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The Rise of the Modern Thinker

State of the Industry, Part 1

Catersource magazine’s annual State of the Industry feature, now in its fourth year of reporting, identifies key areas of focus for caterers in anticipation of its Catersource Conference and Tradeshow. In this first section of the full feature, Catersource looks to the rise of AI and robotics in the food and beverage industry.

The rise of the modern thinker

“If you know what patterns to look for,” says Jack Li of Datassential, “you can predict them through AI. Trends are just patterns, and they are predictable with the right data in place.”

Any idea how long ago the term Artificial Intelligence was coined? It was in 1955, with American computer scientist pioneer and inventor, John McCarthy, noting that “every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”

So here we are, over 60 years later, and it still feels a little bit like the potential for AI in all aspects of our lives—from illness diagnosis to driverless cars, to 3D food printing—is emotionally tenuous. The trust has not been entirely established. (Cue 1979’s Metal by Gary Numan if you need a soundtrack while you read.)

And yet, ask Catersource’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Lee Epting of Epting Events, Athens, GA and he’ll tell you that automation is everywhere, and has been for a long time. You just need to look for it. “I tell ya,” he said this past November, “I used to wash my dishes by hand and then this thing called a dishwasher came along…”

Technology, AI, robotics, driverless cars, Siri/Alexa, drones—it surrounds us and is integrating into our lives rapidly: at the National Restaurant Association show this past May, automation of all kinds dominated the event. Self-serve kiosks, robot servers and bartenders, machines that mix drinks, roll sushi, or toss salads, coded food lockers, and even soft serve vending machines intrigued attendees.

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At its broadest, AI can be defined, says Margaret Boden, University of Sussex, UK, an expert in the study of AI, “as trying to get computers to do the sorts of things that human minds do.”

Things like recognize faces in photographs, make stellar chess moves, chatbot Q&As, or write a number one song that’s played to death on Spotify.

And then there’s Haiku™: a soon-to-be-released AI platform from Datassential that, via 20 million inputted menu items and consumer ratings, can predict food trends of the future with a stated 99.3% accuracy. It’s algorithm, pure and simple, but admittedly—a pretty cool and innovative one.

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At The Flavor Experience in August 2018, Jack Li laid the tracks down, showing the audience how closely predicted percentages versus actual percentages matched using Haiku. Take kale, for example: Looking at 2013 numbers and prior, Haiku predicted (without looking at subsequent later years) that kale would rise in popularity from the 2013 number of 5.4% to 18.2% in 2017. Actual numbers, when revealed, were 18.4%.

Gochujang, a market newcomer and on only about 1.5% of U.S. menus, is predicted to grow 97.8% in popularity over the next four years, according to Haiku’s number crunching. “Use these forecasts to assess the direction and velocity of future trends,” said Li.

Of course, noted Li, the program cannot predict overnight sensations.

Interested in other predictions? Flip to the Food & Beverage area of this industry report for more.

But for now, let’s get back to robots. Because… “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” (Guess which movie that robot line is from.)

Like a Roomba® on steroids, Penny avoids obstacles and can be programmed to deliver small plates of food or pick up a customer check, deliver condiments and more. Photo courtesy Kathleen Stoehr

Robots & labor

As labor costs rise, will a company’s investment in robotic technology recoup quickly? All signs point to the yes. Will robots replace the work that humans do? Absolutely, but this will also open up new opportunities, just in the way the dishwasher freed up time from the hand wash-and-dry. Look to robots to take care of repetitive tasks while humans…take care of humans. Customer service could evolve into a higher level of attention, the hiring and training process could be streamlined with more time spent on the intricacies of hospitality.

How might you be able to look at automation and robotics as a complement to your business, rather than a competitor?

At the Marriott Irvine, as test hotel for new technology, restaurant guests are connected to their servers via an Apple Watch on one end and this discrete device at the table. Call for your check, ask for service, or be left alone without interruption. Photo courtesy Kathleen Stoehr

Ta da! This salad was entirely tossed and packaged by a machine. Photo courtesy Kathleen Stoehr

Learn more at Catersource

Want to hear more about future trends at Catersource? A number of sessions will fill that bill, including 2019 Tech Game Changers in Catering & Events, presented by Sandy Hammer and Must See Event Technology Trends, presented by Scott Frankel. Go to for more detailed descriptions.

Kathleen Stoehr

Kathleen Stoehr is the Director of Community & Content Strategy for Informa Connect | Catersource and Special Events magazines, including all digital content for both websites and e-newsletter products. She also vets, hires, guides and coordinates all live education at Catersource Conference & Tradeshow, Art of Catering Food, Leading Caterers of America Executive Summit, and bridge content at The Special Event.