While the use of sophisticated technology in onsite dining programs had already been expanding prior to March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes it forced in how, when and where foodservice is provided by these programs vastly expanded its scope. Technology-driven solutions like remote-order apps—even in K-12—and remote order kiosks, high-tech vending machines and “smart fridges” and even delivery robots were already making inroads into dining programs pre-pandemic, most pervasively in the college market, but proliferated as their advantages in reducing staff/customer contact, streamlining labor usage, extending service hours and reassuring customers became apparent.
Now, in the (hopefully) post-pandemic period with its labor shortage, food price increases, supply chain issues and evolving customer habits and expectations, technology is sure to continue to play a vital role, especially as such solutions are being driven by major commercial interests looking for cost efficiencies and competitive advantages.
Automation in the form of robots that do everything from take orders, produce meals and deliver them is perhaps the most high-profile use of technology. Automated production of customized dishes has advanced from early uses to make simple dishes like frozen yogurt servings to later, more sophisticated iterations like pizza ATMs, Sally the Robot, smoothie maker robots and Flippy the burger maker robot. Recently, unmanned, robotic service points are being embraced by in-house meal programs in corporate, healthcare and higher education environments, as well as by major contract firms like Canteen, as are “virtual cafeterias” and next-generation vending units.
Robotic meal delivery has been around in hospitals for a while, debuted on college campuses several years ago and has been proliferating to more sites ever since, with schools like University of Nevada-Reno and New Mexico State University debuting the option fun this fall. Even airports have seen experiments with robots.
Meanwhile, unmanned c-stores that had been around overseas for decades made their way to the U.S. earlier this century with products like Shop24, which soon expanded across the country. Shop24s and similar outlets are a step up from the traditional unmanned micro-market that had a niche in providing round-the-clock retail service in enclosed, secure environments like medical centers and workplaces with restricted access and have been developing ever more expansive ranges of capability over the past decade. Recently, advances in artificial intelligence have significantly expanded the convenience and capabilities of such unmanned retail venues.
Here are some areas of cutting-edge technology that are already in, or soon may be, in the onsite dining markets.