The Rise of the Robo-Restaurant (And Other Eating Out Trends)

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Drone pizza delivery
Drone pizza delivery Credit: iStock

Should a restaurant company invest in the latest touchscreen technology to handle labor scheduling or ordering? Is poke seasoning the next "it" flavor? How many gluten-free products does one need? These and other burning questions were raised at last week's National Restaurant Association Show, where more than 2,200 exhibitors tried to point the way to the restaurant of the future. Here's a look at a few trends to watch for.

A post-beef world: Veggie burgers have come a long way. These days, the focus is on burgers that actually look and taste more like beef and less like grain-filled disks bearing little resemblance to hamburgers other than their shape. The Impossible Burger, which "bleeds," has made headlines, and now there's another brand, Beyond Beef, just breaking into food service, described as "a burger that's made out of plants" by Danny O'Malley, western regional sales manager at Beyond Meat.

Don't forget to tip your robot: From meat slicers to machines that put just the right amount of rice on seaweed wraps for sushi, "robotics could become a bigger trend with labor costs the way they are," said Morningstar restaurant analyst R.J. Hottovy. Take, for example, Sally. With the $30,000 Sally, a person chooses ingredients from 21 choices on a touchscreen, places a bowl at the bottom of the machine and watches as the selected items drop in from refrigerated containers in a vending machine-type contraption.

Drone home (delivery): CookTek makes insulated bags with induction heating to keep food hot during delivery. While CookTek is not in the drone business, the company did test it out, using a drone to carry one of its cordless bags to a boat in the middle of a lake. "It's probably about three years away," said Dan Farmer, general manager, CookTek operations.

Bottom's up: No one wants too much foam on the top of a draft beer. ReverseTap has systems that fill from the bottom, cutting down on waste. There's also a version for one of the latest buzzworthy trends in nonalcoholic beverages: nitro coffee. ReverseTap fills its specialized cups hands-free, so bartenders and baristas can tend to other tasks. And light-up technology adds a bit of pizzazz that might tempt people to order. Machines start around $1,000, with cups ranging from 23 cents each for the smallest plastic version to about $6 each for glass models, according to Micah Taylor, the company's California-based director of sales and marketing.

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