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Much Ado About AI


How early adoption of AI can accelerate the restaurant industry.

By: Jay Ashton

In the restaurant and foodservice industry, we’ve only just begun seriously talking about artificial intelligence applications, but functional AI has actually been around for more than a quarter century. Maybe even longer.

Artificial intelligence or “AI” has been integrated into an incredible array of different programs and applications used the world over, every day. Traditionally, we reserved the “idea of AI” for focused professions like coders, developers and the like, but today, we no longer need to be a coder to use and benefit from the technology. For everyday users, getting on the AI train is easy. Using an open source, using simple language, you can engage AI as a brainstorming partner to create programs or find information through user-friendly chat interfaces, bypassing the old-school language of coding and asking for help to find or learn what we need. Functions that used to take days or weeks can now be accomplished in seconds.

This facility has innumerable applications across a broad spectrum of industries. For restaurant operators, we’re seeing it used in menu innovation, forecasting and waste reduction. It’s helping us manage our time and focus on more productive marketing and culture-building functions. It’s helping early adopters become more streamlined in the direction they want to go and connect with the audiences they want to attract with more precision and creativity. We’re seeing the effects of AI beginning to impact new and different areas of the business and become a larger part of our world.

It’s really that simple… and that important.

AI is not an abstract concept anymore. Increasingly, it’s becoming a part of the language we are beginning to understand. As impressive as it is, it’s only at the starting point and we’re really only just getting to know what “it” is. It’s like the first time we “Googled” something and saw for ourselves how powerful the technology really was—that it could locate the information we really wanted or needed. So, when you look at restaurants, I believe AI is going to help us simplify the search and access points to the information and efficiencies the industry is really looking for. 

AI as a creative partner.

With the stack of things to get excited about, I think the ability for chefs and operators to use AI as a sort of non-human “assistant” is at the top.  AI can be used to brainstorm, bringing a data-rich perspective to the creative process. You can bounce ideas off AI and get an informed return in moments. That’s exciting to me, because so many of us in this industry work in isolation and we get so tied up in our day-to-day functions we don’t have time to reflect at length or to find and feel comfortable in a group to share ideas or talk them through.

Being able to leverage AI as that “little chef” or “little buddy” is a huge part of the innovation I think we’re going to see. For example, when was the last time you were able to brainstorm and refine menu ideas before you went to your chef or that chef went to ownership and said, “Here are some ideas I’m thinking about?” It’s a great tool for our industry.

Today—as in right now—you can take a picture of a menu and ask AI to help create ideas for new dishes based on the ingredients you already use or have on hand. You can start building your menu based on demographics, researching your community profile to develop a menu that responds to data-based food trends and consumer behaviour. This can have an enormous, positive effect on profitability as it helps eliminate guesswork and trial and error-based costs.

AI for marketing and creative production.

Most restaurants don’t have the funds to use an advertising agency or hire an internal marketing resource. AI can be used to help focus on our marketing and messaging to our target audience—if we can guess less in our marketing and messaging and really connect with the audience we’re hoping to attract, we’re going to save money.

It can be difficult to ideate and structure a marketing campaign around a goal. AI can help get the process started in seconds, providing ideas and audience insights the user can then start to narrow and refocus until the strategy and plan feels customized to the specifics of the business. The technology isn’t intended to replace human ideas and work, but to augment and accelerate it. It can do some of the heavy lifting, but great work requires the nuance of human thinking to bring yourself, your brand or your purpose to the finished work.

There’s so much you can access through AI, like scraping the internet to analyze social media trends and understand who your competition is, what they’re doing and what they have on their menus you should maybe think about adding. If you want to do something different in your restaurant, you can ask it to generate unique ideas based on cost, inventory and trends to leverage in your menu development.

While many of us are aware of the trending foods, drinks and experiences, it can be challenging to know how to incorporate those ideas into our offerings. AI can help integrate these marketable, higher-traction elements into our menus and our marketing, cutting down the guesswork that, until now, have been an undeniable part of the function.

If you’re active in the social media space, you’ve probably been approximating lists of keywords and gaming algorithms. AI can really help beef that up by streamlining the process and aligning our strategy with effective tactics and keywords and increasing our understanding of key website or social media factors that influence audiences and introduce virality. It can help you understand what you’re doing well and where you can improve against the constantly shifting parameters of the internet marketing space.

AI can also be a good starting platform for ideating and drafting articles, emails and social posts for human editors to refine and fit to purpose and brand.

AI for waste reduction.

One of the less obvious but extremely meaningful aspects AI can help with is managing waste by helping operators forecast better. We often forget to set our yields and our prep properly, but we can now use AI to really look into our operation, analyzing our sales over a set time period to ensure we are optimizing our products and ingredients across our menu to minimize waste and loss. It can help us find uses for restaurant waste and by-products by helping us develop recipes or create new, revenue-generating products from ingredients we would otherwise have been wasting.

AI for sustainability.

Packaging cost and environmental sustainability have become key considerations in the industry, and that’s likely to grow. Finding affordable, accessible and sustainable packaging that performs can be difficult. AI can be used to efficiently find products and compare their cost, quality and features, saving operators significant time.

OK, but how do I actually start to use AI? What do I do?

I tend to use ChatGPT, which is an artificial intelligence chatbot you can engage in dialogue, much like a human. You create an account, log in and start typing questions you’d like it to answer, which it does in seconds. If you aren’t satisfied with the response—maybe you’d like more details, or the answer inspires a more focused question—you can type in your response and request further information or clarification. Like sitting with a friend in a bar or restaurant, this conversation can be as short or as long as you like.

ChatGPT is essentially a highly sophisticated form of autocomplete. Created by Open AI, it uses machine learning to algorithms to process and refines the vast stores of information it is trained on from the publicly available Internet, including books, magazines, articles and human forums as well as licensed materials and information provided by its trainers. GPT-3’s 175 billion parameters announced in 2020 was staggering; however, the new GPT-4 is said to have 1 trillion. 

The most daunting part of using ChatGPT is knowing where and how to start. There isn’t really a clear process for this. My best advice is that you start like I did—just open a session and start asking questions to see where it goes. It’s about playing with it, using it and seeing how far you can stretch it out and where it takes you. You’ll notice that you’re starting to think about things that never
occurred to you before.

The art for the user is in figuring out the questions you most need answered and how to use the interface to return ideas and results that are relevant, effective and actionable. You can even ask it what questions you should be asking to achieve a certain result, and I promise the responses will be useful and impressive.

Embrace the potential of AI but understand its limitations.

AI does not replace human creativity, ingenuity and intuition—it’s a generative tool and it’s still “learning”. Rather than feeding it a list of problems, the better approach is to treat it as an iterative tool or partner with a capacity to lead you in directions and toward solutions you may never have reached on your own. It’s a starting point for me, but a very promising one with the power to expand our capacity to innovate and grow our revenue.

Perhaps the greatest potential benefit of AI is time. 

When Google launched, it took a while for users to “trust” the technology, and it’s no different with large language models like ChatGPT. ChatGPT broke 1 million users less than five days after its launch in November 2022. One year later, at the end of November 2023, ChatGPT had 180 million users. 

Increasingly, we are realizing that AI can free us up to focus on the things that matter most in the restaurant business, from menu design to leadership and team development and support. It will take time for the industry to adopt to it and accept AI as a system we can believe in and trust the information and insights it can provide.

About Jay Ashton:

Hospitality leader and innovator Jay Ashton lives by the mantra, “Creativity is genius having fun”. Jay continues to be a leading expert, influencer and trailblazer in Canada’s foodservice and hospitality industry, consistently pushing boundaries and initiating fresh trends. His passion for championing innovation and amplifying the industry’s voice is unwavering.

Tune into the MENU UNPLUGGED podcast, hosted by Jay Ashton

MENU UNPLUGGED is brought to you by Restaurants Canada in collaboration with Sysco Canada and supported by American Express Canada.

Available on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.

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