Today, restaurant retailers operate on traditional infrastructure with technologies from various vendors and complex end-to-end logistics involving material and food sourcing, recycling to prepping, cooking, and delivery. For restaurants to be considered next-generation, every one of these aspects will have to be transformed by setting a higher standard of quality, safety, and performance. Each of these requires a rethinking to better answer the ultimate question of what a restaurant should be and what it stands for in today’s understanding and wisdom of ourselves and the world around us.
After all, food is our sustenance — the healthier and sustainable it is, end-to-end, the better we are as humanity and the world we create for generations to come.
The services industry is not perfect by any means, but it has the tenacity, creativity, and heartiness filled with a deep desire to create. I see the industry as a canvas for artists to share their creations with like-minded people, where the “business” is the friction layer between them. But, at its core, the industry hasn’t invented anything revolutionary since Richard and Maurice McDonald’s Speedee Service System in 1940, which was a novel step towards automation and reducing the “business” layer as much as possible. But, first, they had to go through all of their equipment, utensils, recipes, and staff to address, among many things, external and internal logistics. The goal was to optimize and miniaturize the end-to-end experience — a big-picture first approach. They went through many iterations, diligently researched, and developed various simple yet sophisticated custom-built inventions to ensure consistency end-to-end. Whether machine or human-based, all tasks in the final operations ended up being reliable, efficient, with a high focus and integration into its ecosystem.
At first, customers were hesitant about the outcome as it was a big jump from what people were used to at the time. However, soon afterward, they subscribed to the new learned experience that was liberating, with the food being fresh, delicious, and far less wasteful.
The auto industry, too, was in a similar situation where traditional I.C.E. vehicles were considered the norm for many years to come until Tesla swooped in and put E.V.s on the map. It took many years of R&D, knowledge, and wisdom from other industries (software, energy, and manufacturing) to create a new infrastructure forming a new auto industry with a new type of robotics (cars.) Tesla’s approach had sustainability and automation in mind that leaped forward industry standards of higher performance, versatility, and safety. It’s not just the products affected, but the processes and logistics of how it’s being resourced and manufactured, to name a few. Nevertheless, no transition happens immediately. Before Tesla, this journey began with hybrid models designed and developed by other companies to further ease the progression towards fully electric and autonomous cars.
So, to usher in next-generation retail, the most critical ingredient is investing heavily in improving the retail ecosystem. For restaurants, the ecosystem is composed of three major components: people, food, and technology — prioritized respectively.
People, First; Technology, Second
The world is transitioning to a greener ecological mindset placing locally-driven resources and workforce higher importance and shifting towards a more sustainable ecosystem. The “people” portion of the ecosystem tends to be considered last and encompasses everyone from the customers, workers, and owners. These next-generation restaurants need to be intuitive to anyone interacting with them to offer an equal service across the field. The least amount of interaction needed to manifest an intent, the better. The technologies applied in this case, such as A.I. and robotics, would need to be neutral participants rather than decision-makers since the ultimate decision has to always come down to a proper person, such as a chef, administrator, or customer, depending on context.
From an economical standpoint, eliminating repetitive, boring, and non-creative labor jobs is sustainable as they are not cost-effective. Moreover, such jobs are untapped potential energy for new ideas and entrepreneurship opportunities. With robotics and A.I. participating in our daily lives, education and job opportunities in the services industry would be based on home-grown technologies elevating it to a new level unseen before. The rise of education toward enhancing life-first through emerging and cutting-edge technologies will become the standard moving forward.
In 1926, Henry Ford began shutting down his automotive factories for all of Saturday and Sunday. Henry’s son illustrated that “Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation….” For the first time, the new policy’s additional days with increased wages and pay made it possible for Ford’s employees to afford the cars they themselves were building. Essentially, labor jobs take away economical opportunities and innovative potential.
A.S.R. — Autonomous and Sustainable Retail
The Services Industry is investing heavily, albeit cautiously, in reducing labor by adopting automation and robotics as their savior to replace people directly — one by one. Except, this results in further overloading an already profit-sensitive operations and business model. While this places people last on the priority list, it doesn’t take away the importance of automation for clean, safe, and consistent services. The critique is in the method rather than the need. It’s time to take it a level higher — the retail is the robot. A single retail robot made up of purpose-built miniature robots servicing requests when needed. The totality of the package should end up with a more sustainable and highly impactful to society, the economy, and ecology — it has to be all three for it to sustain itself for generations to come.
The future hinges on autonomy and sustainability — the fact robotics and A.I. are being utilized is a consequence of these core values. A.S.R. applies to all types of retail — including restaurants. However, it does not mean it lacks humans in retail, but it does so both physically or virtually, depending on the type and size. Essentially, an A.S.R. implies that its core functions are automated and sustainable end-to-end. The first iteration of these A.S.R. will most likely begin hitting the market in 2023 and beyond while others adopt smaller tech to hybridize their logistics to maintain their current status quo.
Since A.S.R.s cocreates with every individual personally, the time factor is now decided upon by the customer. Therefore, with time being a feature rather than being associated by the type of business, A.S.R. can offer services under the guise of a QSR, F.S.R., or casual dining per the individuals’ needs. The versatility and personalization of an A.S.R. create a significant impact on the human experience that is liberating and empowering that can change the way everyone lives each day.
To conclude, the next-generation restaurant will then have to be based on an A.S.R. model that will leap the industry forward for generations to come.
The author, Haitham Al-Beik is founder and CEO of Wings