Pen and paper
We may still know it from our favorite café: the waitress smiles kindly over her pad, makes small talk about the weather, asks about the order, and meanwhile takes notes as if multitasking doesn’t challenge her at all. Was im Café um die Ecke den Charme ausmacht, war auch in großen Betriebsrestaurants einst an der Tagesordnung.
What is charming in the café around the corner was also once the norm in large canteens. Even though these processes may seem charming to the guests, with increasing visitor numbers and the growing need to optimize processes, it quickly became clear that the checkout process also offered enormous potential to be made digital and more efficient.
The first step towards “autonomous checkout” was taken by cash registers, which we now take for granted. Well, in their original form they are no longer so common: initially equipped with hand cranks and much more mechanical than today, cash registers paved the way for self-checkout. Although the technology behind the system has evolved and most cash registers today also run electronically, the basic idea of the stand-alone cash registers still holds true today.
The manufacturer ANKER, for example, has been producing cash registers for over 100 years, has been steadily expanding its product portfolio ever since and, together with us, has entered the vision of the autonomous checkout process.
Electronic cash register systems
A milestone for today’s gastronomy was undoubtedly the introduction of electronic cash register systems, which are not only used for billing. They manage the entire process of receipt control in the restaurant itself, from ordering to preparation in the kitchen to the checkout process. In addition, it is also possible to link the cash register and inventory management, as well as synchronizing with digital menus, the control system or inventory management. This makes the work of the cashiers much easier, as orders no longer must be given manually to the kitchen but are simply forwarded automatically. In this way, the entire process from ordering to checkout can be made more efficient, not only at peak times.
The next step towards efficiency are self-service checkouts. In the same space where there might otherwise be 1 or 2 regular registers, there is room for up to 6 self-service checkouts. This increases the throughput power, and several checkout locations can be supervised by one service staff. The first self-service checkout was put into operation in the grocery trade in 2003. We are all familiar with the complicated procedures that, especially in supermarkets, tend to make the queues even longer instead of speeding up the processes.
But a lot has happened in the last few years. The number of self-service checkouts in supermarkets has more than doubled in the last 4 years, and the trend is rising. Users have become accustomed to the handling and there is now no doubt about the advantages of shorter waiting times. Especially in hardware and furniture stores, self-service checkouts have saved one or two Saturday mornings in recent years. However, problem areas are still non-functioning barcodes, dirty packaging or barcode stickers that have fallen off. In addition, the conventional self-service checkout as we know it from the supermarket is a real source of germs: there are numerous user interactions, whether on the screen or directly with the scanner.
The wish to set up self-service checkouts has also existed in the catering industry for some time, but an obvious problem has emerged: very few items in the catering industry are labelled with barcodes. One idea at the beginning of the century was not to label every dish, but to label every plate on which the dishes are served. This way, it can be determined at the point of sale which food is on the plate and what price must be charged for it.
However, the disadvantages of this system often outweigh its advantages: Retrofitting the existing dishware is not only time-consuming but also expensive. In addition, the system is very maintenance-intensive, as the chips can quickly break due to the heat in the dishwasher and the otherwise often rather careless handling of the dishware.
AI-based meal recognition
The AI-based meal recognition represents the latest state of the art. Guests only have to hold their tray under a camera and all items are recognized and forwarded directly to the POS system, regardless of whether it is their favorite chocolate bar or the current menu of the day. This concept combines the simplicity of personal checkout with the desired efficiency of self-service checkouts or RFID scans. Food has always been visually registered – why would anyone want to change that now? Especially since the enormous advances in artificial intelligence in recent years have made such innovation possible.
The cost of acquisition is reduced to a minimum and this even though full flexibility is retained in the choice of dishware and the composition of the menu. In addition, the data generated by the images can be used to make consumption forecasts and strengthen customer loyalty, for example by estimating calories or calculating the carbon footprint of the dish. That is how AI-based food recognition brings benefits not only to for administration but also for guests.