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Remember when ‘eating out’ meant wandering up to your local Chinese restaurant and ordering one of 30 dishes from the ‘incredibly extensive’ menu? When food delivery was a special occasion that occurred once in a blue moon and involved a pimple-faced Pizza Hut delivery boy in a knocked-up Honda?

Today, ‘eating out’ can involve any of the following.

Ordering sushi from an iPad in one of downtown New York’s Japanese restaurants. Interacting with one of Haohai Restaurant’s 18 robot servers in China, as they help prepare drinks, service dumplings and even clean your plates. Using your voice to place a meal order on your smartphone, using one of hundreds of food delivery apps now available for free to consumers around the world.

To survive and remain competitive in today’s food and beverage sector, manufacturers must get onboard with the undeniably technological revolution we are seeing upend the industry. They must be ready to invest in an infrastructure that enables the use of technologies to support the business, from collaboration to food production to data collection – and they probably ought to do so fast. Technology is having a monumental impact on the industry from the way food and beverages are produced, to the way consumers order products, to the management and streamlining of F&B operations. From AI to blockchain, robotics to big data, digitisation is here to stay, it seems. Take for example French retailer Carrefour, which made headlines last year when it became among the first retail giants to use blockchain to trace food from its source to the store.

The rise of food delivery applications in recent years is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of these changes. The number of food delivery app downloads is up 380 per cent compared with three years ago, according to Cowen and Co., which also predicts that restaurant delivery sales in the United States alone will rise at a growth rate of around 12 per cent per annum to $76 billion by 2024. Retailers and restaurants are now actually changing the way their stores and spaces are laid out to prioritise the growth of delivery services. Restaurant spaces are shrinking and key consideration is being given to curbside parking rather than interior design as restaurants and cafes sell more food through food delivery apps than onsite. By way of example, fast food giant McDonalds recently announced it would spend $6 billion upgrading its US outlets, in a bid to prioritise mobile ordering and curbside parking for delivery drivers.

The rise of robotics and intelligent automation will also see retailers ramp up their investment in inventory management robots and behind-the-scenes artificial intelligence software to better understand consumer preferences. Currently, a whopping 40 per cent of retail and consumer product companies use intelligent automation to ‘learn’ consumer preferences and offer customized recommendations, discounts or other benefits based on customer’s past purchases, and this is anticipated to double by 2021. In stores, intelligent automation is helping companies use data to ensure that the right products, in the right sizes, are being stocked in stores by identifying trends and data on a year-round basis.

Over to robotics, and we are seeing an incredible shift in the way technology is used to produce, prepare and deliver food and beverage products. Take Pizza Hut for example. The global pizza company has evolved beyond merely investing in customized pizza pos systems for its outlets. They are currently looking into developing specialised Toyota vehicles filled with robot-operated mobile pizza kitchens as part of their partnership with Toyota Motor Corp. in a bid to cut delivery times. Using automated technology to cook pizzas in the vehicle in just six to seven minutes, Pizza Hut will make its delivery service more efficient overall, while expanding its delivery area. They’re not alone either: Domino’s has been experimenting with the idea of delivering pizzas in a tightly controlled conditions in partnership with Ford in an effort to outpace competitors for a few years now.

Voice commerce is another technology bringing restaurants amazing opportunity and endless possibilities to simplify and streamline operations. It is estimated voice commerce will account for almost 30 per cent of all retail sales by 2022 – or $40 billion worth. While chatbots were previously tried, tested and ultimately failed, with as many as 70 per cent of the 100,000 chatbots on Facebook failing to complete basic requests, the hands-off nature of voice commerce and its ease of use will force F&B retailers to continue to experiment with this kind of technology.

Think about it: you’re in the car, driving the work, and you want a coffee. Not only is it unsafe – it is actually illegal to order a latte from your favourite café using your smartphone screen while driving. But you can do so using your car’s automated voice assistant. Anddd enter the era of voice commerce for food orders. In 2017 in fact, Pew Research found that almost 50 per cent of US consumers were using voice assistants to order food, and this is only expected to grow in coming years.

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