Fake food on the real menu
How artificial intelligence fills in the blanks
A restaurant tech company just introduced a new tool for restaurants using artificial intelligence (AI), the buzziest new technology you can’t avoid. It’s a way to generate images of food — any food — instantly, and it’s from Lunchbox, an online direct ordering platform known for flashy branding and stunt-y marketing efforts, like the real tattoo studio it ran inside its booth at last year’s National Restaurant Show.
Lunchbox didn’t build the technology, it instead created some restaurant-specific parameters that tap into popular software: DALL-E is a text-to-image generator from OpenAI, a company that exists to build AI models anyone (who pays) can use and understand. To use Lunchbox’s version, type in a few words: “chicken tenders / orange background” for example. You’ll quickly receive four different images of chicken tenders on an orange background (with varying degrees of edibility, as seen below).
In an interview, Lunchbox co-founder and CEO Nabeel Alamgir said the service is especially useful for quickly filling gaps on online menus or to promote specials and limited-time offers — online menus with food photos get more diner engagement, he noted. But while pulling an image from thin air fills a square on a webpage, it also creates an opportunity for disappointment after a restaurant sells a customer on a dish that doesn’t really exist.
Delivery giant DoorDash has its own data: in a study of over 15,000 small restaurants on the platform, menus with item photos saw up to 44 percent more monthly sales. In a 2021 blog post, the company spent nearly 1,000 words describing six food photography tips, including how to identify good lighting, the importance of showing the whole dish to communicate portion size, and, of course, a primer on editing and retouching, all in service of creating a compelling image that accurately represents a menu item. (There are other how-to guides of similar length all over the internet.)
This sudden focus on menu photography is just another way that online ordering and delivery apps have shaped the restaurant industry in the name of technological progress. Of course it’s true that listings with photos are more interesting to diners; the apps are literally designed around them in order to draw customers in with realistic photos of what to expect.
In fact, DoorDash explicitly disallows stock photography and clip art.
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