Restaurants are like the sous-vide dishes that often appear on their menus: constantly under pressure and simmering with innovative ideas. Think tasting menus and molecular gastronomy – unarguably cutting edge, regardless of whether you liked it.
But when it comes to technology innovations, Canada’s 97,000 restaurants tend to take a back-burner approach.
A majority of restaurants in Canada are independent, mom-and-pop operations, says Robert Carter, an industry advisor at the NPD Group Inc., a market research and data analytics firm in Toronto. “Because of the fragmented nature of the industry and the very thin profit margins of most restaurants, the sector hasn’t evolved from a technology-innovation standpoint as quickly as other industries.”
This is changing. The past five years have seen more technology-driven advances in the Canadian restaurant industry than in the preceding half-century, Mr. Carter says.
Servers in many restaurants now enter orders into electronic point-of-sale (POS) systems instead of cash registers. Customers who want to settle their bill with a credit card pay through a handheld machine brought to their table. Meals are delivered to people at home by UberEats or Foodora.
“In the past, from a technology standpoint, the restaurant industry has not been viewed as exciting,” Mr. Carter says. “But now this is becoming an industry where people are looking and saying, ‘This is exciting and disruptive.’”
Just how exciting and disruptive? Christopher Barry, director of membership at Restaurants Canada – a not-for-profit organization representing the country’s $85-billion restaurant and food-service industry – points to a number of sophisticated technologies that have found their way into the sector.
“We’re seeing more and more automated customer-service kiosks, in quick-service restaurants such as McDonalds, that allow customers to put in their own orders instead of standing in line at the counter,” he says. “Now we’re working to help small operators get into this as well by looking at leasing and financing options that are more suitable for them.”
Restaurants are also starting to use interactive technologies, Mr. Barry says. At Graffiti Market in Kitchener, Ont., customers tap on their internet-connected “smart tables” to order food, watch their meals being prepared through a webcam in the kitchen, play video games and pay their bill.
"We’re also seeing augmented and virtual reality gaining traction,” Mr. Barry says. “In the near future, consumers can go to a restaurant, put on an eyepiece to look at the menu, and see what the menu items actually look like.”
Electronic point-of-sale systems for restaurants have also leapfrogged into the 21st century. TouchBistro, a made-in-Canada food and beverage point-of-sale app, is used in more than 15,000 restaurants worldwide.
With TouchBistro on their iPads, servers can tap in orders, which are sent automatically to the kitchen. Alex Barrotti, founder and chief executive officer of Toronto-based TouchBistro Inc., says his product can shorten the ordering process by seven minutes a table.
“Too many restaurants are still writing orders on a piece of paper and then entering the orders into their point-of-sale machine,” Mr. Barrotti says. “If you have a table of 20 people, it takes each person a minute to order, which means 20 minutes will have passed and the server still has not entered anything into the POS.”
In addition to accelerating the ordering process, TouchBistro helps restaurants increase revenue by prompting servers to up-sell with food or drink recommendations. TouchBistro also ties together third-party applications such as accounting, inventory control, staff scheduling and management, reservations and online ordering.
Technology that accelerates the ordering process is also changing the customer service experience and improving operations at Boston Pizza International Inc., which has more than 380 restaurants across the country. The chain is testing a mobile app that allows customers to use their smartphones to place orders, ask for drink refills, call a server to their table, and pay the bill.
“We just finished one pilot in Ontario with 25 stores, and we’re now running a pilot in three stores in B.C. with plans to roll out in more locations,” says Vicki Waschkowski, senior director of digital marketing at Boston Pizza. “It’s a really cool app.”
Food quality and safety is also getting a boost from innovative technologies. Boston Pizza uses automated sensors connected to the cloud to monitor appliance and food temperatures.
“Our solution monitors and records important details like how often the fridge door is open and for how long,” says Loreto Saccucci, CEO of Kitchener, Ont.-based BlueRover Inc., which developed the monitoring technology. “There’s also all kinds of data analytics and reporting capabilities – a restaurant owner with multiple locations can even compare their data.”
BlueRover recently launched an innovation that addresses product quality and safety issues: delivery boxes with GPS tracking and the ability to monitor and control temperature and humidity.
“The boxes have sensors in them and also a heating element that brings the temperature to about 65 to 70 degrees Celsius – the optimum temperature at which bacteria doesn’t grow but which doesn’t cook the food, either,” explains Mr. Saccucci, whose company has partnered with Restaurants Canada to distribute the delivery boxes. “The data is also recorded digitally through GPS.”
These are exciting times for the restaurant industry, says Mr. Carter at NPD Group. As millennials enter the business, and as more consumers embrace digital innovations, technology will become more pervasive.
It also helps that tech providers are starting to introduce pricing models that recognize the financial constraints faced by restaurateurs. BlueRover, for instance, charges a subscription fee of about $100 a month for its kitchen monitoring system.
Mr. Carter says, “We know that restaurants today are allocating more of their operating budget to their digital strategy.”