No matter how much the world changes, we’ll still need to eat. But the incursion of technology into the dining experience and food production industry is having a huge impact.
Ultraviolet in Shanghai.
With technology enabling more efficient forms of food delivery, we don’t even need to leave the house to enjoy a restaurant quality meal. Just look at the fast-growing subscription-based offerings, with companies like My Food Bag, Fresh Catch and Woop taking the home delivery service from niche to mainstream. The convenience and comfort offered by these services, and indeed the likes of Uber Eats, could well mean the decline of dining out.
"Research suggests that when your server is a screen, you order more and spend more money because there’s no risk of being judged. Think about that extra side of fries or dessert you add on to your Uber Eats order – if no one sees you do it, it doesn’t count, right?"
We’ve already seen robots and automated services replace the reliance on humans in many industries and the restaurant industry is no exception. In fact, while robots serving tables and preparing food may sound like the premise for a sci-fi film, many of these digital dining innovations exist today.
Giapo's rocket-inspired creation.
San Francisco based Artificial Intelligence (AI) firm Momentum Machines, for example, has already started experimenting with a robot that can press patties, chop toppings, and assemble a sandwich. In a restaurant in China, robots whip up steaming bowls of ramen in 90 seconds and closer to home, Auckland’s innovative gelato genius Giapo Grazioli uses 3D printing technology to create some of his ice cream artwork.
Giapo's colossal squid ice cream.
Unsurprisingly though, automation can’t replace highly skilled human workers. While robots may be efficient when performing repetitive tasks like preparing bowls of ramen, it turns out they’re not so great at interacting with people. Many of the robot-run restaurants in China have since shut down due to the incompetence of their robotic staff. While the whole idea was to reduce operation costs, the restaurants actually began to lose money because the waiters couldn’t perform simple tasks like taking customer’s orders, pouring drinks and delivering food to tables.
Still, all of this does suggest the future dining experience is likely to be lacking in personal interaction. Jeremy Julian and Ryan Williams, a.k.a The Restaurant Technology Guys, predict people of the future will see fewer humans and more computers operating their favourite restaurants – and it’s not a farfetched forecast either. In San-Francisco for example, an eatery named Eatsa is almost fully automated. Customers order from an iPad, and collect the food from a cubby with no sign of human involvement.
Inamo in London.
New Zealand isn’t quite so advanced yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time. Air New Zealand allows Koru Club members to order coffee through an app. McDonald’s touch screen kiosks are also available here, allowing customers to digitally build their own gourmet burgers and avoid queues.
“Sound of the Sea” by chef Heston Blumenthal.
Of course, there’s inevitably a downside of all this automation – namely to our wallets (and, potentially, our waistlines). Research suggests that when your server is a screen, you order more and spend more money because there’s no risk of being judged. Think about that extra side of fries or dessert you add on to your Uber Eats order – if no one sees you do it, it doesn’t count, right?
Air New Zealand's Koru Club app.
While we may prefer to keep those greedy eating habits to ourselves, is human interaction really something we’re willing to sacrifice? Restaurants, cafes and bars are, for many of us, a break from our digital, fast-paced lives and a chance to engage in some good, old-fashioned human contact.
Thistle Inn's VR dining experience.
Despite all of the automation and digitalisation, research shows we’re actually dining out more than we have in the past, which suggests we still crave real experiences and interactions.
According to data from Statistics New Zealand, in the three years prior to June 2016 the amount of money we spent in restaurants increased by 50 percent while the proportion of households eating out increased by almost 10 percent. It’s hard to imagine a restaurant full of robots could ever satisfy the basic need for social interaction that today’s dining experience provides.
“Sound of the Sea” by chef Heston Blumenthal.
But for all it may take away from the human experience, technology can, and does, add an extra layer to the dining occasion. The future is likely to incorporate all our senses into the creation of flavour, from sound to lighting and everything in between. It’s known as ‘neurogastronomy’ and is likely to play a major factor in future restaurant design.
"The future is likely to incorporate all our senses into the creation of flavour, from sound to lighting and everything in between. It’s known as ‘neurogastronomy’ and is likely to play a major factor in future restaurant design."
A 2014 study by drinks company Diageo found that curved furnishings and red lighting makes single malts taste sweeter. Similarly, the restaurant Ultraviolet in Shanghai pairs each dish on its 22-course menu with kaleidoscopic wall projects, computerised lighting, scent using VR to tell the story of one of its meals, from catch to plate – although on this occasion diners will be served actual food.
Of course, technological innovation won’t only influence how we eat, but what we eat. We can already see the changes in both the supply and demand of food, with a focus on sustainability. Plant based products will continue to grow in popularity and the protein-centric dinner plate may become a culinary anomaly with grains, legumes and even insects taking centre stage.
Some studies suggest meat will no longer be grown on farms but in a lab. Scientists are already experimenting with more efficient and environmentally friendly ways of putting meat on our plates, which could free up enormous quantities of grazing land worldwide.
Regardless of where the future takes us, it’s an exciting time for the food industry. Plus, if things go pear shaped and all the food on the planet disappears, at least we know there’s the option of steak-flavoured vegan gelatin.
Here are five restaurants from here and around the world that are embracing modern technology and enhancing the customer experience.
The inventive Italian icecream expert Giapo Grazioli’s famous Auckland restaurant is kitted out with a research & development lab that’s equipped with 3D printing technology.
Billed as the first multi-sensory restaurant in the world, Ultraviolet uses sight, sound and smell to enhance the food through a controlled and tailored atmosphere.
EATSA, SAN FRANCISCO
This eatery is almost entirely automated with customers using iPads to order. Staff work behind the scenes to create the food and deliver it in automat-style compartments.
This interactive restaurant projects its menu on the table, which you can navigate and order from as you would an iPad.
It may not be gourmet, but McDonald’s is a pioneer in fast-food technologies, from preparation to delivery. The kiosk-based ordering and payment system also lets users design their own burgers and is likely to become more prevalent in the fast-food industry.
Marisa Bidois is the chief executive of the Restaurant Association of New Zealand, which aims to be the bridge between good food and good business to enable the advancement of restaurants and cafes across the nation.
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