Technology has helped shape the restaurant business into a $1 billion a day industry.
And technology will continue to play a role in the development of restaurants as more and more of us continue to eat out.
Roughly four out of 10 table-service restaurant operators have a Web site. About the same number allow customers to fax orders from their home or office. More than two out of five households with a cell phone have used it to place a takeout or delivery order.
According to the National Restaurant Association, almost 10 percent of consumers have viewed a restaurant's menu on the Internet. Of those who haven't, 44 percent told surveyors they would like to be able to do so.
What will we see in the future?
According to a "restaurant of the future" featured at a Maryland trade show, advanced point-of-sale systems will allow managers to trace frequent-diner activity and promotional programs.
Instead of having servers take orders on paper, patrons will enter their order into networked terminals and hand-held units that display the information in the kitchen. The labor-saving technology would likely be welcomed in the restaurant industry, which experiences annual turnover around 100 percent.
An option for customers wanting "carry out" is open-air food merchandisers. Here, food is displayed in upright, doorless refrigerators, convenient and easily accessed. A busy shopper may choose from prepared and ready-to-cook packaged foods along with beverages and desserts.
Restaurant food evolves as quickly as technology. Among the latest trends are increased use of "small plate food," where members of a dining party sample one another's dishes.
Nuevo Latino cuisine, a marriage of ingredients and flavors from different Latin American countries and the Caribbean, continues to grow in popularity, as do specialty coffees.
By 2015, there will be 18,000 specialty coffee retailers in the United States up from an estimated 12,000 in 1999, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
Ski resorts, museums and sports franchises will have exclusive branded coffees. One of Augusta's dot-com businesses, Mental Soup, has its own branded coffee. Quickservice restaurants such as Hardees and McDonald's likely will strive to provide better quality coffee.
Instead of just asking for a cup of hot tea, customers will be able to select from a menu of green, oolong, blacks or herbals. Discerning tea drinkers will be increasingly knowledgeable and demanding.
Cutting-edge restaurants are already offering advice on types of tea to match food selections. Tea also will be used in non-alcoholic mixed drinks. Bubble tea from Taiwan and iced chai from India are already being seen extensively in West Coast tea shops.
By 2010, the microbrew beer market is projected to be about 6 percent of the total beer market. The twentysomethings, the largest group of beer consumers, will be choosing from names like wheat beer, pale lager and Belgian white ale.
But our favorite drink in the future will be what it is today - carbonated soft drinks. By 2003, market analysts estimate Americans will be consuming approximately 62 gallons per capita. There is a niche of healthful sodas and juices flavored with fruit that may contain herbs, vitamins or minerals. This segment now is primarily served by small, start-up companies. But larger soft drink companies are expected to move into this market in the future.
Jackie Moore is the Area Director of the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center. She can be reached at (706) 737-1790.