Culture

How Virtual Reality Is Training the Next Generation of Restaurant Workers

From immersive simulations to sexual harassment training, restaurants are turning to VR, and it's working
Photos: Honeygrow
Virtual Reality Training Games in Restaurants

Virtual reality hasn't quite changed the world the way we were promised, but that doesn't mean its effects aren't profound. In recent years, VR has even made positive impacts in a somewhat surprising place: the restaurant industry.

In the midst of high turnover, cook shortages and rising minimum wages, VR training companies have positioned the technology as a potential remedy for many of the issues the industry faces today: more accessible and in-depth training, improved employee retention, targeted advancement of high-performing employees, and, through that, better margins and long-term sustainability. 

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Though training with VR brings a whiff of skepticism, the results prove otherwise. An oft-cited study saw VR-trained student surgeons significantly outperform those who learned in traditional lecture, with only 5 percent missing the final surgery target versus 55 percent.

Meanwhile, start-up Strivr studied hundreds of inexperienced football players trained in VR against counterparts who learned via traditional methods and found the VR group answered test questions quicker and reacted faster during the virtual play-by-play assessment.

In the hotel industry, good training programs have been linked to improved levels of job satisfaction and intent to stay, giving restaurants the best evidence yet that investments such as VR simulations stand as a way to better nurture and grow a wider group of talent.

The selling point is simple: focused engagement that comes with realism. In an industry where training is dominated by a sink-or-swim mentality, VR training offers untraditional candidates an even playing field to practice without wasting raw materials or submitting the restaurant to trial by fire. The program doesn't need to be extremely advanced either; 360-degree screening programs, for example, can be filmed on cameras costing as little as $100 and played in a $15 mobile-based headset.

In these environments, users can see all around them, with audio or visual cues giving detail to important sections. “360 video is great for giving information in a more interesting way, or to show a process or situation that can’t be transported or replicated easily,” explains Linda Jacobson, director of AR/VR at Treasure8, a training company that works with the USDA. Treasure8 recently used 360 video to explain the inner workings of a giant dehydrator to new factory workers.

The VR training program at Honeygrow.

For more practical purposes, we can look at Philadelphia-based fast-casual chain Honeygrow, which applies 360 video as part of its employee orientation program to showcase a typical store format, kitchen stations and guest interactions.

But additional levels of interactivity are needed to simulate technical skills. Beyond 360 video, two tracks emerge in functionality, separated by a big gap in cost and development, best distinguished by the Degrees of Freedom (DOF) they offer.

The first and more basic 3DOF is best used for foundational education with limited tactile requirements, with its primary benefits being lower costs and high portability. This method immerses users in a 3-D environment, where they can look around and use a handheld controller to interact with virtual items but cannot change their point of view once inside.

“Our training needed to be available store to store, which is why we ultimately chose to build for the Daydream [Google’s 3DOF headset],” explains Ricardo Rivera, creative director at Klip Collective, the agency behind Honeygrow’s VR training. Klip transformed the walk-in into an VR game where trainees had to move ingredients to different parts of the refrigerator and were informed if the placement was correct. The program has been so well received that Klip is planning another VR piece, tentatively titled A Culinary Journey, where Honeygrow employees can select an ingredient from the menu and be transported to its origin to learn its history.

Honeygrow + Klip Collective

On the other hand, 6DOF gives the user a more sophisticated, fluid range of motion within the virtual environment, with the scene changing realistically as the user walks, jumps, ducks or crawls. This requires increased processing power, which means (for now) computer tethering and more sophisticated headsets. These simulations represent real-world scenarios more accurately and can help build corresponding muscle memory and hand-eye coordination. The leap in functionality means Google engineers can create an immersive VR espresso pulling class, while KFC can build a VR escape room that asks employees to inspect, dredge and fry chicken.  

The full range of motion also gives companies like Portico Technologies the opportunity to incorporate artificial intelligence into its training to build scenarios where virtual customers offer custom responses to each trainee. There’s no “right” answer, but trainees learn a series of key service elements over the course of the interaction. Portico’s COO, Jeff Meador, describes these endless computations as “scalable role play with consistent coaches” that improve overall effectiveness of group training. Portico has debuted its VR series on hotel check-in and coffee bar service for Napa hotels, and is eyeing restaurants for its next move.

Holistic training also extends beyond technical ability. In light of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, management is turning to VR start-ups like Vantage Point to address problem scenarios that current training fails to recreate authentically. Vantage Point, which focuses on sexual harassment, delivers response training and bystander intervention training, teaching employees how to detect and respond to an inappropriate interaction, or identifying intervention points when witnessing a third-party conflict.

“We use VR to address the realities of internal and external stimuli, such as peer pressure,” Morgan Mercer, the CEO of Vantage Point, explains. Especially poignant is the lack of clarity in these virtual interactions, just like in real-life settings: “Some options seem correct, but others are more correct . . . one option may seem benevolent, but it’s actually wrong.” Current simulations are set in an office, but the company is already in conversation with restaurant groups to create custom industry scenarios.

Despite promising results, VR is not a stand-alone training solution. As noted by Google’s engineers, VR trainees had difficulty with intuitive responses like feeling properly tamped espresso or reacting to “hot” steam. A step toward closing this gap could be adding an element of kinesthetic learning, or learning by touch, using haptic technologies, such as the HaptX Glove.

Yet, this only exacerbates the issue of cost, which is currently too prohibitively high for single-unit or small-volume operators to reconcile. Between engineering time, hardware and implementation, Treasure8’s training took four months and cost $50,000, while Honeygrow’s clocked in shy of $100,000. These numbers are an especially hard sell given limited analytics around return-on-investment.

While Honeygrow’s chief brand officer, Jen Denis, has optimistically said its VR program has resulted in “increased employee retention,” the curriculum has been in place for just under a year. However, Mercer and Meador have both stated they have longitudinal studies of VR-trained employees in place and will likely offer results soon.

Ultimately, VR is only a tool. The future of the restaurant industry is dependent on employers adapting to shifts in supply and demand, and the changing expectations of the younger generation. Fortunately, the future bodes well for VR training: According to a 2016 Future Workforce study, 77 percent of millennials were willing to use VR in their professional life.

As VR becomes more intricately intertwined with our lives, the question becomes less about if we should leverage the technology, but rather how we can use it to improve the experience of our workforce.

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