Faster food


Connectivity is enhancing the consumer experience in quick service restaurants

Ever since the McDonald brothers, Maurice and Richard, opened their first restaurant in San Bernardino, CA, in 1948, the fast food business has made its money by offering low price products in high volumes. The brothers pioneered the technique by rationalizing their restaurant menu to relatively few simple-to-prepare items such that the customer’s order was delivered in a matter of minutes.

A basic hamburger cost about half the price charged by competing restaurants and the self-service counter eliminated the need for waiters and waitresses. Food was delivered quickly because the burgers were cooked ahead of time, wrapped, and kept warm under heat lamps.

The model attracted the attention of appliance salesman, Ray Kroc, who was intrigued by McDonald’s need for eight malt and shake mixers. Kroc visited the shop and saw it was shifting so many milk shakes because of the rapid customer turnover. He offered to extend the McDonald’s model through a franchise program, bought out the brothers in 1961, and had opened 1,000 restaurants before the end of the decade. Today, McDonald’s has 38,000 outlets in 100 countries, serves 69 million customers a day, and generated $37 billion in the U.S. alone in 2017.

But the company also faces tough competition. Rivals, including Yum! Brands (owners of KFC and Pizza Hut), Burger King and Starbucks fight to carve up an industry which, according to analyst, IBISWorld, is worth $856 billion per year. And the key to keeping prices down and moving lots of products remains efficiency; every aspect of the business, from raw ingredient ordering through preparation, cooking, customer interaction, packing, and delivery has been finely honed.

But now a new trend is rising — summed up by the sector’s official classification of “Quick Service Restaurants” (QSR)—driven by the belief that it’s not just rapid food delivery that’s important, rather the entire customer experience. And that new trend is being driven by the IoT.

Today’s connected consumers are used to instant gratification. That means any sector billing itself as “quick” needs to be, and more. Where a few decades ago a ten-minute wait might trigger mild annoyance, today it prompts a move to the competitor down the street. And that could well be the competitor that’s striving to implement exactly the kind of user experience that builds long term loyalty.

Create your own
Starbucks is one firm doing just this. The company’s embrace of technology allows consumers to use their smartphone to identify the Starbucks outlet closest to their location and pay for their order in advance. The order will then be ready and waiting at the store. Elsewhere, Starbucks has connected its coffee makers, fridges, cold storage systems and lighting to the IoT. Such systems allow baristas to find out in advance, for example, when the products in a fridge are going to be out of date, or when coffee machines will need cleaning.

Next up is the hyper-personalized ordering system. Customers can create their own meal, choosing individual ingredients to get just the right balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and overall energy. The flexibility endowed on the restaurant’s processes by the IoT enables the outlet to order and stock the ingredients that meet current demand and then prepare and cook the personalized order without slowing down delivery.

Other leading QSRs have been just as quick as Starbucks in seizing the opportunity afforded by wireless connectivity. For example, according to QSR magazine, a leading trade industry journal, key among McDonald’s core objectives is “exploring new technology and its effect on how customers experience the brand”.

Customer engagement
Typical of the new breed of companies bringing such technology to the QSR sector is Radius Networks. The company builds a platform that uses machine learning to help companies conduct location based transactions with their customers, including table service and curbside pickup. The wireless location based platform allows a customer to place a food order via a mobile app or in-store, and relays their exact location to the restaurant for order delivery.

Introducing a robust, flexible and scalable wireless network into a crowded restaurant is no mean feat as it must compete with a barrage of interference from Wi-Fi and smartphone Bluetooth transmissions. However, Radius Networks turned to low power wireless system integrator Rigado to solve the engineering challenges. The company specializes in commercial Bluetooth LE solutions built on Nordic Semiconductor’s nRF52 Series Bluetooth 5 SoCs.

“Using a standard protocol such as Bluetooth makes things less complex, which makes it easier to install and run apps,” Kevin Tate, Chief Revenue Officer with Rigado told “We’re trying to make it so that customers only have to worry about the data and what to do with it, and we’ll take care of getting that data to them.”

To meet the specific needs of the Radius Networks project, Rigado used its Bluetooth gateways — which support multiple IoT applications and are capable of over-the-air updates as new use cases arise — typically four to five per retail location, to deliver wireless sensor and device data to the Radius Networks location engine and platform.

Customer location and order details, and other incoming data, trigger real time notifications for restaurant staff. Staff in turn use a tablet running the Radius Networks dashboard to identify customer location for order delivery. Other data integration introduces capabilities in areas such as in-store and curbside pickup, asset tracking, and pay-at-table functionality.

Early results after installing the systems are impressive, with an average decrease of 50 percent in customer problems, complaints and incorrect orders. Meanwhile, overall customer satisfaction — the name of the game — has increased by 20 percent, the amount spent on each order has gone up by about 15 percent, while overall guest count has risen by 4 percent.

More than seven decades since the McDonald brothers came up with their formula for fast food, the same basic principles still apply. Combining those principles with modern commerce techniques has allowed the QSR sector to become almost ubiquitous across most of the globe, and it looks set to become a trillion-dollar industry in the not-too-distant future. And now wireless connectivity is poised to supercharge fast food restaurant efficiency while at the same time bringing greater convenience, comfort and choice to hungry consumers.

Rigado’s Bluetooth gateway supports multiple IoT applications and is capable of over-the-air updates as new use cases arise