Dining trends: Self-service=quick service
Innovations to watch: Self-service kiosks, McDonald's and Starbucks on wheels, pizza crayons, and a no-hands handle in bathrooms.
By Parija Bhatnagar, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - New technology innovations could soon force the restaurant industry to rejigger an often-used acronym -- QSR, or quick-service restaurant -- to SSR, or self-service restaurant, instead.

Self-service kiosks and computerized table-top ordering screens are just two of the trends that will be on display at the National Restaurant Association's (NRA) upcoming industry show this May, an annual event that showcases the latest offerings in technology, menu items, uniform fashions and restaurant designs.

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"The restaurant industry is the most labor-intensive industry in the country," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research with NRA, adding that it currently employs about 12.5 million workers in over 925,000 restaurants and is projected to grow by 2 million workers over the next 10 years.

"When you introduce technology into restaurant operations, whether these are fast-food operators or family dining chains, you are able to get above-normal productivity increases," he said.

For example, industry insiders said franchisees of fast-food leader McDonald's (Research), sandwich chain Subway and restaurant operator Arby's have tested self-service kiosks.

Juan Perez, president of Adusa Inc., said his company, in partnership with IBM, has developed kiosks that allow consumers to self-order in grocery stores (Kroger is Adusa's biggest customer) and restaurants.

Said Perez, "Our kiosks are already in the pilot tests in grocery stores. A customer walks up to the kiosk and places an order to the deli or the bakery. They can pick up the order after they're done with the rest of their shopping." Moreover, customers can also use the kiosk to get information on wines or look up recipes, he said.

Customers in quick-service restaurants will use the kiosks to order food and pay with a credit or debit card, Perez said, avoiding both misorders and long lines at the counter.

"It lets consumers feel more in control because they're getting exactly what they ordered. Businesses can deploy the staff elsewhere and refocus on speeding up order delivery," said the NRA's Riehle.

Likewise, casual dining order systems are undergoing an evolution of their own. Chosen Media will debut a table-top touchscreen order system at the show.

"Customers can place their menu order through the system, they can ask for refills, call the waiter to their table and pay for their meal using a credit or debit card," said company manager Calvin Watkins. The system also acts as a personal jukebox.

McDonald's and Starbucks hit the road

While some restaurant chains are deploying high-tech concepts to better their business performance, others are using more conventional ideas to grow their operations.

Ralph Goldbeck, a founding partner with Carlin Manufacturing/Kitchens To Go, two partnering companies that make and rent mobile foodservice kitchens, said quick service restaurants are challenged to find new markets.

"Over the years, the big chains have saturated their existing markets, so many of them are now looking at non-traditional venues like soccer games, music concerts and even military bases to get more customers," Goldbeck said.

The easiest way to access these new markets is by being highly mobile, he said. "Some companies use this method to try out new locations without making a big investment."

The company has supplied mobile units to Pizza Hut and McDonald's. "We've building three mobile restaurant units for Burger King right now. We've already supplied Burger King and Pizza Hut units to military bases in Iraq, Qatar and Afghanistan."

Other trends expected to be unveiled at the industry show include the "SanitGrasp" handle, an invention that should come as a welcome relief to germophobes. The patent pending SanitGrasp from Fulkerson, LLC is a vertical pull handle that enables people to open a door with their forearm or closed fist, said company president Matt Fulkerson. Chilli's, PF Chang's and Steak 'N Shake are among the restaurant chains that have shown interest in the SanitGrasp.

Crocs Footwear will show two new versions of its anti-microbial and odor-resistant slip-resistant shoes.

"Our other models are already very popular in the leisure market and we were looking for new ways to market the shoes," said Becky Rogers with Crocs."Our shoes are so comfortable and have gotten good respond from people who work in the restaurant industry. But in some cases, the restaurant wouldn't let employees wear the original model that has holes on the top. So we created two new versions that are completely closed."

And finally, Crayontastic is hoping parents will let their kids play with food when they go out to eat. The company is set to unveil its new food-shaped crayons that are shaped like a Pizza Slice, French Fry, Chili Pepper and Chicken Drumsticks.


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