Artificial intelligence (AI) is set to have a significant role in the future of catering but not at the expense of human interaction, according to catering consultants.
Debating the role of AI in hospitality at a roundtable hosted by Bartlett Mitchell at chef consultant Adam Byatt's Trinity restaurant in Clapham, London, the consultants agreed that technology had a greater role to play in the delivery of catering services, particularly where caterers improve data gathering.
They said that, in business and industry catering sites where detailed customer data was more readily available, AI had a role to play in speeding service and enhancing the experience.
Stern consultancy's Chris Stern said that AI had the potential to free up employees for more meaningful engagement.
He added: "It can mean fewer staff, better paid doing more interesting jobs, and the boring stuff being performed by technology. Getting rid of the problem of paying, for instance, improves the experience. If you can start stripping out stuff to save costs and focus on the good stuff then it can only be positive."
Bartlett Mitchell executive chairman Wendy Bartlett added: "We are in the business offering people experiences. Of course, it's important to have amazing food, but service is vital - that makes the difference between success and failure. We see AI and technology as enhancing our service, not replacing people.
"We target clients who like that personal touch so there will always be a need for people. We can see how technology and advanced computing has moved our industry on over the last decade, and we are sure to see more significant developments in the future."
The business was already considering exploring solutions where the application was a good fit, according to Bartlett Mitchell sales director Simon Houston.
"I think AI and more broadly technology offers a big opportunity to enhance the customer experience," he said. "Technology used in the right way has huge potential to improve speed and efficiency. You can't argue that on a trading floor in a high volume bank an initiative like Amazon Go wouldn't be amazing."
But some consultants around the table urged caution that any solution had to be in the interests of improving engagement with the customer, not replacing it.
Stephen Wilkinson from Tricon said: "We are an industry that's focussed on food, experience and people. AI is a tiny element of the experience. It should enable us to have great people to provide a great experience. We need to focus our attention on the people first and have AI there to support."
Diane Herbert from Mindshift said that caterers needed to find the right balance between AI and people.
She added: "It has to be a combination. We don't want a situation where we have a more depressed economy because we don't have the jobs for people to come into. We must use AI to create more meaningful jobs for people to come into the sector."
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