Look, Ma, No Hands: Restaurant Contactless Tech

The pandemic has accelerated numerous marketing and tech trends, options that became necessities amid lockdown and general isolation. Work-from-home and telehealth are two such trends that have been pushed deep into the growth stage of their life cycles, the pandemic cleaving years off progress toward greater acceptance.

Decimated during the pandemic, the restaurant industry has emphasized health safety, hoping to reassure customers placing food orders and electeds issuing lockdown orders. Contactless tech has been an important means to increase safety through reduced human interaction. And like other technology-based initiatives boosted by COVID, this form of services marketing shows no sign of retreating once the pandemic is deemed over.

That restaurant hallmark of reduced contact, the drive-thru, is receiving tech infusions. McDonald’s, White Castle, and other fast-food chains are using Artificial Intelligence to take orders and recognize returning customers for predictive meal suggestions. The application of such advanced technology may be alarming to some, but note the above linked article’s recollection of 1950s customers dismayed by the “disembodied voice” coming from two-way speakers installed to improve their dining experience. Efficiency is the driver (pun intended) in the drive-thru’s tech upgrade—more accurate order-taking, shorter wait-times.

Online ordering can also benefit from drive-thru automation. Taco Bell has developed a new store concept featuring a separate kitchen to prepare meals ordered via app. A dumbwaiter system brings food to customers’ cars, invoking drive-thru banks developed after World War II that shuttled money and checks in pneumatic tubes.

Sit-down restaurants are rolling out contactless tech as well. Kiosks can provide digital ordering boards. Meal offerings can be posted at tables, allowing customers to order via QR code, eliminating the need to touch communal screens or even a printed menu. Payment can be made via the same interface with customers’ mobile devices.

Efficiency reigns with these indoor technologies as well, making them useful even when COVID concerns have abated. Higher sales are another dividend, as happier customers are more likely to be retained and upselling (an extra drink or dessert) is enhanced when diners no longer have to “wait for the check.”

Contactless tech in restaurants are a form of SST—self-service technology. Automated service delivery has existed for decades—ATMs, self-serve gas pumps, e-commerce. Customers in the digital era may pine for the “human touch,” but routinely seek speed, accuracy, and convenience in their marketing experiences.

Recent pandemic protocols may have prompted restaurants’ adoption of these systems, but time-honored marketing principles will keep them in place. Marketers and consumers will benefit. Will restaurant workers lose jobs? It remains to be seen as automation has presented pluses and minuses since the spinning jenny and the cotton gin.

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.

John 6:27 ESV

Should restaurants make a full commitment to contactless tech? Will restaurants without such technology be able to compete with those that have it?

How does contactless tech in restaurants compare with e-commerce in other forms of retail? Do 21st century consumers expect such automation in all their marketing experiences?

How should Christians react to the potential displacement of restaurant workers by new technologies? How can we balance our consumer needs with the employment needs of others?

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