Restaurants Innovate Amid COVID-19, Worker Shortages [Amplify Friday]


Food is more than fuel for our bodies, and restaurants are more than establishments that prepare food. Gathering to eat in a restaurant is about community, experience, and enjoyment.


The people who work in restaurants are also more than just workers — they’re people who want to help others get a hot meal, people who sometimes miss their own families because of current events, and people who run from table to table offering service with a smile and are grateful for an extra hand ... even if that hand is a robotic one.


Here are three stories of how several restaurants are coping with a range of current events as well as insight into trends and innovations in the restaurant world.


Oklahoma Restaurant-goers Donate to the “Giving Wall” to Feed Hungry


Several restaurants in Oklahoma have adopted the practice of what’s been called a “receipt wall” or “giving wall” to help get meals to those in need.


Here’s how it works: Customers and even do-gooders from other states can prepay for a meal and leave the receipt for it on the wall. Then, those who are hungry but don’t have the funds can come in and choose a receipt from the wall to receive their free meal.


It’s believed that the practice first began at the Miami, Oklahoma-based hot dog joint The Dawg House. Owner Jennifer White taped the first receipt up on the wall to help those who had been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and those who were homeless — the wall was plastered with receipts for meals within eight hours. By April of this year, more than 600 free meals had been donated at The Dawg House. Seeing the need, other establishments like Hi-way Café, Montana Mike’s Steakhouse, and Zack’s Café got involved.


Beth Hillburn, the owner of the Hi-Way Café along Route-66, recounts a couple who came in three times within the last week of a month — when funds are typically scarcer for those who live paycheck-to-paycheck — apologizing for using the receipts. A week later, she says, they came back and donated to the wall because their economic situation had improved.


Restaurant Tech Startup Raises $10 Million for Computer Vision to Improve Order Accuracy


Getting the wrong takeout order can ruin your dining experience. And for some, it’s not just a matter of personal taste. For people with food allergies and other dietary restrictions, taking a bite out of the wrong order can have negative consequences to their health and well-being.


A startup just raised $10 million in funding to help fast-food restaurants achieve accurate orders through the use of technology. This is in addition to the $50,000 they raised in 2020.


Agot AI works with restaurants to set up overhead cameras that feature computer vision. The technology analyzes orders as workers prepare them to ensure they’re correct.


“We see that across the [fast-food restaurant] industry order accuracy is becoming an increasingly large problem as a result of the shift to drive-thru,” said Evan DeSantola, the co-founder and CEO of Argot, speaking of how COVID-19 trends have pushed more customers to drive-thru in lieu of indoor dining.


Order accuracy rate for fast-food restaurants dropped to 84% this year, and installing cameras with computer vision technology similar to the kind used in autonomous vehicles may help restaurants improve and meet customers’ needs.


Texas Restaurant Hires Robots That Sing “Happy Birthday” to Customers


Amid the labor shortage, a restaurant has hired robots to assist human colleagues — and both the customers and the employees are loving them.


Texas was hit not just by COVID-19 but a dangerous ice storm this past year, and the Latin restaurant owner Espartaco Borga questioned how La Duni would survive. Then, diners started showing up for indoor dining again. But, many of the employees did not come back.


Borga turned to the Plano, Texas-based robotics company American Robotech, which says, “We believe robotics & AI are not replacing people, but instead helping people for a better life.” And it is improving the lives of the restaurant workers. The robots do the heavy lifting of trays and save the restaurant money that then allows for higher salaries for the employees.


Customers like the robots because they giggle and sing.


Amplifying Restaurants


“Restaurant servers, bartenders and other workers who rely on a steady stream of customers — and often the tips they leave — have been disproportionately affected by a pandemic that is spread by social proximity,” reports The Washington Post.


Even as many restaurants have reopened for indoor dining, the employees haven’t returned. The reason? It’s not worth it. Workers’ hours and pay have often been diminished — while their duties have often increased to include enforcing mask and vaccination policies.


The day after Savorite Southern Cuisine was featured as a setting in the HBO sports documentary Hard Knocks, the Plano, Texas-based restaurant’s dining room was closed because it was short-staffed.


The service industry employment numbers are down 4.6 million from where it was before the start of COVID-19.


6 Restaurant Trends to Watch

As the restaurant industry grapples with how to handle ongoing supply chain disruptions, safe dining amid threats of COVID variants, restaurant-goers with various opinions and needs when it comes to issues like mask-wearing and vaccines, frustrated and wary employees, and unfilled job openings, here are the trends and innovations happening in the industry:


  • Between social distancing measures and staffing shortages, restaurants are having to curtail the number of diners they take in. This has opened the floodgate for reservation platforms like OpenTable and Resy. Restaurant Clicks compares and contrasts the different platforms so you can make an informed decision about which one, if any, best suits your needs based on whether they integrate automatic SMS confirmation, social media, and questionnaires, and how much they cost.

  • Speaking of online reservations, with some locales requiring proof of vaccination for patrons to dine indoors, tech-savvy restaurants are turning to apps to streamline verification. The reservation portal OpenTable is partnering with CLEAR, a biometric security company, to enable a digital vaccine card.

  • Many restaurants are using QR codes for quick and easy access to their menus these days, but only about 18% are taking advantage of allowing customers to actually order their food directly from a menu app — even though 43% of customers say they’d like this convenience.

  • In the second year of the pandemic, restaurants transitioned their previous shacks into works of art perfect for shielding customers from street traffic and making Instagram-worthy backdrops. The flower studio Floratorium, known for its large-scale installations, has been busy creating floral canopies for restaurants throughout Manhattan. Meanwhile, the Bronx restaurant Boogie Down Grind created a subway-car design for its outdoor dining booths.

  • With seating more limited than ever, Food & Wine points out that “gratuitous table-lingerers” put a strain on restaurants. Since table turnover is important for profitability, restaurants will likely try to speed it up. Buzztime Business offers 9 tips restaurants can use to handle diners who won’t leave. It’s clear that investing in training wait staff on phrases and tactics to handle these situations is essential, but it’s also helpful to find creative ways to incentivize diners to the bar, outdoor patio, or to come back another time.

  • We at Thomas said it was time to bring back the Automat — and our prediction came true, as several vending-machine-style restaurants have popped up as a no-contact solution to COVID-19.

Source: Thomasnet