From kitchen display screens to AI, new tech can help pizzeria owners speed up orders
Everyone is in a hurry now. Customers have always wanted their favorite pizza to be ready quickly, but now people expect their orders, especially for delivery and takeout, to be completed almost instantly. Whether it’s due to the pandemic changing the way people order food, or a general increase in the use of technology, speed of service is more important than ever. Pizzeria owners are looking for technology that can help.
According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry report, more than eight in 10 operators said the use of technology in a restaurant provides a competitive advantage. Operators are planning to invest in technology this year, most likely towards to-go options, as 54 percent of adults say purchasing takeout or delivery food is essential to the way they live, including 72 percent of millennials and 66 percent of Gen Z adults.
While much of these tech upgrades will be related to online ordering, some investments will go towards kitchen upgrades, from display screens and cloud-based solutions to faster ovens and smart prep tables.
Technology has made consumers impatient. According to the Oracle Food and Beverage Survey, conducted September 2021, 64 percent of survey respondents don’t want to wait more than five minutes to order at the counter or drive-thru window, and 71 percent of in-house diners get annoyed if they wait more than 10 minutes. Dining inside the restaurant, 54 percent were fed up if they waited more than 10 minutes for food.
One essential technology that operators can implement to improve speed of service is a Kitchen Display System (KDS), a digital customer order viewer that replaces the printed paper ticket system. “KDS has widely improved over the last couple of years,” says Jay Bandy, president of Goliath Consulting Group in Norcross, Georgia. “There are a lot more players.”
The basic components of a KDS include color monitors that show all the incoming orders, the time each order was received, and how long the tickets have been open. Each is designated green, yellow and red, to show whether the order was recently received (green) or has been aging for a long time (red). In addition to displaying the orders clearly so kitchen staff can prepare the food, the system collects data so the restaurant owner can decide how to schedule staff
These systems are available from POS system vendors, Bandy says, and some of the more innovative companies offer artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for ordering and preparing food. When a customer orders online, AI shows up as a chatbot, and on the phone it can be an interactive voice response (IVR) system. “What it does is it reduces the number of phone calls that you get on a Friday night,” Bandy says. AI can automate the kitchen flow, which saves labor. “AI has learned the whole process of pizza ordering or sandwich ordering. Pizza has a finite number of ways a customer can order.”
One way to optimize kitchen operations is by collecting and using data. That involves connectivity through the cloud, which starts with setting up the right infrastructure and the right equipment. Infrastructure refers to WiFi, Ethernet and cellular connectivity as a backup, and the kitchen equipment must be able to be linked so they can be monitored remotely. “You are connecting fryers, pizza conveyors and smart make tables,” says Omar Jacques Omran, vice president of digital transformation and managing director of KitchenConnect, a brand of Welbilt, Inc. “Each one of those is a different equipment category.”
By applying digital technology to kitchen operations, the pizzeria owner can analyze the data coming from all the restaurant equipment. So while one piece of equipment can give the owner a glimpse of food cost issues – for example, the smart make table shows that the worker is weighing too much cheese for each pie – the cloud solution presents a bigger picture. “It offers an overview of the products cooked, peak demand hours, product utilization and cleaning cycles,” Omran says. “It allows cost savings through over-the-air recipe pushes and predictive maintenance, ensuring less downtime while maintaining food quality through online food safety report retrieval.”
A cloud solution can also warn the operator that the oven needs service, which can prevent downtime and lost sales. For even more connectivity, operators can integrate front and back of house technology. For example order pickup lockers can hold the food until the customer or delivery driver arrives with a code to open the locker and do contactless pickup. The system also collects information such as how long the order took to fill and how long it was in the locker, which can affect food safety.
Some assembly required
Robotics are emerging as a solution. In January a Pizza Hut franchisee in Israel announced the launch of an unstaffed unit in a parking lot, where customers order from the kiosk or their phones and the robotics inside the box assemble and bake the pizza. While not all pizza establishments have the resources to open a standalone pizza-making robot, some of the newest kitchen equipment has taken routine tasks out of human hands and into robotic arms, dispensing portion-controlled toppings and moving the pies into the oven automatically.
Restaurant owners should choose kitchen technology based not on novelty but on the measurable
improvements the equipment provides. “The ultimate goal is to reduce labor, increase menu offerings and improve speed of service,” says Richard H. Eisenbarth, president emeritus of the foodservice consultancy Cini-Little, based in Germantown, Maryland. “If you can reduce an FTE [full-time equivalent] of labor in back of house and put that person in front of house for service, you’re that much better off.”
Eisenbarth, who is one of the judges for the annual National Restaurant Association Show’s Kitchen Innovation Awards, says new developments include high-speed ovens that do not need extra exhaust, and small combi ovens that take up little space and enable the kitchen to add a different menu item. High-tech prep tables have software that integrates with the POS system, which streamlines the ordering process, regulates the refrigeration temperature and alerts the owner that inventory is low.
“The big issue is labor,” Eisenbarth says. “Anything you can do to reduce that labor or better utilize the people you do have is what’s really going to be important.”