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Nilsa Algarin on the Future of the Restaurant and Food Service Industry

By: SEI Team

COVID-19 meant huge changes for restaurants and food services providers. Nilsa Algarin tells us about the innovations that will differentiate industry leaders. 

Nilsa is a Managing Principal at SEI-Atlanta. She has more than 25 years of professional experience serving large multinational clients in a variety of leadership roles. She has led complex digital transformations across the consumer and restaurant industry, and she is at the forefront of developments in the restaurant and food service industry. We spoke to her about post-COVID trends and the game-changing innovations to watch. 

COVID-19 obviously had a huge impact on the restaurant and food service industry. What are some trends you see emerging from the pandemic?   

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a lot of existing trends — ultimate convenience, digital engagement, and personalization. It also propelled a new wave of innovation in areas like off-premises food consumption, contactless interactions, and safety. In all these areas, convenience and speed are the main concerns for customers. Everything really needs to be easy and fast.

How does digital play a role in these trends?  

Digital is really about delivering the convenience customers want. Now, a personalized, fast, reliable, and easy to use digital platform is the bare minimum. Customers want a consistent, pervasive digital experience across all possible touchpoints. They’re interacting with restaurants in new digital ways, so it’s important for the restaurant’s systems to maintain a single, informed view of each customer no matter which ordering method they use at any time. Drive-throughs, deliveries, apps, and websites — they should all offer a seamlessly connected and familiar user experience. 

We hear a lot about the importance of personalization — can you talk through how that works in the restaurant industry?  

In e-commerce, personalization drives growth. Customers want cutting-edge technology that recognizes them and knows their preferences across channels and through the entire customer journey. Whether they’re browsing a menu, making a reservation, placing an order, processing a payment, or getting takeout delivered, they really want that experience to be tailored to them. It keeps customers engaged and loyal to a brand by delivering informed messages, content, recommendations, offers, and experiences across all channels and devices. 

If you tailor the e-commerce experience, customers are more likely to make a purchase and spend more. Research shows customers dislike the lack of personalization and being presented with irrelevant content. The exciting promise of personalization at scale might not be here yet, but it’s not far off. Advances in technology, data, and analytics will soon allow companies to create much more personal and human experiences across moments, channels, and buying stages.

What technologies are driving innovations in customer experience?

There’s a lot of talk about the use of robotics and drone delivery for the restaurant industry, but I think it’s voice technology that will drive the next generation of customer experiences. AI-driven natural language processing will enable machines to handle text and voice orders. They will be able to integrate with in-car or in-home digital assistants for ordering on the go. Sensing technologies such as Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth beacons, and NFC (Near-field communication) are all potential pathways for personalizing customer experience.

What are the technologies to watch for in 2021? 

I can think of five technologies in particular: 

  1. AI is definitely one of them. Artificial Intelligence is becoming more widely used in the restaurant and food service industry. You’ll see it in customer interaction, voice ordering, order delivery, and staff management. It will also help restaurant owners draw on data to improve the dining experience.  
  2. Another one is “ghost kitchens” — or similar options like “dark kitchens,” “virtual restaurants” or “cloud kitchens.” These are basically restaurants without the dining space. They sell and fulfill online food orders for delivery. Unlike traditional kitchens, they can prepare multiple cuisines at once — for instance, if it’s a family and everyone wants something different for dinner, they can still order from one location and expect it to all arrive together. As more of us shift to off-premise dining, a traditional front-of-house might become less important.  
  3. The third one is driverless cars and drone delivery. Many companies are already taking advantage of these capabilities. As we get smaller and more precisely defined delivery areas, driverless cars or drones will become more feasible. They’ll reduce costs and delivery times.
  4. Another one is large-scale automation and robotics in back-of-house operations. We can deploy automated solutions for back-of-house tasks that are physically difficult or hazardous. This will take some of the burdens off the human staff and make kitchen jobs more appealing to workers. This could also help labor retention and reduce costs associated with onboarding and training.
  5. The last one is air purification technology.  As diners return to restaurants, it’s going to be critical to make them feel safe and comfortable. Upgrading sanitization systems through various air purification technologies to promote ‘clean air’ is a growing focal point for the restaurant and food service industry.

How can SEI help restaurants solve some of the challenges they face? 

The restaurant and food service space is entering an era of unprecedented disruption. Food services retailers need to have centralized data platforms, user-friendly digital solutions, and agile operating models. To win the battle for differentiation and market share, they’ll have to get digital right. 

SEI offers unmatched industry knowledge and advanced data and analytics, strategy and operations, and concept to delivery capabilities. We know how to help food service organizations empower their people and improve their processes and technologies with custom-fit solutions. With our help, clients can improve the customer experience they offer, elevate organizational agility, and score immediate wins while unlocking new sources of lasting business value. 

To learn more about working with SEI, get in touch.