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Restaurant Tech Takeaways from NRF 2024: Retail’s Big Show

Restaurant tech industry thought leaders share their observations from Retail's Big Show.
NRF 2024
NRF 2024 Photo credit: Craig Allen Keefner, Consultant with Kiosk Manufacturer Association.
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It comes as no surprise to anyone that AI pretty much stole the show at NRF 2024. New research from Google Cloud released ahead of the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Retail’s Big Show found that 81% of retail decision makers feel urgency to adopt generative AI technologies, with 72% ready to deploy generative AI in the coming year, and 77% anticipate their organizations will start prioritizing hiring for data scientists. And researchers from IDC expect that through 2027, 95% of retailers will test/invest in GenAI to enhance product data, customer support, and customer experience initiatives.

Since I was not walking the show floor myself, I reached out to a few key thought leaders and asked one question: What is the most impressive thing you saw or heard at NRF, relevant to restaurants? 


Robotic Co-Pilots

Dan Berthiaume, Senior Editor, Technology at EnsembleIQ's Chain Store Age,  Hospitality Technology’s (HT) sister publication, reported that he “uncovered a big truth about next-generation AI at NRF 2024. It doesn’t create anything new, but extracts previously unobtainable value from existing assets and data sets.” He goes on to say he heard a lot of chatter about AI as co-pilots assisting humans in doing jobs better, rather than replacing them. In the restaurant industry, we’ve heard this same theory for some time. 

When a restaurant taps robotics, most operators are quick to point out that robots are allowing team members to be reallocated to better serve guests. While this may be true, I recently heard one operator boldly confess that the rising minimum wage in California and lingering labor shortage necessitates that he replace not just some, but every human with a robot (the faster, the better, he emphasized). My thoughts when he said that were A) I don’t blame him, B) I suspect many more restaurants are moving in this direction quietly, and C) certain formats / menu mixes are ideally suited for autonomous-everything, so why not go for it, and boldly tell it like it is? 

Restaurant Technology Network (RTN) Vendor Advisory Council member, key contributor to several of RTN’s industry standards and Director, AWS Services Sector, Steven Elinson agreed that AI was omnipresent at NRF. “I observed the embedding of generative into most everything. There was automation of all things, wherever possible, including robotics continuing to shrink and enabling new applications, like hot dog, burger and pizza robots on display alongside computer vision-based vending.” 

Craig Allen Keefner, another RTN key contributor and consultant with the Kiosk Manufacturer Association, thinks AI was overblown at the event. “Robotics were something to see, though the details are still being worked out,” he observed. “On the kiosk side, it was good to see Samsung kiosks adding accessibility. Payments systems, POS and mobile POS for employees and customers were EVERYWHERE.” 


An Industry First with Amazon Pay

Another key contributor to several RTN published works, Tim Tang, Director, Enterprise Solutions at Hughes, weighed in on what impressed him most at the event. “The most impressive thing I saw for restaurants was the bartaco dine-in restaurant experience with Amazon Pay and OneDine. This initiation demonstrated an intimate understanding and sensitivity to the guest experience, while creatively solving a common industry tech debt challenge: legacy POS through an innovative collaboration with market-leading technologies.” He added, “With rising operational costs, an ongoing labor shortage and shrinking customer wallet, the restaurant industry will need  this type of thoughtful operational execution to thrive.” 

Cool stuff, indeed. Scott Lawton, CEO & Co-Founder of bartaco shared insights with HT about the focus of the new tech: Simplifying the order and payment experience, allowing customers to concentrate on dining experiences rather than being stuck on their phones. According to the brand, bartaco receives outstanding customer feedback, with approximately 400 surveys per day per restaurant (wow!), showcasing the positive response to the technology. 

On stage, Lawton told the story of how it all started. “We had to figure out a way to keep a check open, and this was right in the middle of Covid. Is there anyone who can help me keep a check open and someone said you should call Rom (Krupp, CEO & Founder) at OneDine… “Rom made time for us and jumped in, before you know it, we had a pay system that worked that was skimmed like bartaco and looked like our brand. It was a big win for us… We were thrilled to be the first partners with Amazon Pay, because it’s a lot easier for the customer. We get all the data, still pass-thru second only to cash. It’s been very seamless.” The solution doesn’t require a new physical device, and the beauty of the saved wallet is that once a customer comes in, they can use Amazon Pay at any bartaco location.

Krupp is also on RTN’s Vendor Advisory Council and has a stellar reputation in the community, and in the industry at large. He shared, "We are excited about our collaboration with Amazon Pay, as it brings new prospects for the restaurant industry. This partnership fosters an enhanced guest experience, characterized by heightened convenience and security, as exemplified by the bartaco case study." If you’d like to listen to the full session at NRF, it can be seen in its entirety on Vimeo here.


Practical AI

For Simon de Montfort Walker, EVP & GM, Food & Beverage / Central Industry Solutions at Oracle, “The most exciting development is the practical use of AI to help restaurants operate more efficiently, increase margins, and provide a better experience to consumers.” For example, he points to how airports are using AI to analyze flight patterns and identify canceled or delayed flights. The AI can then proactively notify food establishments in those terminals to start preparing more food. Another example that impressed him: Using voice AI, servers can talk to customers at a table, front desk, or drive-thru, to generate orders for approval, and send directly to the kitchen. “By embedding AI directly into workflows, restaurants can make better use of owned and third-party data to maximize nearly every part of their operation, from inventory to customer experience. These technologies are available today, and many are priced to benefit every end of the market,” reported Walker.

Also a key contributor to RTN initiatives around cybersecurity guidance, Courtney Radke, VP, Network & Security for SageNet, noticed massive interest in practical uses and applications for AI,  moving beyond just generative and language-models, but into more cutting-edge uses in operations, guest experiences, and in security. “Smart kitchens saw great interest, for example, with automation, non-traditional floor planning, and additional staff augmentation leading the way as top use cases,” he noted.


Physical + Digital

Radke said another buzzy term heard at NRF was phygital. “Many are embracing this concept as a marriage of physical and digital. A shoe on a shelf is just that, the shelf is just a shelf, a screen is only a screen...until it isn't. Tying these mediums together seamlessly, and ensuring the technologies don’t become bottlenecked takes early, thoughtful consideration to ensure customers get exactly what they expect...and that is the unexpected,” he said.


Table Stakes: Secure Systems 

“Since every facet of the store is connected and the customer expects a highly-personalized data-driven interaction, retailers were refreshingly asking how new digital experiences, and the data driving them, are secured,” Radke reported. He sees 5G, private cellular networks, and Wi-Fi 7 as big on the networking front, as massive Internet of Things (IoT) deployments and the ‘need for speed’ dictate a shift to update and secure networks. 

Radke’s insights are spot-on. To bring this full-circle, CB Insights predictions around Generative AI for 2024 include AI vs. AI, which frighteningly suggests a new crop of genAI focused cybersecurity vendors will emerge ​as deep fakes continue to become more sophisticated. The firm predicts companies that are able to cover these AI threats will become a major selling point for customers​. No doubt, as Radke also recently himself warned inside RTN’s AI Share Group that restaurants must partner with cybersecurity teams who are prepared to fight AI with AI in this brave, new threat landscape. 


Foodservice Innovation Zone

ICYMI - In partnership with the The International Food and Beverage Technology Association (IFBTA), NRF hosted a dedicated Foodservice Innovation Zone with immersive activations in real-life environments, including the list below.
“The crossover of foodservice and retail has always been strong and it’s within the mission of both the IFBTA and NRF to provide top-notch education to Big Show attendees,” said IFBTA CEO, Rob Grimes. “From humble beginnings in 2018 to the fully realized Foodservice Innovation Zone in 2024, we have been able to feature leading industry operators and innovative technology suppliers to showcase the future of foodservice and opportunities for retailers to change and innovate together.”
  • Taffer’s Tavern, presented by Middleby, let attendees order food prepared in state-of-the-art ventless ovens, featuring sous-vide cooking tech (food provided by Cuisine Solutions).
  • Jukebox Pizza, showcasing Middleby’s PizzaBot, demonstrated how robots can streamline and automate the cooking process within a small footprint, while delivering piping hot, fresh pizza in just minutes. 
  • Comcast Business: Connectivity, Managed WiFi that extends wireless coverage to outdoor areas – powering digital kitchen technology, customer-facing apps and touchpoints, and POS, all managed remotely.
  • MachineQ, a Comcast company, powered IoT solutions. waste fill-level monitoring, leak detection, smart restrooms, utility monitoring, staff safety alert, fridge/freezer temperature management, inventory tracking, occupancy monitoring.
  • LetzChat harnesses advanced AI technology to provide real time, seamless multi-lingual menu translations to enable superior customer experiences.
  • Cisco Meraki Cameras captured and monitored foot traffic in and out of retail environments to reimagine security and analytics and modernize security infrastructure.
  • NCR Voyix provides the systems to make the ordering process easy and food preparation efficient through their POS and Kitchen Display Systems. Once you placed your order via NCR Voyix kiosk, or online, you received a text letting you know your order can be picked up in a Middleby connected locker with the scan of a barcode.

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