Tech and Food

Jacque-Phineas Ngandu-Sankayi

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Restaurants have been late to the tech party, and many are now scrambling to incorporate tablets, apps, computerized kitchen equipment and data analysis capabilities. Applebee’s is trying out online ordering and tablet payment systems, and in Asia, McDonald’s has been testing what it calls the Happy Table, an interactive table that “plays” with children using mobile devices.

An idea came to Ronald M. Shaich, the chief executive of Panera Bread, as he was driving his children to school about four years ago: What if everyone could order lunch the way he did?

The Shaich household’s morning routine included a call to the manager of the nearest Panera location to order lunch for Mr. Shaich’s son. (Asian sesame chicken salad with half the normal amount of chicken and twice the won ton strips) and daughter (various salads but with dressing on the side).

The family then hopped in the car, stopping on the way to school to pick up the lunches. “It suddenly occurred to me that this was a wonderful system for the C.E.O., but what about the other millions of people who order from Panera?” Mr. Shaich said.

“Everyone else got in line to get to the register, then got in another line where they had to play a game called Go Find Your Food,” he said. “For drinks, they had to go to another line, and if they wanted any kind of espresso drink, we sent them to a fourth line.”

So, the corporate chieftain who once declared that “the food business is not a technology business” has spent $42 million to update Panera. “The goal is to eliminate friction points so that customers have a better experience,” Mr. Shaich said, “because if they have a better experience, it will help our business.”
Chili’s Grill & Bar has added computerized ovens that use conveyor belts, infrared technology and hot air to prepare food — at a cost of $100,000 per oven — in each of its 1,200 restaurants. Together with tableside tablets that allow customers to order desserts and alcoholic drinks as well as pay their bills and play games without the help of a waiter, new technology has helped a lot.