The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a serious toll on the global foodservice industry. In the U.S., it has forced over 100,000 restaurants to close. In Canada, it's creating an expected $44.8 billion loss in sales. This impact is forcing restauranteurs, suppliers, staff and every part of the supply chain to change the way they operate or face the potential of a shutdown.

The industry needs to shift away from its traditional approaches and begin to rely more heavily on virtual tools including augmented reality (AR), 3D modeling, and interactive streaming platforms as a means to survive and thrive beyond the immediate crisis. These tools have the potential to also help the industry evolve to democratize access to education and enhance experiences across the entirety of the supply chain

Gaining access to resources through virtual platforms

Right now, restaurant owners, waiters, chefs, bartenders, suppliers and other staff desperately need resources to help them adjust to operating in the new normal. In reality, not everyone has the funds, the time or the access to the resources that can make a difference in how a business operates. A large corporation like McDonald's may be able to afford it, but your typical mom-and-pop shop may not. Gaining insight from industry leaders, CEOs and consultants on best practices for everything from menu development to cleaning, preparation and sales techniques could be the make-or-break moment for businesses, both large and small, in the midst of the pandemic.

Innovations in virtual technologies, specifically enterprise-grade streaming platforms with AR capabilities, are playing an increasingly larger role in getting foodservice teams the information and materials they need for survival. The industry was already on a trajectory to leverage these platforms for education and engagement through various association-backed events, the pandemic simply accelerated their use.

more than 50% of restaurants in the US have shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic more than 50% of restaurants in the US have shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic Photo: Kaique Rocha - Pexels

We're seeing trade shows, national events and expos take to virtual stages where they can open their doors to a broader, more global audience. Education is becoming democratized as the travel and cost limitations of these industry events are removed. Even for the large shows, elimination of a physical venue and travel costs for speakers helps reduce operating expenses and further drive prices down to make education accessible to everyone, from small-town chefs to your biggest CEOs.

Using virtual tools to overcome experience challenges

Granted, foodservice faces a unique challenge in the fact that so much of what drives sales and activity is the physical experience – from the ambiance of dining to the hands-on way of selecting foods or equipment. Capturing that experience in the virtual world has historically been difficult; a glorified video call doesn't provide the same excitement or understanding. This is where innovations in AR, 3D modeling and human holograms come into play.

Picture, for example, a restauranter trying to select a new oven. All too often the choices are dictated by what is noted within the local buyer's guide or what is available at your nearest restaurant depot. Specs and descriptions can be helpful, but you don't know exactly what you're getting until you physically interact with the product, taking that experience into account before making a purchasing decision. AR takes that unknown out of the equation, giving restauranteurs the ability to interact with the product and get a true feel for it without having to see it in person. It's a win-win situation with suppliers benefitting from sales and restauranters getting to engage with a product before buying online.

Even for consumers, this can be a challenge. As restaurants begin to close their doors due to another spike in cases, they need to innovate and create new ways to drive business.  But how do you create the unique restaurant experience at a customer's home? Transforming a chef or bartender into a human hologram that's accessible from a cell phone or laptop can keep customers connected and engaged while physical spaces are shut down or limited. Even more exciting, we're seeing the industry taking a hybrid approach, offering physical kits including anything from food to mixology, that consumers can use at home. These technologies create the feeling of being right in the middle of a class, following their favorite chef or bartender hologram.

Augmented reality brings transparency to the supply chain

Looking ahead towards the future and even beyond enhancing the experience of shopping, dining and more, there are also opportunities for virtual technologies like AR to bring a sense of transparency into the supply chain and ultimately to the end customer experience. Consumers today want to know where their food is coming from and what the story is behind it. AR can do that in a way that goes beyond a small blurb next to an item on a menu or a short mention with the sales pitch.

The use of AR humanizes and brings to light the people and process behind how food gets from farm or sea to our plates. For example, a buyer looking for fresh-caught lobsters to up their seafood offering on the menu could take an AR tour of the boat, guided by a human hologram of the fisherman who will be catching your lobsters. Viewers are able to capture the full process, from the marina to the restaurant. This first-hand look gives them a better understanding of the food and the people behind it, helping to create connections that many of us would otherwise miss and build the stories that sell their food to customers.

These personalized experiences and the added transparency also provide an opportunity to expand and establish a brand, company or agency within the global community and better secure the supply chain. The Canadian government, for example, has started using AR portals and more to promote the food supply chain internationally during the pandemic. Using these tools, it can showcase and push Canadian food products, including beef and seafood, to the broader market while also sharing the stories of the hard-working citizens that bring these products to market.

It may not be the format that we're used to, but AR and virtual tools are so critical to the continuation of the foodservice industry. First and foremost, it is needed to democratize education and make the world’s most brilliant minds and resources accessible anywhere, from any device. Second, it can help to create interactive experiences across the entirety of the supply chain, making purchasing and selling at every level an easier, more engaging process. This industry needs to evolve to survive and virtual platforms with AR will be the way to do that.

(Evan Gappelberg is the CEO of NexTech AR; Troy Taylor is the vice president of operations at Restaurants Canada)