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game changer

The holographic hostess, Mrs. Green, welcomes customers to Richtree Natural Market Restaurant in Toronto’s Eaton Centre.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

With 18 million served daily, Canada's restaurant industry is riding the crest of a culinary wave that is predicted to surge still higher in the near future. Nationwide sales are expected to rise by 4.7 per cent in 2014, according to data released recently by the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA).

But while those statistics illustrate that customers are out there, individual restaurateurs still face fierce competition in a crowded industry.

Since opening in the redeveloped south end of Toronto's Eaton Centre two months ago, Richtree Natural Market Restaurant has championed its cause to provide food that is made from natural or organic, fresh and clean ingredients. But to educate, inform and entertain its customers about what they're consuming, it has also invested a significant amount of money – Richtree owner Natural Markets Food Group wouldn't say how much – into technology to set it apart from Canada's other 81,000-odd eating establishments and give its dining experience a unique slant.

A holographic hostess, seven-metre video wall, touch-screen kiosks, an interactive children's area and more than 50 LCD screens help spread the message of "good food that's good for you and that's good for the earth," says Joshua Sigel, chief information officer of NMFG.

Though he admits people aren't going to come back to a restaurant if the technology is great but the food isn't, Mr. Sigel believes there is sound business reasoning behind NMFG's strategy.

"As we see the industry of organic and natural foods continue to grow and health-conscious consumers continue to increase," he says, "people are more in tune with what they're putting in their bodies, the types of chemicals, what things are made with."

Given that the restaurant is located in a busy commercial, tourist, and business spot (the location was once a food court), Richtree was well aware that speed was also of the essence, particularly during the busy lunchtime period. The company has previously put plastic swipe cards into operation at its other establishments, with customers paying once on the way out no matter how many food stations they utilize, but Mr. Sigel says that wouldn't have worked at the Natural Market location.

"The challenge with that is if you're coming in quickly and you want to be able to pay, oftentimes there's a bottleneck at payment," he says, "and if you're trying to serve, as we are, 5,000 to 6,000 guests a day, that's a lot of people coming out and leaving at lunchtimes with their plastic cards."

To remedy the situation, the restaurant, which comprises 11 food areas, including a conventional grab-and-go grocery store, decided to devise an all-encompassing payment system, allowing customers to visit as many food stations as they want but only pay once. So if you want to purchase a salad to take home for dinner and grab a pizza for lunch, you can pay for them both at the pizza booth. Or you could just grab the salad and order the pizza off the touch-screen kiosk and not have to talk to anyone. As Mr. Sigel explains, "The technology enables us to basically have this omnipresent ordering experience, any item from any station."

Given our society's ever-increasing reliance on mobile technology, the company also wanted to give smartphone devotees the chance to put their app-happy fingers to use, and developed the Richtree Market Pass. The app acts in a similar way to the old plastic swipe cards, but because it can be associated with a customer's credit card, it can also be used to pay the bill at the end of the day as well. The company also devised a method of grouping market passes together, so that if a manager wants to takes his employees out for lunch and pay for it all, he can. Similarly, the company also introduced a system of wooden pass cards that can be linked to the market pass app to allow a group of children the freedom to pick and choose what they want to eat, while through a smartphone the parent can see exactly what is being ordered.

"We wanted to offer people a lot of different options to order," says Mr. Sigel, "and we continue to see the use of technology as something that our customers want to gravitate toward in terms of how they want to order their food."

Based on the tastes of the modern Canadian restaurant-goer, Richtree's novel approach to the time-honoured tradition of eating out makes a lot of sense, according to those who monitor the industry.

"There are two trends," says Garth Whyte, president of the CRFA. "One, people want to know more about what's in their food, and two, they want it faster … and this type of technology may facilitate that."

But in the increasingly cut-throat restaurant market of Ontario's capital city, Richtree is not alone when it comes to pushing the technological envelope. Just up the street at Yonge-Dundas Square, an independent sushi shop has taken North America's obsession with Apple and made the experience of sampling Japan's gastronomic gift to the world even more, well, Japanese.

Just like many restaurants under the bright lights of Tokyo, Yokohama and other large Japanese cities, Spring Sushi has transformed what was once merely a culinary feast into a technological smorgasbord. Through the use of 90 iPads stationed at every table, customers can now see every item on the menu, access a detailed listing of the ingredients that go into making their favourite roll or dish, and then order their meal off the tablet, at which point it's delivered by a server.

Though the company, which also owns another location in Hamilton, is well aware the iPads are something of a gimmick to help bring people into the restaurant, like Richtree it is also well aware that the quality of its food is what's going to drive repeat business. And while the technological convenience is great, it's not about to completely change the way we order food when we eat out.

"At the end of the day we're a restaurant," says Kevin Lee, one of the Spring Sushi managers. "We're not using the iPads as a ploy for our servers to not be at the table, it's definitely not one thing we want to do.

"Otherwise you'll be ordering off a vending machine – there's no conveyor belts, there's no vending machines here, this is purely for the customers' interaction."

Though Spring Sushi, which opened in June of 2012, is believed to be the first Toronto eating establishment to offer that kind of technology – it copyrighted the software that is used by the iPads – others are beginning to follow in their footsteps. But the bottom line is that restaurants are still about the food, and no amount of technological wizardry can make up for substandard cuisine.

"Does the technology enhance the customer experience?" asks Mr. Whyte. "And that's what it's all about. [It] could be through information or service to a repeat customer, and on the other side it could be through quicker service because that's what people want. The long and the short of it is that technology has to enhance the experience."