As a first-timer at The National Restaurant Association show, I must admit I’m still recovering and I don’t mean from not wearing the most comfortable shoes (rookie mistake, yes, I was warned)—but from soaking in all the innovative tech on display, delicious food, beverages and more at the industry’s biggest event.
With over 2,000 exhibits, there was so much to digest (literally), from mashed potato-filled tater tots, desserts galore, pasta bars, seemingly endless plant-based options, to vendors showcasing all aspects of the industry, from how we order, and how the food is made, served, packaged and paid for.
Sustainability certainly took precedence, especially when it came to packaging. Various companies displayed compostable options, some made from plants such as bamboo, others with systems to reuse and return to-go containers.
But what undeniably took center stage was labor, and how technology can streamline front- and back-of-house operations.
A handful of exhibits displayed server robots. Bear Robotics had multiple cruising its zone, equipped with three tiers of trays carrying food and drinks. The bots connect to the cloud-based “Bear Universe” network, with the ability to be controlled anywhere with remote detection, diagnosis and repair.
Other vendors had robots running food in similar fashion while also displaying digital advertising such as deals, menus and specials.
Meanwhile, AI dominated the floor. Nala Robotics displayed a full AI-powered kitchen, with robotic arms washing dishes, making salads and deep-frying food.
A walk-through startup alley found the Botinkit Max 5.0, an Asian dish kitchen robot, designed to quickly make fried rice and stir fry meals, with the ability to support 14 seasonings and 24 servings per cook.
And when thirsty, there was Cecilia by Cecilia.ai, an interactive AI bartender, serving up drinks with a side of witty banter.
But while the flashier bots may have immediately turned heads, AI was displayed in drive-thrus formats, voice ordering kiosks, as well as several forms of invisible AI, present in software-focused, data-based, digital technology.
Companies like Deliverect, offering POS integration to consolidate online orders and boost margins while speeding up order preparation, filled the tech pavilion floor. Others like Lineup.ai offered tools to help take the “guesswork” out of restaurants’ functions by looking at historical data, hyper-local weather, foot traffic, events and more while combining machine learning algorithms to produce sales forecasts and labor schedules.
Overall, it’s clear that simplifying labor processes, whether that be by aiding, or even replacing some human tasks reigned in as the number one theme when it came to tech at this year’s show.
The National Restaurant Association Show officially wrapped up Tuesday at the McCormick Place convention hall in Chicago.