In the session, “Sensors, Transparency and the Modern Restaurant,” panelists Carla Borsoi, 6SensorLabs, Angelique Toschi, Shakey’s USA, Inc. and Kristen Hawley, Chefs+Tech, described new sensor technology and how it can change the dining experience.

As someone who uses apps to track my calories, the idea of having a sensor that could read the caloric content of my meal is rather appealing. Panelist explained that the sensors can, and have, saved lives by testing for allergens and other intolerance. Consumers must be willing to shell out some cash for the sensors, as they can cost a couple of hundred dollars.

Panelist explained that sensors are entering the market, and restaurants, at an astounding pace, are giving patrons the power to test their dish to determine if it is truly what they ordered. The impact on restaurant reviews could be immediate. 36 percent of diners are influenced by sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor; 34 percent by social media. According to OpenTable, 60 percent of diners read peer reviews “always” or “frequently.” 9/10 restaurant operators say guests are more knowledgeable about food than they used to be.  Panelists also explained that special diets are of major concern for restaurants and sensors. Gluten-free is #2 on NRA’s list of top 20 menu trends for limited-service restaurants. 95 percent of fine dining restaurant operators say customers are more interested in diet-specific food. 

Consider this scenario. A food critic on a gluten-free diet comes to your restaurant, and you do not have a special gluten-free menu developed. The food critic asks the waiter for a suggestion, and the waiter happily suggests two gluten-free options that are menu modifications. The waiter conveys this order to the kitchen, but not the fact that the patron is gluten-free. The critic receives his or her meal and uses a sensor to test the dish for gluten. The test is positive. Immediately, the trust between the critic and the restaurant is eroded. A negative review is generated.

Angelique Toschi, Shakey’s USA, Inc., says that for her employer to stay on top of the reviews generated, they not only use tools to monitor online reviews (ReviewTrackers, MomentFeed, FranConnect and ReviewPush), they use good-ole-fashion customer service. At the heart is communication, and that communication needs to be authentic. Toschi says Shakey's handles reviews step by step from notification to contacting the guest.

In the hands of the restaurant, these sensors can help prevent illness and any mistakes in the kitchen that could result in an allergy attack. Panelists explain 100M people the U.S. get sick each year from their food. There has been a 50 percent increase of food allergies in children in the past 15 years. A top five concern for restaurateurs is dealing with allergies. The direct cost of caring for patients with food allergies is $20.5B a year. With a sensor, a chef could test shipments from suppliers for pathogens that could lead to illnesses. Remember the Chipotle incident from a few months back? Sensors could have helped prevent those illnesses.

Armed with sensors, a diner's knowledge of their meal is much greater, which changes the dining experience. The dynamic between the diner and the restaurant shifts, putting more responsibility on the restaurant to educate and be accountable for honesty on the menu and in the kitchen. The restaurant will need to invest in training on every level to get ready for the new dining experience.