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Voice technology, the future of ordering food: Michael Atkinson of Orderscape

Is the future of ordering food in voice-assisted technology?

The process of ordering takeout & delivery isn’t something that many consumers would necessarily dissect as part of their dining experience. In fact, most are so used to just picking up the phone or opening a computer to place an order that they wouldn’t even think there could be a better, more efficient way to get food. After all, calling in ahead of time and placing an order online have been the two most commons methods of ordering out for years. However, with the advent of smartphones and digital assistants in our constantly-connected social environment, a new method of ordering food is on the horizon.

In an interview with Michael Atkinson of Orderscape, its founder & CEO, we learned more about the Orderscape platform, which essentially connects restaurants and their menus with consumers via smartphone voice assistants like Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google, and through search engines. Orderscape makes voice search more intuitive, and facilitates voice food ordering. We discussed how this new technology will change the food landscape in the coming years.

Restaurant C-Suite: Where are we going with voice ordering in three to five years from now?

Michael Atkinson: Voice ordering is already here today, but only with a few menus being voice ready. Restaurants need to accept the reality that voice is a new sales and customer engagement channel with multiple gateways (voice input) that millions of consumers already utilize. My crystal ball is not three to five years from now but rather 18-24 months from now. That’s the inflection point where we will see rapid user adoption of voice search, and as a result, voice ordering (conversational commerce), from both stable devices like Alexa and Google Home, and on mobile devices—smartphones—with apps that are already installed on these devices.

There are four elements required to facilitate a food order in voice channel:

  1. Actionable, voice-enabled menus
  2. Food-Centric taxonomy
  3. Pipes
  4. Gateways

Menus are messy data without any real structure or standard. Think of the Interactive Advertising Bureau and how they created a standard for banner ads for the web. Think of retail or grocery with UPC’s. Menus don’t have that. Until there is a unified standard for constructing a menu (ingredient matrices) and a universal way to access updated menus dynamically (and hopefully with automation),this will be a very difficult part of the puzzle to solve.

What works in a traditional text ordering UX, like Grubhub, doesn’t necessarily translate to voice UI (VUI) to enable a good voice user experience (VUX). Voice needs a food first construct, meaning because we are consumers, 70 percent and more of the time anyway, we think of what we want to eat before where we want to go eat it, so in the technology world, we have to reverse the ordering convention.

Orderscape had to create a food-centric taxonomy that will work in a voice environment, from scratch. Then, connect this points 1 and 2 to points 3 and 4 above. Not trivial. The pipes are required to send the order from us at Orderscape to the restaurant in a way that is familiar. So, it’s best if we can integrate with their platforms (this includes Olo, Monkey Media, and others) which are integrated directly with their POS. Or, we can send data to a tablet, KDS, printer, or even an SMS if the restaurant requires.

Gateways are voice inputs, including Alexa, Google Assistant/Home, Siri, and Cortana. Almost everyone has one on their smartphone which makes them highly useful.

Orderscape makes digital food discovery and food ordering more intuitive using voice technology
Orderscape makes digital food discovery and food ordering more intuitive using voice technology. Logo by Orderscape.

RCS: Why is it important for restaurants to implement voice search on their own platforms when there is so much advancing on devices and search engines already being used by the consumer?

MA: Restaurants don’t have a platform, they leverage SaaS. In my world, food ordering platforms like Olo don’t offer voice unless they partner with a a voice tech software company, like Orderscape. Portals, even Grubhub, don’t have full-menu ordering like Orderscape. And restaurants don’t need a custom, branded “vanity” voice ordering feature unless they want one, but, they should want one to be able to enable a customer to just say “Hey Google, open Chili’s”, or Alexa, open Chili’s”.

Voice gateways don’t offer food ordering. They provide the device/gateway.Think of Alexa and Google Home like a smartphone. They offer several “house” apps for checking weather, traffic, music, measuring teaspoons with cups, and so forth. These are like the calendar, weather, book, and stocks on the iPhone. But if you want banking, shopping, or games, you have to download and enable a different set of “apps.”

“Olo, Monkey, Tillster, Zuppler, Chow Now, NovaDine, Onosys, and others are B2B SaaS platforms. If we integrate with them, we can voice-enable all of their hosted restaurant menus.”

Michael Atkinson, Orderscape

The same applies with gateways. You have to design and develop and publish these skills/actions before consumers can find/use them. So, a restaurant must (a) voice-enable their menu for voice assistant use (restaurant discovery and menu item search), (b) design and develop a menu skill (non-trivial), (c) publish this skill/action, (d) connect to a food taxonomy, (e) connect to a payment gateway, and (f) connect to either a POS, or a platform or portal and facilitate the transaction in milliseconds. Restaurants don’t do this.

For a restaurant to leverage this amazing new channel, they need a voice technology company that understands the restaurant industry and has the technical capability to originate and facilitate a voice order.

RCS: How are you implementing voice search directly into the tech platforms of restaurant chains?

MA: We need two things beyond a positive attitude and a willingness to suspend disbelief that voice is a real thing today, not a moon shot five years from now. We need the “keys” to their menus, which is obtained by permission, from the platforms, or even the portals. These digital menu keys are needed to be able to voice-enable the menu and menu items. Then, we need access to a pipe, which is a platform/portal/POS to which we can send orders.

RCS: Please talk about digital ordering companies, like Olo, and how you are working with these types of platforms/providers.

MA: Olo, Monkey, Tillster, Zuppler, Chow Now, NovaDine, Onosys, and others are B2B SaaS platforms. If we integrate with them, we can voice-enable all of their hosted restaurant menus. But, they don’t allow that unless the brands give us permission to do that with their public data. No secrets here. They are just menus, and if I were a brand, I would want my menus exposed in as many places as possible. This is what Yext and Single Platform do with their listing data, which includes hours and addresses.

Try this yourself: Ask Alexa where the closest Del Taco is, or Chili’s, or Firehouse Subs. If they are listed with Yext, or with Amazon, she will recite some basic info, like “The closest Del taco to you is 1.6 miles away, they are open…” Then ask Alexa “What’s on Del Taco or Chili’s, or Firehouse Subs menu. She will say “hmmm, I’m not sure.” That’s a problem, right? Well, we can fix that and are trying to do that now.

But first, brands have to understand that by 2020, a year from now, over 50 percent of all voice search will need this information, else they will be missing a huge opportunity.

Think of the missed opportunity here for a commerce event. If someone asked where the closest Chili’s is and then asked what’s on the menu, one would think having Alexa respond with what’s the order versus a general answer would be much more preferable, right? Even better: “Would you like to place an order to go? Or, more assertively, “May I take your order?”

Seems like food-centric search restaurant discovery and conversational commerce would be so important. It’s just a matter of time before this becomes the common way of thinking in the business world.

RCS: Robotics in restaurants is a top 2019 trend according to food consultancy Baum + Whiteman. What is the intersection of your technology and robotics entering restaurants?

MA: Restaurant automation has been at the intersection of my personal and professional investment thesis for a decade now. Automation is everything—customer acquisition, sales, marketing, cost management, customer engagement, and data. IT is the heartbeat of the restaurant industry today. It’s the center of the plate, if you will.

[Related article: Robots, mealkits, sour flavors, polished fast-casual – these are 2019 restaurant trends.]

In my opinion, FOH (front-of-house) robotics will, for the foreseeable future, be entertainment.Making cocktails and coffee, sure, why not. But the real opportunity is BOH (back-of-house) and not necessarily stationary robots, like Flippy.

The real opportunity, I think, is fully-autonomous restaurants with single product offerings; like 100 square-foot food-maker robot restaurants making bespoke pizza, burgers, sandwiches, smoothies, lobster corn dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, sushi, burritos, and more—better ingredients, lower prices, 24/7 availability and conveniently located—absolutely by 2020 this can be possible.

Voice ordering is a no-brainer for kiosk robot restaurants. We did informal exit surveys in London asking over 100 McDonald’s customers if voice ordering would be easier than a Kiosk touch screen. A staggering 100 percent said yes.

This article was originally publshed in the winter issue of Restaurant C-Suite Magazine.

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Photo credit: Marjan Grabowski (featured), Orderscape (inline)

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