Mobile and Personalization Technologies Drive Fast Food Chains to the Future

The future of burger joints and smoothie bars involves customer-friendly technologies that will make fast food more of a service and less of a destination.

The future of burger joints and smoothie bars involves customer-friendly technologies that will make fast food more of a service and less of a destination

You're walking down a busy sidewalk to an early meeting when your smartphone dings. A message pops up, noting you haven't stopped for your usual egg sandwich and latte. A mobile app tells you the nearest Dunkin' Donuts is three blocks over. Another app brings a coupon for breakfast at a McDonald's around the corner. You decide. With a few taps, you order, specify a pick-up time and pay, never breaking stride.

That evening at your favorite burger chain, you approach a counter-mounted iPad to order. The system recognizes you from identity data radiating from the phone in your pocket and automatically displays only the foods you like. A smiling avatar on the screen welcomes you. Having checked your purchase history and the store's inventory, she makes an offer. "You're due for a reward," she says. "How about our new Megaman Cheeseybeef for $2? Dessert's on me." How can you resist?

The future of eating out lies in today's experiments at Burger King, Domino's, McDonald's, Wendy's and the many other companies in the $707 billion worldwide fast-food market. Restaurant chains want to use technology--theirs and yours--to create an intimate customer experience. Your personal device and the restaurant's own systems for sensing, analyzing and transacting will exchange data, for your convenience and their profit. Fast food becomes not so much a destination but a service that follows you from mealtime to mealtime.

Once, a fast-food restaurant's menu differentiated it from competitors. "Dude food" one-upmanship a few years back brought us delights like Hardee's Monster Thickburger (up to 1,400 calories) and Red Robin's Whiskey River BBQ Burger (1,100 calories).

Now IT is the differentiator. But customers expect more technology to be involved in dining out than simply posting pictures of their entrees to Tumblr. They want faster, more accurate ordering, e-coupons and more options for payment, says Darren Tristano, a consultant at Technomic, a restaurant industry research firm that recently surveyed 500 consumers about technology priorities.

"Consumers are forcing restaurants to move faster than they traditionally have," adds Robert Notte, CTO at Jamba, a $226 million chain that makes healthy (and not-so-healthy) smoothies. "It's important to be willing to take risks."

The valuable breakthroughs will come when restaurants get ahead of customers, creating all-new ways of interacting. International markets, school cafeterias, military posts and crowded cities are laboratories for innovation. Along the way, these companies are rewriting organizational boundaries and rejecting old notions about fast-food business models.

Not every gee-whiz experiment will succeed, of course. But where they do, IT will differentiate those restaurants from rivals, says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of food-service strategies at WD Partners, a restaurant design and development firm. "It's all about trying to influence how the consumer moves."

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