9.28.2016: Chatbots / Restaurant Reviews / Delivery in America



The Chatbot Will Take Your Order

With no less than ten ways to message someone — anyone — at any given time, we’ve unsurprisingly become a society that would much rather text or type than talk on the phone. This translates to restaurants, as the numbers show online reservations via website and mobile apps continue to grow. We’re getting more comfortable with our mobile and a whole generation of digital natives doesn’t know life without them. So, it follows, we want to text or chat our restaurant orders, too — at least the ones that come via delivery.

According to OpenTable’s 2015 report on technology and dining out, close to 70 percent of diners would love to be able to contact a restaurant via text message to change a reservation, let them know they’re running late, or any other reason that necessitates picking up the phone. This doesn’t exactly correlate with where I’m going here — chatbots — but it’s representative of a larger trend: typing and texting.

Chatbots for restaurant ordering are about to have their moment. A recent Backchannel post has a good explainer on the current state of bots. It’s a deep dive, but a good look at their history and future. They’re already cropping up in places you might not expect: you can chat with a White House chatbot via Facebook, for example. Plus, there’s Amazon’s Alexa, voice recognition in cars, and Siri on iPhones. They’re also in restaurants. Earlier this year, Wingstop introduced a chatbot in partnership with Conversable, a company that developes the sort of responsive technology necessary to power an intelligent bot. Customers can order via Facebook chat, without talking to, or typing to, an actual human. The conversation sounds human, though.

Earlier this week, Quartz reported that Pizza Hut and TGI Fridays are getting in on the action, and will be introducing chatbots to interact with customers in the near future. (Pizza Hut’s will answer questions about specials; TGI Fridays’ will help you find a location or make reservations.) While the functionality will be limited to start, expect a lot of growth here. The interesting thing about these bots is that they’re able to capture a tremendous amount of digital information immediately — if customers are asking for something that the bot doesn’t offer, that offering can be prioritized and added to the bot’s future functionality.


The New Face of the Restaurant Review

The face of the restaurant review has no doubt changed due to technology. From user-submitted reviews to new ratings and reviews sites all over the internet, to apps and tips and recommendations. (A few months ago, C+T covered a great New Yorker piece titled “How to Be a Reviewer when Everyone’s a Reviewer” [second item]  with great insight into the future of criticism, generally. One of this year’s liveliest MAD Symposium sessions, titled “Critiquing the Critics” and subsequently mentioned (#5) in this Bon Appetit piece featured an actual shouting match between critics and journalists from several different countries. (To say there are cultural differences is an understatement, I learned.)

A good review requires a solid, trustworthy voice. Places like The New York Times and The LA Times have had this for years, hiring critics with serious chops and devoted followings. What’s new is the proliferation of more niche sites that cater to a specific audience, i.e., the restaurant review from a trustworthy source that’s just like me. Today, this carries much more weight than a faceless review in a major paper. Instead, you get the opinion of someone that feels like a peer. (Hence the popularity of the Yelp review, love them or hate them.) Paramount to earning and keeping the trust of your reader is communicating on a level that they not only understand, but enjoy.

Enter The Infatuation, which has built a successful reviews business on top of the idea that they’re regular people who love eating at restaurants in major cities around the world. (Sounds like me!) Recently, though, the team started using Instagram Stories to share “Restuarant Ride-Alongs,” a sort of real-time review/behind-the-scenes hybrid. In New York, the team has taken followers to places like Wildair and Carbone — restaurants you probably heard about, probably read about (more than a few times), but maybe haven’t experienced. They use the Stories feature to show quick annotated photos and videos of the restaurant, the food, dining companions, the cab ride, drinks, and other fun details that you might notice as an everyday diner off the street. Stories include tips and ratings and give the viewer an inside look at the full experience. The only bad thing about them is that they disappear, thanks to Instagram Stories’ most defining feature. Because Stories are meant to be a casual way to share content, they only stick around for 24 hours.

The question of what it means to review restaurants in a time of extreme digital connectivity and niche content sites continues to evolve. The giant dinosaurs of the world’s biggest newspapers aren’t going anywhere (have you seenCity of Gold”?) but media consumers are eating up different types of reviews now, and that trend isn’t slowing down, either.


What America Orders for Delivery

On the list of things made infinitely easier by technology, food delivery is pretty near the top. Gone are the days when you’d have to compose yourself in order to phone in your late-night Mexican order on the way home from the bar at 1am (I can’t be the only one…). Instead, websites and mobile apps simple to get exactly what you want, when you want it, from almost anywhere. So what do we want?

Eater used data from Grubhub, the country’s largest food delivery network, to determine the most popular foods ordered via delivery in each state. The result: chicken! Lots of chicken (in different forms: sandwiches, fried, wings… it’s a versatile protein.) To be fair, the data does exclude the large, national pizza delivery chains since they run on their own networks, not through Grubhub. But this paints a better picture of how people are using new technology to order — large chain pizza delivery is in its own category. (Worth noting, though, that pizza does show up as the top delivery item in five states, a testament to the power of the local pizzeria.)

A few more results of note: Asian food (particularly Chinese and sushi) is quite popular, and the top choice in 13 of the polled states. Burgers are popular too, which seems weird because I’ve yet to meet a good burger-and-fries combo that travels well. In summary: not a lot of surprises but will be interesting to see how this data evolves as more restaurants serving more types of cuisine hop on the digital delivery train.

To Follow:

  • The second annual TechTable Summit is happening right now. Follow as an all-star list of speakers from Uber, OpenTable, Airbnb, Instagram, Square, Tock, and more talk about the future of restaurants and restaurant tech.  #hitechforhitouch

  • The New York Times’ Food for Tomorrow Conference continues today (day one was yesterday.) There’s not a strong tech angle, but its list of powerhouse speakers and thoughtful attention to detail makes it worth some attention. Plus, all panel discussions are posted online immediately as they happen; you can watch through the entire conference now.


  • The McDonalds of the future, in Chicago (touch screens and all!) — Eater Chicago

  • In the interest of transparency, USDA launches a food product database — FoodDive

  • A full list of inaugural winners of the Taste Talks Food & Drink Awards (including Best Instagram and Best Startup) — TasteTalks

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