenge in 2018. Unfortunately, training & development have been corporate weak spots forever.
So, how does the restaurant of the future solve this riddle? With AI.
Rather than rely on training and development, or experience and know how, guest behaviour will be logged by a multitude of different data points. This data won’t be siloed in individual sites or companies either; instead, your purchasing information will be stored by your payment processor and aggregated across any venue you choose to share it with.
And with each of us being creatures of convenience, we’ll share that with anyone that can deliver our favourite drink that much faster. ‘The usual’ will be stirring and shaking before you ever hit your seat, irrespective of whether you’ve dined or drunk in that venue before.
This could come into effect tomorrow (or in a few tomorrow’s time anyway). The clever bit – and that’s what you’re here for, right? – involves an algorithm, the time of day, what you had for lunch, who you’re with, where you’re headed later and a drink that you’ve never even heard of that a couple of lines of code has decided you need, right now.
I look forward to Twitter freaking the fuck out when Chrissy Teigen’s Alexa watch recommends that she sip on a peanut butter martini at 11 am on a Tuesday in the autumn of 2023. But by 2025, you won’t think of ordering without checking out what you should be drinking.
Let’s go deeper. How about this magic 8 ball of a future can tell you what you need to eat to balance your daily calorie count, or cure your headache, or increase your libido. Or…that’s enough. What if the restaurant you’re dining in doesn’t hold the items to make this concoction in-house? Well, supply lines won’t look the same either, but that’s for another blog post.
The restaurant of the future will serve the usual, don’t worry. You just don’t know what it is yet. Welcome to the future of restaurants.