Tech Talk: Experts Weigh in on Foodservice Technology

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Foodservice and Hospitality: What are the most common challenges operators are trying to solve with technology?

Alex Barrotti: Resolving operational inefficiencies so they can turn tables faster and, at the same time, ensure their customers are happy. Restaurateurs want to eliminate errors in orders and billing; offer the correct add-ons when the time is right; improve custom food preparation to eliminate wastage and customer frustration; understand what was done right or wrong, and the impact of different situations on current revenue trends, [as well as] opportunities to adjust for improved profitability; remove inefficiencies in service.

Robert Carter: By far, the three biggest challenges are increasing the speed of service, connecting with customers and providing a more convenient experience. From an operator’s point of view, technology also helps to streamline advertising and marketing costs, as well as reduce labour costs and inefficiencies.

Ray Abramson: For fast-food or fast-casual concepts, speed of service, for the customer, is paramount to a restaurant’s success. In the full-service space, being able to create predictable and efficient table turnover is important. For busy restaurants, people waiting in long lines for a table, only to ultimately leave, is a common issue.

Jay Gould: Speed of service, accuracy, labour savings and efficiencies, and reducing our impact on the environment can all benefit from technology use.

F&H: How can restaurants use technology to expedite the dining experience?

AB: Restaurant technology improves virtually every dining touchpoint with customers. This includes reservations and rapid seating; table-side ordering — complete with enticing details on specials, food photos and allergen information. This helps the customer make the best choices; secure payments right at the table with a mobile wallet or credit card that never has to leave the customer’s sight and travel to another part of the restaurant to get processed.

RA: [Customer] expectations are changing so restaurateurs in the QSR/FSR space are leveraging technology to adapt accordingly, such as more reliance on apps such as Foodora, Platterz, Ritual and Feedback to either have their food delivered to them or picked up. With services such as OpenTable, you can have all your reservations booked far in advance without employees ever needing to pick up the phone, making it easier to manage operational expectations for the shift ahead.

RC: Technology allows consumers to engage with your brand in a quick and easy way. It also helps to drive innovation and customization, which is a big draw for younger demographics such as the millennial cohort.

F&H: What other roles does technology play in a restaurant setting?

JG: [At South St. Burger] we provide free Wi-Fi as a service and collect consumer information from it. Technology allows us to easily maintain profiles and preferences and gives us the ability to target frequent and lapsed customers.

AB: Technology now offers many avenues to help a restaurateur build his customer base and keep customers coming back. Loyalty programs entice customers to stay with a specific brand that earns them rewards for repeat business; analytics help the restaurateur understand what his customers like and what they don’t, when they make purchases, or when strategic marketing might work best. Technology helps servers and the kitchen staff make fewer errors and become more confident in doing an exceptional job, which all leads to a more engaging experience with the customers they are serving. Technology can even help make customers feel special when they are welcomed by name and offered their “usual” from information stored in the restaurant’s point-of-sale solution.

RA: With the increased use of ordering systems, restaurants can obtain and gather loads of information about their guests. By using either restaurant-branded apps like ReUp or single domain apps like Ritual, restaurants now know who their customers are and the frequency they return. This can result in enormous loyalty-program opportunities.

F&H: What new technology is making its way into restaurants — both back- and front-of-house?

JG: We have the ability to monitor the store in many ways remotely, beyond video — equipment performance and temperatures. The use of delivery apps is a quickly (albeit expensive) growing part of the business.

RA: With augmented reality and VR, the future opportunities could be big. Right now, it’s barely used — if at all — but this will grow significantly. The process for designing and building new locations will be revolutionized. Having a tool that can do this will help restaurant companies visualize what a store will look like without having to spend even $1 on development. In the back-of-house, there are new technologies to help manage operational consistency across not only individual restaurants but for multi-unit chains. For brands such as The Keg or Wendy’s, the goal is to have each location humming the same way. Ensuring staff is trained properly through monthly or quarterly field assessments is key to ultimate success.

RC: Payment is a big one and, while many popular chain operators have begun to integrate this technology into their operations, there is a lot of runway here for this technology to grow. Other innovations will likely be based on loyalty, ordering, managing inventory and simple functions such as payment, scheduling, et cetera.

F&H: How is existing technology evolving to meet changing operator needs?

JG: For years now, we’ve been able to manage inventories, schedule staff and track product mix accurately. Now, we’re looking into consumer-driven ordering devices, such as terminals and tablets, to speed things up and reduce labour costs.

AB: A well-designed POS solution works as the heart of the restaurant, simplifying the multitude of tasks that must be accomplished via a single hub that is intuitive and easy to navigate between widely diverse functions, with integration to many third-party solutions to expand its capacities.

RA: POS systems were some of the first “new” technologies to really begin entering the restaurant space. Originally, it was just a way to better manage your cash but now, not only do they offer sales-management tools, but also provide detailed analytics that can help predict demand curves and inventory requirements — ultimately helping management save on unnecessary expenses.

RC: There’s a lot of room for improvement here. Operators need to work on adopting this technology and integrating it into their existing legacy systems. Operators who are doing this are realizing a lot of cost savings because they can use the new technology to better understand customers and operations through data mining.

F&H: How do you determine which technology is a good investment for your operation and which is a passing fad?

AB: Early adopters sometimes get caught in a passing fad, such as 3D TV, but they can also be the first on board with the best solution ever released that gives their business a significant competitive edge. Look at the iPad — when it was first released, businesses thought it was just a gimmick. Now it’s universally accepted as a valuable productivity tool. Even the biggest and best companies have difficulties predicting what is a good bet or will be just a fad, so if you’ve made some mistakes, you are in good company. It’s best for a restaurant owner to stay within his comfort zone — whether it be an early adopter or a late adopter — but they don’t want to be a laggard and lose the competitive advantage that new technology may offer. The key is for restaurateurs to keep their fingers on the pulse of what is working at other restaurants and try new technology on a small scale to see what works for them and resonates with their clients. At the same time, a restaurateur must remember the most important [items] to focus on are the quality of food and service as their first investments. No gimmick or technology will ever be a substitute.

RA: Any piece of technology that can help add incremental revenue, optimize operations and ultimately create a stronger customer experience is great to add. The flashy stuff that might seem like a cool idea but won’t translate into actual business improvement probably isn’t necessary and might not last.

F&H: What operational challenges are associated with implementing new technology in a foodservice setting?

AB: It is essential that the technology itself is designed for the unique work flows of a restaurant, not just adapted from some other type of retail business, such as auto repair or a convenience store. When technology is built from the ground up to work in a restaurant setting, it also allows for a smoother implementation. Restaurateurs should personally test the system prior to purchase to see if it is intuitive to use and easy to understand right out the box for both them and their employees.

JG:[As operators] we have to be careful not to over-complicate the process. We focus on ease of operation for both consumers and staff and ease of repair and back up for down time. RC: Like anything else, there is bound to be a learning curve when adopting new technology. Support services often add an ongoing expense that may put off some operators and the overall cost of implementation can be a challenge. However, it’s important to think of any investment in technology as a long-term investment that can help boost the bottom line for years to come.

F&H: How important is staff and customer buy-in?

AB: Staff buy-in is vitally important. The efficiency and effectiveness of the system is literally in their hands. Customer buy-in is important to the degree that they have visibility to the system. For example, do they enter their own orders at a kiosk? Do they slide their mobile wallet over the payment reader to pay the bill? Are they willing to try out some new technology that would increase the efficiency of the restaurant but is somewhat alien to them? All of these factors should be taken into consideration. RA: Without front-line staff buying-in to the new technology, it’s almost impossible that customers will follow suit. Training your staff is the first step in realizing any type of ROI from the investment you just made. Fail to set the team up for success and it’s almost guaranteed to fail.

RC: I would argue that customers have already bought in — technology is a part of their daily lives and therefore this is more of a “must do” then a “should do” when it comes to meeting their needs. In terms of staff, any hesitation is likely tied to a lack of understanding of how technology can make their jobs easier. The bottom line is that operators need to address growing consumer demand with the right solutions — if they don’t innovate, you can be sure the competition will.

F&H: How will technology transform restaurant experiences in the future?

AB: Hopefully not by that much. I don’t want people wearing headsets when they are in the restaurant. I want them to enjoy the social experience that comes with dining at a restaurant with great food, or the elegance of exceptional service. I’m a raging technologist who embraces change, but you shouldn’t implement technology for the sake of technology — it must provide a benefit to your customers.

RA: One of the biggest factors facing restaurants today is the minimum-wage increase coming in 2018. As front-line employee wages go up, there will be pressure on management to raise consumer prices and find alternatives ways of serving customers. This most certainly means more automation technology such as digital-ordering kiosks and apps. McDonald’s is a perfect example of a company that has, so far, deployed both of these things.

F&H: What role do you see robotics/automation playing in the restaurant industry moving forward?

AB: I don’t see robotics on the service side for long while – I sure don’t want a robot taking my order. But in food delivery and preparation, robotics and automation can markedly increase efficiency and production. For example, robots are used quite commonly today to harvest and sort grapes in the wine making process.

RA: In the back-of-house, robotics will start appearing as certain manual and repetitive processes currently done by low-level employees, could be entirely replaced by robotic machines. Doing this would have a higher upfront cost but long term, could be paid off in the cost savings from no human salaries. A scary thought for sure but it seems to be inevitable.

RC: From a very high level it’s about streamlining “simplistic” roles currently done by employees. It can help drive cost-savings measures and more efficient operating models while at the same time transforming current restaurant business models and reducing expenses and increasing overall revenue.