Make way for automation
The pandemic has triggered what many journalists have dubbed the Great Resignation – an exodus of employees from the restaurant industry (and well beyond it) who are demanding better pay and more flexibility in response to the challenges of the times. In the short term, restaurant operators desperate for help in serving guests may bend to some of these pressures. But with the long-term sustainability of offering such benefits in question, restaurant brands have accelerated their investments in automation. To be sure, the human element is still an important aspect of service for many restaurants, but amid the current labor shortages, high employee turnover and increased concerns over safety and working conditions, why wouldn’t an operator be tempted to bring in a robot that never needs a break, complains, gets sick or asks for a raise? While quick-service restaurants are a natural place for this to begin, the automation trend won’t stop with them. What’s more, the lessons quick-service brands learn (and the degree of profitability they generate) as a result are likely to motivate restaurants across the board to incorporate automation in new ways. A recent Forbes report pointed to automation efforts already well underway at McDonald’s (AI-powered drive-thrus), White Castle (robotic fry cooks), Domino’s (robotic delivery through Nuro) and Taco Bell (fast touch-screen ordering and pickup with minimal interaction with staff), to name just a few. The accelerated adoption of automation could also accelerate its financial accessibility to industry segments beyond quick service. Where might your business most benefit from automation? Look for more opportunities to adopt it in the New Year.
Unless you are especially tech savvy, your IT budget may fall into the “set it and forget it” category: You know you need restaurant management technology and Internet connectivity but you may not have the time to dissect exactly where your technology dollars are going. But the landscape is becoming more competitive for restaurant technology and it’s a good time for an audit. A recent report from TekEfficient says there are a lot of opportunities to save money in a tech budget. It advises operators look into price drops and/or new competition offering promotional rates. Also try negotiating how much you get for the same (or a lower) price – such as faster Internet speeds at a reduced rate.
For most people, a smartphone is like an extra appendage that makes life a bit easier and more convenient. Having your employees manage their schedules via smartphone app is one small way to make their work lives easier and avoid burnout. If you’re not already using team apps and digital scheduling tools to manage your staff’s comings and goings, consider doing so as you get organized for 2022. They can help managers plan optimal scheduling based on sales forecasts and enable employees to check their schedule or swap a shift on the go.
At a time when restaurants may find it difficult to justify the fees that come along with third-party delivery, or risk having food tampered with or delayed in arriving, bringing delivery in-house may sound like a tempting option. The evolution of restaurant technology is helping to make that possible for more restaurants. Brands including Portillo’s and P.F. Chang’s adopted the restaurant delivery management platform CartWheel, for example, to help make the transition to offering in-house delivery for certain orders. The shift to the technology has also helped the brands create (or expand) new tip-generating roles for team members.
The past 18 months have changed the game for restaurant technology. Many new brands have entered the market, while existing companies have faced a more competitive landscape. As a result, the market for restaurant tech is all the more dizzying this year for operators looking to upgrade tools and systems or adopt new ones. The Restaurant Tech Ecosystem Map, an annual collaboration involving The Spoon, TechTable and Culterra Capital, can help cut through the clutter by identifying key brands across a variety of specific functional areas in restaurant tech. Here is the latest map for your reference.
To be sure, the restaurant industry had been heading in the direction of increased automation and decreased labor before the pandemic. But the acceleration of restaurant technology that we have seen in the past 18 months – along with the increase in already-high employee turnover rates in the industry – has only elevated the need for restaurant operators to find solutions to labor challenges and the technology to help manage them. McDonald’s, for one, is tapping into artificial intelligence to manage restaurant labor and to-go service. After testing AI technology in its drive thrus in Chicago this summer (and getting about 85 percent of orders correct), the brand is now partnering with IBM to deploy AI-powered drive-thrus more broadly across the brand. Meanwhile, Starbucks has partnered with Amazon to launch a cashierless coffee shop in New York City, with additional outlets in the works. At a time when labor challenges are so elevated, major chains have become the early adopters of potential solutions to address them. At the same time, they will be managing the growing pains that accompany them, potentially making the transition to such technology more seamless for smaller brands in the future.
The evolution of restaurant technology in the past 18 months hasn’t been just about the streamlining of the ordering and payment of food, but also about the development of food to meet the moment. (And the moment, for so many restaurants, seems to be about perfecting the off-premise dining experience.) Simplot, for one, has launched a new kind of French fry that doesn’t get soggy and limp during delivery and is microwave-reheatable. Now is prime time to assess your menu to ensure everything travels and reheats well – and to keep an eye on up-and-coming additions in food products and packaging. They could change the game for your takeout and delivery menu by having it more closely reflect the in-dining room eating experience.
Rapid employee turnover at restaurants doesn’t just leave your business on the back foot when it comes to preparing and serving food – it can also threaten the security of your systems and data. It’s not unusual, for example, for a reduced staff at a restaurant to have to share roles more than they otherwise would – or even for a new team member to prematurely be granted more responsibility (and the access that comes with it). To help shield your business from the risk of a breach and enable it to recover more quickly if one occurs, ensure that any user names and passwords used to access your systems aren’t shared or reused – and that passwords are changed regularly. Also, connect system access to specific roles instead of people so if a person leaves a role for a different one, there is a natural shift in permissions for system access.
As supply-chain challenges continue to put pressure on prices, restaurant operators looking to make a profit – or to simply stay in business – need to understand the health of their business in small detail. While a POS system can collect reams of data about a business, the information won’t do much good if the operator doesn’t give the system the right prompts or know how to translate the information it collects into actionable insights. Your data can’t be a substitute for your own knowledge about your business. A recent webinar from Speedline Solutions covered how to use your POS to get to the heart of your objectives – and though the advice applies regardless of what kind of system you’re using, it starts with being able to ask some specific questions about your business (then leaning on your systems for help in answering them). Consider setting a general goal and then drilling down on it to get as specific as you can. For example, if you start by asking yourself how you can increase the amount of your average check, identify a more specific question you can ask: How can you entice more people to add the appetizer special to their order? If you’re wondering if you can raise your prices, how much you might be able to increase the price of your best-selling menu item before the price turns people away?
While restaurant technology had been steadily gaining ground before Covid, it appears to have changed many processes for good. During a recent online discussion presented by the National Restaurant Association, industry leaders weighed in on the most important tech-enabled shifts that have become permanent in the past two years. Among them are the online cashless ecosystem for restaurants – it’s now a customer expectation to be able to order via an app or a delivery service, no cash needed. Flexibility to order/collect via multiple channels has also become critical – and technology is key to helping your staff juggle all of those streams simultaneously. Finally, tech continues to fine-tune our capability to order and pay at the table. (So despite the pushback that QR codes get from some guests, the flexibility and speed they offer operator and guest alike may give them staying power.)