Some of the fast-food IoT technologies I’m about to dig into were already catching wind leading up to our current pandemic. Due to social distancing measures, it seems natural for any technology to thrive if it can help businesses operate with less person-to-person interaction in this climate. As our favorite places cautiously reopen, the following three technologies can help keep customers and employees healthy. Here are three fast-food IoT technologies that could slow COVID-19.
Being able to place an order for food indirectly has existed since the telephone. Right now, there’s a need for added layers of separation between people in fast-food restaurants. Using a kiosk to order has never been more helpful.
Ordering kiosks are large, rectangular screens that you can place an order on. The technology itself has been around since the late 1970s, thanks to people like Dr. Murray Lappe at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Major fast-food restaurants like Subway and McDonald’s began experimenting with these screens and ordering back in 2006.
In a 2018 interview, then-McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook shared with CNBC that the company would be starting ambitious plans to equip 1000 restaurants every quarter with kiosks for eight to nine quarters. The alternative way of ordering would provide better customer experience and more revenue for the company.
Fast-forward to summer 2019 and the investment paid off. In a Q2 earnings call last year, Easterbrook went over how the company was seeing higher average checks from customers using the order kiosks.
Former CEO of McDonald’s USA, Ed Rensi, voiced his concerns about the growing Kiosk use about two years ago in an article with Forbes. His main problem with them was that automating these parts of the business would eliminate valuable opportunities for teens and college students who need an entry-level service industry job. Considering the valuable lessons from my own experience as a cashier back in college, I agree with the concerns.
In our current environment, things like kiosks need to be cleaned almost constantly. McDonald’s has issued reopening instructions that any restaurant using the self-order kiosks must have them cleaned after every use. The kiosks will help employees in terms of social distancing and the employees will help the kiosks to stay clean. For the time being, then, they will work together.
The IoT kiosks are just one piece of the order, though. Customers who are still wary of using them (despite cleaning protocols) do have other options. By now, most major restaurant chains offer an iPhone or an Android app plus a website for placing online orders.
Smartphone apps and online ordering, in general, will come in handy for this situation, plus, they all provide a massive amount of data on customers who opt-in. Pizza Hut (a pioneer of digital ordering) even developed an Xbox app a few years ago and saw over a million in sales within the first four months.
Now, the beginning of an order is quick, clean, and engaging for customers. Restaurants are also beginning to focus on the end of patrons’ meals, too. If the last thing they do before leaving is have disgusted feeling about something — chances are they won’t want to come back. That’s why businesses are looking at their garbage — and IoT — to further connect with customers and end meals on a cleaner note.
Different businesses, schools, and city governments have gradually been adopting at-the-source trash compacting during the last 20 years. Similar to the kiosks, major food chains like Chick-Fil-A have been adding more trash compactors at an increased pace lately. Also, like kiosks, various ideas and household versions of trash compactors and additional refuse disposal sources have been around since the 1970s.
The main reasons for restaurants adopting trash compactors and more trash disposal cans — is the operational efficiency and sustainability. Quick and easy trash disposal comes with added customer experience benefits that will be helpful in a post-pandemic environment.
An at-the-source trash compactor is essentially a garbage can that smashes trash into a cube so the employees don’t need to go back and forth to the dumpsters as often. Fewer dumpster trips, in turn, uses fewer trash bags, reducing the plastic output in the environment. Many also have the IoT technology built-in for sending a text message or an email once the machine is full. This allows restaurants to focus on other things until the exact time one needs to be emptied.
While you might see handles on outdoor machines — and of course, the much-needed garbage can foot pedals. A compactor that has been showing up in restaurants like Chick-Fil-A all has automatic doors on them that use a motion sensor to open. Automatic doors on the trash bins will help, since making garbage disposal as contact-less as possible these next few months will be crucial.
Studies that are currently underway by the CDC suggest that the novel coronavirus can survive for 48 to 72 hours on common surfaces like plastic or stainless steel. The fewer surfaces there are to touch, the better.
Outside of the direct customer experience, being able to indirectly monitor when machines are full will aid workers in social distancing measures. Instead of needing to periodically go and check garbage, they can look at a computer or smartphone to know whether a compactor is full.
Many chains have plans in place for the beginning and end of meal safety, but what about while you eat? In an April press release, the McDonald’s Vice President of U.S. Communications & Government relations included a list of precautionary measures that the fast-food giant will be taking to prioritize safety in restaurants.
Two main areas will remain closed for the time being. The beverage bars and play places will stay closed (imagine the germs in those ball pits!) but not every contact-heavy area can be locked up. Since bathrooms will need to remain open, IoT-enabled devices may be able to help the efforts at keeping things clean.
By now, practically everything in a bathroom can leverage some type of IoT fixture. Things like soap dispensers and toilet paper rolls can be monitored for how much is left, toilets can self-flush, and lights can even indicate whether a stall is in use or the door just looks closed. Enormous amounts of data can also be sent to facilities management and customer experience teams.
Currently, the main adopters of smart bathroom technologies have been airports. One of the most useful benefits of the IoT-enabled bathrooms at places like the Atlanta International Airport and the Los Angeles International Airport are lights on the ceiling that indicate whether a stall is in use or not. When one is done being used, the cleaning crew could make sure it gets properly sterilized. According to the LAX COVID-19 plan, they are currently cleaning the restrooms once per hour. The ATL’s website mentions “increased frequency of cleaning of public areas” for their plan.
The light systems being installed at airports sound simple enough to fit in fast food. A battery-powered door lock wirelessly communicates with the light above to indicate whether the stall’s being used or not. The lights in the ceiling do require some basic wiring though, according to the website for Tooshlights, the company that provides them. After that, the status and data can be monitored remotely from a computer like the compactors and kiosks.
These next few months will undoubtedly be a tough time for everyone. In efforts to keep costs low and customer experience positive, various IoT systems may be an answer. Kiosks, compactors, and the bathroom will likely continue to be areas of focus for fast food chains to keep business running smoothly.
Disclosure: I was an intern one summer about five years ago for Compaction Technologies, a company that makes trash compactors. I’ve cleaned out garbage cans before. I am not receiving any compensation from them or any other company mentioned/linked in this article.
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