AI Takes Front Seat in F&B Industry  

Robotic waiters, drone deliveries, machine chefs, cloud or ghost kitchens, the impact of artificial intelligence is rapidly changing the face of the F & B industry for business owners and customers alike worldwide. AI also eases industrial procedures, driving accuracy and efficiency. We can automate monotonous processes, reduce human errors and assure consistent quality in bulk output by deploying AI-navigated robotics and intelligent kitchen equipment, yet retaining top-notch standards of flavour and appearance at the same time. Food safety is another critical area where AI can play a major role.

The ramp-up in productivity, efficient cleaning management, removal of poor quality products and avoidance of wastage as well as deployment of a foolproof supply chain can go a long way in revamping the food tech arena. Innovation is the key as cutting-edge technology can revolutionise the entire food processing system to ensure superior quality and enlarged traffic as intended.

Going by the 2019 stats, the food tech market expanse in India was valued at Rs 289.36 billion and is expected to reach Rs 1,868.19 billion by 2025. The graph is further anticipated to witness a CAGR of approximately 25-30 per cent over the next five years.

The pace at which AI can spread its wings in the Indian F&B industry is indeed a point to ponder over as AI adoption requires heavy investment.

To foster creativity is one of AI’s most intriguing features. This may lead to experiments with unusual flavour combos, evaluation of ingredient characteristics and stirring up individualised meals catered across a wide range of tastes and dietary requirements by applying AI algorithms. This opens a window of opportunities, enabling the industry participants to serve a diverse consumer fabric with an array of lip-smacking culinary delights.

“The application of AI technology may substantially improve and streamline processes in busy bakeries, pastry kitchens and confectionery factories. By examining recipe data, ingredient measurements and production schedules, AI systems may optimise industrial processes. Robotic and AI-powered equipment can perform repetitive operations like batter mixing and pastry decorating, thereby increasing productivity and product quality. AI may also help with quality control by spotting irregularities in texture, colour or shape using sensor data and images, thus preventing waste and guaranteeing high-quality goods,” said Bakery Chef Gauri Verma, Founder, G’s Patisserie and Confect.

On the other hand, Sanandan Sudhir, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of On2Cook, notifies that the world’s fastest cooking device is disrupting the culinary industry. The Ahmedabad-based startup On2Cook is presently in partnership with food-tech brands like Zomato, Swiggy, Zepto Café and Rebel Foods, of which the first two are aggregators to multiple restaurants. Currently, On2Cook is integrated with an application that makes it an app-based cooking device. 

“An AI-based combination-cooking device is the best bet to match our swift modern lifestyle and urgencies since it does not complicate the process and need not require additional know-how in commercial and domestic kitchens. Besides, it helps save nearly 70 per cent of cooking time and above 50 per cent of energy normally consumed,” states Sudhir.

According to Dhaval Udeshi, Co-Founder, Chrome Hospitality, “I believe, AI integration is an exciting approach in the industry. These advancements have the potential to transform the way we regulate our ventures and interact with the clientele. While AI is taking giant strides in various spheres, its application in the eatery business holds immense promise.”

Adding another perspective, hotelier-turned-educationist Nasir Shaikh confirms that machine learning (ML) and AI have raided hotels for quite sometime now, especially in the areas of market forecasts and revenue management. “With palpable progress in the science of AI, it could be predicted as a solid game changer in the near future. Its evolution and industrial use cases shall further provide a fillip to float and scale up hotel businesses,” he said.

Food Deliveries & Services

Food delivery players like Swiggy, Zomato and Uber Eats are already at an inflection  point to embrace AI capabilities for quicker delivery of food, segregation of vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare, and serving oven-fresh hot entrée on the customers’ platter.

Eatery heads and online food aggregators are understandably adopting AI to clock higher revenues and enhance customer relations. From virtual order placement to last-mile delivery, stock supervision to running smart kitchens and supplying tailor-made nutritious supplements, voice-activated technology to mechanised delivery, plus personalised marketing to incorporating eco-friendly solutions, hi-tech startups both on the global plane and closer home are unfurling a slew of AI-generated services to woo guests and expand their footfall at public grub hubs. 

But then the question also arises will ever AI-based robots and drones completely takeover humans to deliver food at restaurants, trains etc.? To this query, Puneet Sharma, Founder of Zoop, a leading nationwide online food aggregator, says, “We don’t foresee drones or robots coming in to deliver food on trains in the near future because of some valid reasons. First of all, railway stations are public places and are shared properties unlike our homes and offices, which are privately owned. Therefore, drones might interrupt free and comfortable passenger movement on railway platforms. The second point is the security issue. On security grounds, delivery boys are today mandatorily made to carry authorised ID cards issued as part of proper due diligence. But this again might not be possible with drones. So chances are slim for machines to substitute for men.”

The same goes for food tech hubs and factory floors where it is not easy to replace manual labour with AI intervention or AI-propelled robots. While AI-driven robots and machines have the potential to rev up production and efficiency at food tech plants, they cannot totally replace the able work hands.

AI, after all, cannot replace the artistry, creativity and the oh-so-important human touch that chefs and other culinary specialists bring to their job. Human ingenuity, craftsmanship and know-how are what enable us to develop, experiment with flavours, adjust to shifting consumer likes and dislikes, and produce exceptional dining experiences.

“Human servers can create a warm, gentle and inviting atmosphere, interacting with patrons and attending to their individual needs, thereby creating an awesome dining experience that transcends the mere indulgence in cuisine,” notes Gauri.

Food Safety Measures

AI tools have immense potential to identify and mitigate foodborne pathogens, which in turn, could positively impact the methods of food production and consumers’ safety concerns. The common factor linking most food safety incidents and recalls across the industry today is people. As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), consuming contaminated food induces an estimated 600 million people to fall ill every year, consequently causing 420,000 deaths. That’s why the topic of food safety culture is always so imperative. 

“If we consider the opportunities that AI can breed by building and supporting a robust food safety management system, we can surely then dream of an exciting transformative future for the food industry. AI can provide innovative approaches to limit the likelihood of a food safety issue. It’s still in the early days but with the inclusion of image recognition, AI could definitely detect any possible signs of contamination, such as discolouration or mould via sensors at critical control points. This is an exciting area of innovation for the industry, where AI could analyse information comprising temperature, humidity or other environment-monitoring conditions to identify any visual variances to indicate the presence of a pathogen,” enlightens Neil Coole, Director of food and retail supply chains at British Standards Institution (BSI). The organised body of late introduced a global guidance, termed PAS 320. It is a food safety culture that prioritises people and supports collaboration in manufacturing facilities, food service businesses, restaurants or in retail stores.

Some commonly adulterated foods are olive oil, honey, spices, milk, wine, coffee and fruit juices (apple, orange, etc). The significant question that crops up here is how AI can detect defects in food items that result in recall. 

Similar to food fraud and food safety, knowing which food products (leafy greens, cheeses and dairy products, ground beef, processed meats and some fruits, such as melons and peaches, are usually complained to be withdrawn from the market) are at high risks of a recall beforehand makes way for a golden chance to use AI in the prevention of food recalls. This could only happen through improvements in the existing food safety and quality control measures and systems. 

“AI has the capability to use a humongous and complex variety of data to learn from with innovative solutions, such as sensors at critical control points. It could also be used someday to flag up anomalies in real-time, giving food manufacturers the advantage to proactively hinder unsafe products from entering into the supply chain minus the complicated, time-consuming and high-risk process of conducting a food recall,” shares Coole.

Cushion to Supply-Chain Hazards

Perishable food items like vegetables, fruits, spices, grains, dairy foods, meat and poultry, plus pharmaceuticals with a shorter shelf life form a part of the cold chain system for storage and quality preservation. It is difficult to transmit these delicate goods through the supply chain to reach customers before they start rotting and getting spoiled.

In emergency situations like wars (food transportation was disrupted during the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war), natural calamities and pandemic lockdowns, the food supply chain takes a beating to the extent of depriving the indigent people of their staple food grains. Generative AI can take care of this. AI in supply chains will be able to foresee demand, fathom when trucks require servicing and look for seamless shipping routes. Thus, AI looks promising to erase all human touchpoints in the supply chain including back-office tasks.

Key Indicators of Customer Choices

AI is effective in ‘knowing’ customers’ taste buds and understanding their preferences. A host of machine-learning modules and algorithms is used in estimating customer choices and improving their dining experience. “This is achievable by analysing past consumer behaviour, their preferences and feedback. Some commonly used technologies to this end are recommendation systems, predictive analytics, reinforcement learning, natural language processing and so on,” declares Udeshi.

Global player Coca-Cola also aggressively embraces AI amalgamation to analyse consumer behaviour and responses towards its products in terms of quality and taste. It also integrated AI into its marketing campaigns via ad commercials. The recent art museum ad is proof of this. Earlier too, this drink industry giant had applied AI technology to its vending machines. It developed AI algorithms that promote popular soft, cold drinks and beverages, plus make suggestions to users based on the location of the machine. 

AI tools play a pivotal role in boosting the customer experience in food delivery too, Sharma agrees. “In the competitive landscape, companies worldwide are leveraging technology to capture customer attention and explore novel approaches like certain X factors to stand out of the crowd. AI-led enhancements are being implemented across various variables, including customer support, service interaction, returns management, issue troubleshooting, website optimisation, messaging and custom-made offerings. Comprehensive AI enforcement galvanises companies to deliver excellent customer experiences and remain ahead of the curve,” he observes.

It is vital that organisations, individuals and society repose adequate trust in the manner of installing AI arms to achieve the coveted success. Confidence and faith will allow the food sector to make the most of the opportunities engendered by hi-tech breakthroughs to shape our future and accelerate progress on pressing issues. 

Image credit- iStock

Pramita Bose

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