There was a time when a common conception of 'the future' involved images of The Jetsons: Judy's gravity-defying ponytail, for instance, or Rosie the dutiful robot maid. Today's world isn't quite so outlandish--and no family I know lives on a spaceship, not yet--but entrepreneurs are still turning to technology to make our lives nearly as convenient. 

Restaurants are a good example of a business that's beginning to undergo a tech-based makeover. With hungry customers helping the restaurant industry generate $3.4 billion so far this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, it's imperative for owners to keep them happy. And with the advent of tools such as the Presto, a touchscreen food ordering system, it's becoming ever easier to fulfill their exacting preferences. Here's a look at some trends reshaping the industry: 

More Branded Apps 

"We're already seeing lots of restaurants preparing or creating their own apps so that customers can order and pay in advance," says Beverly Cain, senior vice president of operations at Sandelman & Associates, a market research firm. Customers like the convenience, and owners like having the data on what and when people are ordering. Over time, she says, they'll use the information to tweak loyalty programs as well as their menus. They may even ask customers for input on flavors and dish names.  

Of course, a system should be in place to fulfill all those orders made online and in person in a fair and timely fashion. "You can't tell the people standing in front of you to wait," says leadership strategist Jim Sullivan, who counts Disney and Starbucks among his clients. "You have to have systems that will satisfy both." Still, he's confident the apps, like standalone food kiosks, which have become increasingly common, will save restaurant owners money on labor, while boosting sales. "Turnover is terrible in the food service industry," he says. "You'll increase capacity because the orders are coming in remotely."   

The Server as Concierge

As more restaurant patrons use apps to place their orders, servers will become increasingly responsible for steering the overall restaurant experience, highlighting specials, offering suggestions, and assisting baffled guests with the menu. "He'll add an aspect of entertainment and comfort," Cain says, not unlike a hotel conceierge. 

Meanwhile, she says, the role of the host or restaurant greeter will take on more importance as more diners order online, "because there's an expectation that not only will the product be exactly what they requested, but it will be ready when they are." As a result, restaurant owners will need more facilities for take-out customer parking, identifying which order belongs to whom, and getting the food out as quickly as possible. "The backdrop for that will be [technology that will] immediately recognize the car or people as they come in as well," notes Cain. 

The iPad as Menu (and Server) 

Tablets and iPads will replace paper menus, Sullivan says, although he admits the technology is expensive and many small business owners will be reluctant to try it. Still, large chains have already had some success using tablets to do variable pricing--that is, altering the cost of menu items at various times of day--and customers will "get used to the tech and expect the ease of ordering," which will strengthen demand for it. The Presto tablet, which sits on the table and takes your order, is already being used by restaurants such as Palo Alto's Calafia Café, further hinting at the future obsolescence of the server's traditional job. 

Profile Gathering

"A lot of the trends are really toward profile-gathering around the consumer," says Walt Davis, general manager of Retail Data Systems in Atlanta, which created the ordering system for the Five Guys burger chain. Soon digital menu boards will be able to scan your face and estimate your age, then make suggestions along the lines of, "We have a senior discount just for you!" Embarrassing, yes, but they'll know what you want, especially if you've been to he restaurant before. To that end, kids may receive digital incentives such as e-books or games, while play areas will likely be replaced by Wi-Fi-enabled digital play stations.