he restaurant industry is huge, complex and evolving rapidly. In the U.S. alone, restaurants generate nearly $800 billion in sales and employ more than 14 million people — almost one in 10 workers across the country. The restaurant business is a famously tough place to succeed, and that’s even more true today as consumer tastes and restaurant formats evolve rapidly.

Customers discover food in new ways now, finding out about authentic dining experiences through a friend or influencer’s Instagram account, for example. Menus cycle faster than ever as food trends come and go. The lines between dining in and dining out are blurring. To succeed in this environment, businesses need to understand how customers make decisions, foresee changes in the competitive landscape and stay on top of emerging trends.

For all of these reasons, as a restaurant operator, the sooner artificial intelligence (AI) is employed, the better.  AI represents a truly transformative opportunity for restaurants because it can provide actionable recommendations, not just insights. AI can identify trends faster and better than humans. And despite its reputation for complexity, AI is easy to use.

Beyond robotics and insights

One assumption many restaurant operators who aren’t familiar with AI make is that AI means robotics — a mechanical arm flipping burgers or a robot shuttling food to tables. That kind of technology might work well in some restaurant settings, but the real value of AI and machine learning is its ability to help restaurant operators make better decisions about customer service.

That’s an incredibly valuable capability in an industry as ripe for disruption as the restaurant business. Think of all the changes in the competitive landscape — meal kits, off-premises dining, ghost restaurants, pop-ups and food trucks, just to name a few. Consumer preferences and tastes change quickly, and AI can help anticipate shifts as the industry evolves.

Restaurant operator demographics don’t always match customer demographics, so it can be easy to miss emerging taste trends. When operators don’t see shifts in preferences coming, it can lead to lost opportunities — and fewer customers. AI is data-driven, so it can take in information from a variety of sources, analyze it and return recommendations that can boost profits.

Shaping trends instead of reacting to them

One huge advantage AI offers is the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of market trends. With the right AI solution, restaurant operators can add easily available data — such as shipment, survey, outlet demographics, location and weather information — and discover new areas for growth, shaping trends instead of reacting to them.

For example, one operator used an AI solution to optimize the beverage mix offered in its Chicago and Miami locations. With AI and data from a variety of sources — much of it free, such as weather information — the restaurant operator achieved a 3% revenue increase almost immediately.