According to a statistic shared by American Express at last weekend’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, 87% of operators believe technology can help them attract more customers to their restaurants. With new solutions and innovations popping up constantly, how can restaurateurs stay focused and get the most out of their tech investments?
Chef and restaurateur Tyler Florence moderated a panel with some of the most tech-savvy leaders in the business: Michael Jacobs, partner at Corner Table Restaurants, which includes The Smith and Jane; Nicolas Jammet, co-founder of healthy salad chain sweetgreen, and Maureen Cushing, Vice President of IT for Union Square Hospitality Group and co-founder of the TechTable Summit. Here’s are some of the highlights from a candid discussion of the hottest topics in technology and hospitality.
We’re entering a new era of data mining, Michael said. First, everyone wanted data but couldn’t access it; now, restaurants have access to more data than they know what to do with. It’s overwhelming.
The next wave, he predicted, will be the “artificial intelligence” phase, when operators receive actionable data via systems that don’t require endless mining.
2. Customer Relationship Management
Maureen said that USHG is using “little data,” not big data, focusing on a few dedicated systems and platforms. The group uses OpenTable as a customer relationship management (CRM) tool to aggregate and share guest notes and build relationships with repeat customers. Now, there’s hunger for ways to track not just the guest making the reservation, but the other diners at the table.
Sweetgreen also collects information about customers, which Nic admitted becomes more and more difficult as businesses scale. He has very frequent and loyal customers, and what matters most to them in the casual space are speed and frequency. He explores ways he can use technology to make everything more convenient and faster for guests. A quarter of sweetgreen’s orders are made through their mobile app — a big way his team has worked to eliminate the pain point of standing in line.
Michael consults a daily report that aggregates all of the mentions of his restaurants on social media, so he can see what people are saying in real time. Today, he said, his number one source of feedback is Instagram. Maureen still sees a place for review sites in addition to social media, since the feedback USHG gets via review sites tends to be much more actionable (i.e., which items should stay on the menu).
3. Social Media
Speaking of Instagram, Tyler asked the panelists to share their approach to managing social media channels within the groups. USHG has a dedicated PR and Marketing team and is currently working on adding social media under that umbrella. Corner Table also has an internal marketing function that oversees the platforms. Sweetgreen’s in-house digital team is in charge of social execution, in part to connect with customers in real time and also to tell stories and create content around food that deepens guests’ relationship with the brand.
All of the panelists agreed that beautiful food photos, happy employees, and behind-the-scenes “sneak peek” posts are their biggest hits on Instagram.
4. Meal Kits
Tyler asked: How concerned should restaurants be about the rise of brands like Blue Apron and Sunbasket?
“I don’t envision a first date or business meeting happening over Blue Apron,” said Michael, adding that he’s not sweating the competition. Nic does see the businesses as competition, but believes they are a bigger challenge for the grocery industry, since Blue Apron can provide more convenience for a customer than a two-hour shopping, prepping, cooking spree. “Going out to a restaurant is a different use case,” he said, with people prioritizing a great experience over convenience.
Here, Tyler made an interesting point. He predicted that there will be a shift in the industry, with mediocre restaurant groups fading out altogether, unable to address the rising cost of business. Only the great restaurants will survive.
Sweetgreen just moved from the Micros point-of-sale system to Brink, spurring a conversation around the evolution of POS. Tyler remembered the handheld POS and chit belt from a decade ago, wondering if they might make a resurgence now to increase efficiency.
Maureen sees a huge opportunity within POS. “Nothing is ready yet,” she said, adding that USHG is even exploring building their own solution. But she doesn’t see chit belts in USHG’s future, since the group would prefer to keep technology off the floor and behind the scenes.
6. Automated Restaurants
Taking humans out of restaurant service and replacing them with technology can speed things up and save on labor cost. There will probably never be full automation in fine dining, but for casual concepts it might make sense, and Nic hasn’t ruled it out — for some things.
“As our transactions and customers change, we have to evolve our store format,” he said, and an app-only system could be in the future of sweetgreen. But customers still have to connect with the food and team members, he insisted, so his employees will always be a part of the dining experience in some fashion.
Tyler pointed out that other retail industries, such as apparel, have radio frequency identification (RFID) -based inventory systems to manage product loss and improve inventory accuracy. Could that be the future for restaurants, too?
Maureen said those systems would probably be too expensive for restaurants, but USHG does bar code their wine inventory and hopes to do even more. The biggest challenge, predictably, is fresh produce.
Nic agreed there’s a big opportunity for tech here. Sweetgreen works with local farmers, so transparency and tracking are incredibly important for food safety. They have to track each case of produce that comes into a location separately.
Tyler shared a surprising stat from the National Restaurant Association: on average operators are losing 7% of revenue to employee theft.
USHG uses face-recognition systems to eliminate buddy punching in their restaurants. Similarly, Michael is extra mindful of the fact that labor is now his number one expense and looks to scheduling tools for innovation in this area. Data has the ability to tell him when staff members are getting close to hitting overtime and help him make staffing decisions in real time.
All of the panelists agreed that now more than ever — with so many different technologies in their restaurants — API integration is critical. Information needs to be able to flow seamlessly between systems, which Maureen said is the biggest challenge she’s facing now. Ultimately, integration can help aggregate and organize data and help restaurateurs make smart, informed business decisions.