Restaurant self-order revolution shifts into high gear: Are you prepared?

The self-order revolution in U.S. restaurants has entered its fast-growth stage. Although there are no statistics on the number of restaurants using self-order kiosks, anecdotal evidence suggests that the pioneer stage has ended and adoption has shifted into high gear.

The time has come for all serious players in the limited-service space to take note if they haven't already.

This year's National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago featured three times as many self-order kiosks as it did last year. Many POS providers, not wanting to miss out on the growth, have expanded into the space. 

McDonald's and Panera Bread have played leading roles in this revolution with their nationwide rollouts. Wendy's, Subway, Taco Bell, Johnny Rockets and hundreds of independents aren't far behind.

The revolution will affect millions of restaurants and it will influence customer perception of the industry — for the better.

The convenience lifestyle is here to stay

In the past two decades, restaurants have become a mainstay for the average U.S. consumer. Eating out has become the daily norm rather than the occasional treat that we baby boomers remember.

The "convenience" lifestyle has brought its share of inconvenience, however. Consumers have had no choice but to stand in line and wait for their order to be prepared and delivered. Ugh!

But now this is all changing because self-order kiosks make it possible for guests to quickly place an order, knowing that it will be delivered to the kitchen immediately and accurately, and pay for it. 

The technology also enables the restaurant to redeploy labor to more critical areas, such as welcoming customers and paying closer attention to the overall guest experience.

James Wehner, McDonald's director of global digital experience, told Kiosk Marketplace last year that the most important thing about the self-order kiosk is that it's a facilitator, not a replacement, for restaurant staff. The main benefits are improvements in customer satisfaction, staff satisfaction, order accuracy and store revenue.

Self-order kiosks are not arriving in a vacuum. They are moving into restaurants in concert with mobile order and pay. Working together, the technologies make the guest experience more convenient and enjoyable.

The evidence is in

According to restaurant operators who have deployed these technologies, they are working. Blaine Hurst, CEO and president of Panera Bread, said in his presentation at this year's National Retail Federation show that visits among customers using kiosks increased 12 percent after 12 months.

As the deployments continue, the improved convenience will change the customer's perception of QSRs and fast casual restaurants, provided that  restaurants take advantage of the opportunity.

In addition to using technology to relieve the wait that customers endure while ordering at a limited service restaurant, an establishment can further improve the guest experience by providing Wi-Fi, enhancing the décor and having engaging hosts on hand for a more personal touch.

The opportunity is waiting, and restaurants shouldn't wait to seize it.

The time to act has arrived

Given the labor situation, time is not on the industry's side. The labor shortage for server positions is going to get worse before it gets better.

The number of restaurant industry jobs is projected to grow from 14.7 million in 2017 to 16.3 million in 2027, according to the National Restaurant Association Foundation. Where the restaurant industry has historically relied on people 16 to 24 years of age to fill most of these positions, this population segment will decline by 2.8 million in the next 10 years.

Many restaurant owners are hesitant to invest in new technology, and for good reason. The capital outlays are big and, for many, the learning curve is slow. 

And while the technology doesn't eliminate jobs as much as reallocate them, the perception that automation kills jobs persists among consumers and presents a public relations challenge for many businesses.

And that's not the only challenge on the labor front. A problem much larger than public relations is that of finding employees with skills suited to the self-service age.

According to the McKinsey Group Institute, automation will increase the demand for higher-level cognitive abilities — i.e., logical reasoning, stronger communication skills, and enhanced social and emotional skills.

John Miller, chairman and CEO of the Cali Group, a restaurant automation pioneer, told the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit in London last year that automation is driving the need for engineers, managers, and installation and system support specialists.

As challenging as all of these things may be, those who embrace change will survive and prosper.

Who's ready to lead?

The restaurant industry is on the leading edge of a technology era that will extend to many other economic sectors. The reason is that, while restaurants are not the largest kiosk user group (they fall well behind retail, government/nonprofit and consumer brand manufacturer segments), they are the most regularly patronized locations to add self-service technology.

As such, they play an important role in familiarizing consumers with the technology, and they will continue to do so as new capabilities — facial recognition, voice recognition, gesture recognition, virtual reality and augmented reality — emerge.

Are you up for the self-service era?

By Elliot Maras is the editor of and