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How apps are changing fast food

Mike Elgan | Feb. 17, 2014
The world of fast food is getting faster -- and redefining the future of mobile payments. Just look at what Taco Bell and Chipotle are doing.

Other fast-food chains, such as Starbucks, Papa John's, Domino's and Pizza Hut, have had mobile ordering apps in use since at least last year.

McDonald's and Chick-fil-A are also testing mobile apps. And a company called Smashburger is teasing the release of an app this year.

KFC is testing a mobile app for the U.K. If it succeeds there, the company plans to introduce a U.S. version. It works with a QR code scan to verify that you're the person who placed and paid for the order.

Apps enable a self-service economy
Decades ago, what we now call gas stations were called "service stations." The reason they were called service stations was because, when you pulled into one, a uniformed attendant would come out, "take your order" for gas, check your oil, fluids and tire pressure, wash your windows and process your payment.

At some point, gas stations decided that some customers would rather do it all themselves for a small savings. So they offered self-service as an option. Now, they're almost all self-serve.

That's where fast food is going.

When technology for self-processing orders and payments is combined with a robotic kitchen setup, a typical fast-food joint may eventually employ only two or three people.

Fast food itself is just the beginning. Eventually, apps will be served up with a beacon system ( Apple's iBeacon is one example).

When you walk into a store, restaurant or any other kind of place where you pay for stuff, the cash register won't be a big desk with a 20th-century contraption on it. It will be an app that appears on your phone because you're inside the store. To pay for your items, and in some cases to select them, you'll use the app. Bluetooth will inform the store that you've paid for what you're carrying out, so the alarm won't sound as you exit.

This is an alternative vision to the mobile payment scenarios we've been told about. In the conventional prediction, the mobile payments app and service are universal — like a credit card. In the fast-food vision of the future, the app is chain- or store-specific, like a Starbucks card.

The fast-food vision makes more sense. It combines a menu of services with payment options and gives retailers options for upselling, offering loyalty points, developing check-in tools, tracking customers and deploying special features that enable them to do things like wait until the customer is nearby to prepare food.

After all, why should the cash register, inventory database or menu, loyalty card and online marketing campaign be different things? They should all be an app, one for each brand, chain or store. And they should enable customers to find what they want, choose to buy it and pay for it all from their smartphones.

If it works for Taco Bell, it will probably work for just about everything.

 

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