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Last week, the restaurant, foodservice and hospitality industry came together again for the National Restaurant Association’s NRA Show 2017. It is the world’s largest annual foodservice event with 45,000 attendees from various types of restaurants, foodservice and equipment suppliers from more than 100 countries.

Whether foodservice professionals are looking to sample food, check out the latest fryers or software solutions that feed their business, everyone is looking for what’s new, fresh and innovative to give them a competitive edge.

So, what trended from a technology perspective?

Trending to the top

Microsoft was back again this year, showcasing with our partners how we are driving digital transformation throughout the foodservice industry—from the kitchen to the back office to the point-of-sale.

We asked our NRA Show team, who hosted hundreds of foodservice attendees and customers in our booth, to share their perspective from the show floor. And from the looks of it, technology advancements that aligned with restaurants’ desire to drive better customer experiences and operational efficiencies took center stage.

“Amid rising labor costs, technology innovations that add convenience and streamline the dining out experience are disrupting traditional restaurant service models,” said Shane O’Flaherty, National Director of Hospitality—who also presented Microsoft’s vision for the Restaurant space in 2020 and how new technologies will continue to change the landscape to an overflowing audience during the event’s main session.

Automation and AI

Our team consistently saw interest in artificial intelligence (AI) and robots as a key component to improving service and efficiencies. “Automation in restaurants is core to the future and streamlining operations,” said Stuart Greif, Microsoft’s Senior Executive for Hospitality.

This includes everything from increased kitchen automation to food delivery to management of inventory and fresh ingredients. Chowbotics, a new company that develops robots for foodservice and uses Microsoft Azure, is a great example of this. Its first product, Sally the Salad Robot, creates custom salads that are ingredient driven, chef inspired, and robot delivered.

And when it comes to improving the drive-thru experience, a big draw in our booth was Microsoft’s Cortana voice technology—delivering speech-to-text drive-thru functionality and facial recognition cognitive capabilities to provide faster and better customer service, reducing errors and driving additional efficiencies.

Conversational Commerce

While examples of voice-enabled innovation in foodservice may still be in their infancy, the buzz for conversational commerce—where conversation in the form of chat, messaging, or other natural language is used as a platform to interact with and provide services to someone—is growing. And for good reason.

From O’Flaherty’s perspective, “with these new forms of AI, the ability of these virtual assistants to reduce operational costs can be significant for a business.”

According to our Bing Business Bot team, 80 percent of customers’ most commonly asked questions can be answered by a bot. In Microsoft’s NRA booth, they introduced our new restaurant Bot to the industry to rave reviews. “Restaurants can take code from their Bing Bot and use it on their website as well to drive down call center traffic and provide consumers with answers to the most commonly asked questions,” said O’Flaherty.

IoT and advanced analytics

The Internet of Things (IoT)—along with AI and advanced analytics—was one of the hottest areas at NRA, with a variety of connected equipment and devices that gather and deliver actionable information to restaurants and customers alike. AI and advanced analytics are helping foodservice operators turn all that data into insights so they can make smarter decisions, improve customer service, and better manage inventory and equipment.

A top crowd-pleaser in the Microsoft booth was Bunn-O-Matic (BUNN) Corporation’s IoT-enabled coffee makers. Working with Microsoft partner Mesh Systems and Microsoft Azure, they are connecting the dots between good data and great coffee, with real-time insights directly into each machine’s performance and maintenance needs, which ultimately drive a better consumer experience.

“People were genuinely surprised how easy it can be to retrofit existing equipment like coffee makers and deliver real benefits,” said Chris Barnard, Microsoft’s Worldwide Industry Solution Director, Retail.

Mobility and productivity

While much of the automation and AI testing taking place is for back-of-house restaurant efficiencies, foodservice operators are hoping this will free up their employees’ time to focus on customer service. And they are looking at all things mobile to further assist.

“Mobile productivity solutions are enabling better collaboration and productivity so employees can spend less time on administrative tasks and more time out in front serving customers,” said Barnard, who premiered the new Office 365 features for frontline workers to NRA attendees.

This included Microsoft StaffHub, which helps frontline workers better manage their workday with schedule management, information sharing, and the ability to connect to other work-related apps and resources. “The response was very positive, with attendees appreciating the simplicity and ease-of-use for restaurant employees to help with some core information.”

To round out the mobility applications, “We also saw interest in mobile and online ordering capabilities timed to pick-ups in store or curbside,” said Greif. To do that, the team said they also received a lot of questions from booth attendees about modernizing the point-of-sale to accommodate mobile payment options.

So, what do you think? What other highlights stood out for you? We’d love to hear about them over on Twitter.

And if you missed Microsoft and our partners at the show, you can learn more about Microsoft’s hospitality industry solutions here.

We want to thank all our partners and customers—Sprinklr, Hitachi Solutions, Mesh Systems, and BUNN—for making our 2017 NRA Show experience such a success! We look forward to seeing you next year!