A lineup of new technology promises to help restaurants increase efficiencies, counter the labor shortage and deliver a better customer experience.
By Nancy Wood
If there’s one lasting lesson restaurant owners and operators learned from the pandemic, it was the increased need for technology. While most owners and operators had systems in place for business, financial and operational controls, there’s little doubt that no single event ever did more to spur the adoption of digital technology and automation than the COVID crisis.
Surviving and thriving in the hospitality industry today has put restaurateurs on a fast track to enhance their current technology by adding new applications that increase efficiencies, implementing automation to counter the labor shortage, and in some cases, launching entirely new integrated systems designed to streamline operations and deliver a better customer experience. For fast-casual and QSR concepts in particular, the adoption of technology to support contactless service, pick-up and delivery options, as well as self-order and self-pay options, have been integral to operations.
If you thought having your customer scan a QR code was enough, just wait. Seamless integration among every facet of the business is the name of the tech game today.
The Demand for Digital
“I’ve been in the restaurant technology space for 30 years,” says Mike Nettles, chief digital and technology officer for Zaxby’s, “and I have never seen a single event that did more to propel adoption of digital technology. Everybody was demanding the ability to order their food and have it delivered or be able to pick it up without actually interacting with people or being in close proximity to other people.”
Restaurants like Zaxby’s, which already had some systems in place for ordering, pick up and delivery, had a distinct advantage back in 2020, while others had to quickly implement systems to keep pace with demand.
“Zaxby’s, like many brands,” says Nettles, “was well-poised to take advantage of some of the immediate changes the pandemic drove.” Almost every one of the chain’s 900 stores had drive-thrus for instance, which he calls “a godsend.”
But Nettles says Zaxby’s had neglected some of its investments in technology and was operating on a 15-year-old POS and in-store platform. Since being hired in 2021 to lead all the company’s digital efforts – both the business side and the consumer side – Nettles has been developing and implementing a proprietary in-house digital platform to fuel the company’s growth plans.
All of the kitchen and payment systems were replaced last year, and, he says, “Now we’re starting the process of replacing all of the point-of-sale systems.
“This summer,” he adds, “we will be transferring off of our outsourced digital technology to 100% insourced with new mobile apps and a new website, all built on a proprietary Zaxby’s e-commerce platform.” Part of that platform will include a brand-new loyalty program and delivery service, which, says Nettles, accounted for most of the pandemic growth. While delivery will still be available through third-party vendors, ordering food directly from Zaxby’s will allow customers to take advantage of the loyalty program, which includes a more personal, curated experience.
“That’s where digital really becomes powerful,” he says, “because it allows me to know who you are from the beginning of a transaction. I can greet you by name, suggest things to you based upon points you have available, or make suggestions in terms of meal pairings. I can do some very helpful things that you just can’t do in person.”
Understanding the value of digital technology and its role in the customer experience is important to Nettles. “I could tell even the smallest restaurant operator, you need to understand that a digital experience is a completely different paradigm from any experience you’ve cultivated over months or years at your local property. You need to understand how to cater to that, and make sure you choose technology and design models that dictate ease of use.”
Plus, digital transactions are also important to the bottom line. “The average digital check is almost 40% to 50% higher than the drive-thru check,” he says, “and the average digital customer frequents the store more often.”
The Need for Integrated POS Systems
A stark realization for many restaurateurs during the pandemic was discovering the limitations of their POS systems. While the business apps may have been sufficient for accounting, staff scheduling or purchasing, owners and operators began to rely on their own systems for online ordering, or coordinating third-party apps for ordering, delivery or pick-up. Finding more efficient fully integrated systems became the order of the day.
“The beautiful piece about technology is it is always evolving,” says Brett Crowder, vice president of operations for Dash Hospitality Group, a management and consulting company for restaurants and hotels.
“Systems we grew up on were fine for their time,” says the 25+ year industry veteran. “But what they lacked was the ability to be real-time in terms of Cloud reporting and integration.” Today’s point-of-sale systems are user-friendly and flexible with the capability to integrate more software that impacts both the operator experience as well as the customer experience.
For Nour Rabai, founder and CEO of PITA Mediterranean Street Food, technology has long been a factor in meeting customer needs and simplifying processes for team members.
“When the pandemic hit, we had to completely shut our dining rooms down, and we focused on curbside and pick-up orders only. After the first couple of months, we really began to analyze what we needed to do to simplify the process – not only for our team members but also for the customers.”
Beginning his search in 2020, Rabai’s goal was to find a POS system provider for his 35 locations that could easily integrate with third-party platforms, provide a better online ordering system and included kiosks for in-store contactless ordering. After talking to a number of companies, Rabai’s corporate team choose Toast POS, a system Brett Crowder also recommends to his clients.
“One of the reasons we picked Toast was because it easily integrated with third-party platforms that used iPads,” says Rabai. “We were able to get rid of the iPads, so everything would be funneled through Toast.” Now orders appear on screens in the kitchen or tickets can be printed. Another feature Rabai liked was the in-store kiosk.
“With the labor shortage,” adds Rabai, “the biggest driving factor was the kiosk, which is part of their POS system. If we had three people in the kitchen when we usually have four or five, we can ask the customer to order and pay at the kiosk – and that allowed us to continue preparing and cooking the food.” Since installing the 22-inch kiosks, Rabai says use has increased to 10%-15% from 8% month-over-month. “If there is a line in the restaurant, it gives the customer the ability to bypass that line and go ahead of everybody else.”
Crowder also sees the advantages of automated kiosks when it comes to staffing shortages. “By establishing the self-ordering kiosk, customers can navigate the entire menu, make their modifications and avoid standing in a longer line to order. We definitely find that it saves the consumer time.”
Back-Office Systems and Automation
Today’s back-office systems are more robust than ever with integrated technology that not only supports purchase orders, payroll, labor and sales forecasting, but offers even more precise automated inventory systems – which can reduce waste, build relationships with suppliers and impact the bottom line.
Inventory systems available today actually communicate with POS systems on the backend, Crowder explains. “You set up menus – the products you purchase for recipes – and each item is broken out by units of measurement. Once you build that on the front end, every time someone orders, it acknowledges that product mix. That product mix flags each one of those inventory items, and you’re able to view a usage report that shows how much product you went through.”
Automated inventory systems can also affect sales, adds Zaxby’s Nettles. “Unless you just sell one item, which very few restaurants do, you’re going to sell a variety of things,” he says. “And depending upon weather patterns and availability and consumer tastes, that product mix is going to change weekly, which means your raw ingredients mix is going to change from week to week,” he says. “What back office systems really allow you to do is pay close attention to the changes going on with your product mix and therefore your consumer needs and wants day-to-day. You miss out on a lot of opportunities when you don’t keep an eye on your inventory flow through.”
While technology systems and automated processes continue to evolve, more restaurateurs are taking advantage of the efficiencies it affords – and the solutions it provides to meet ongoing staffing and supply chain management challenges.
Other ways Rabai is simplifying his process and simultaneously addressing the labor shortage include installing new dishwashers at all his locations, which has helped reduce labor by two or three hours a day. “Implementing the dish machine that might cost you $200 a month,” he says, “saves you well over $1,000 in labor on a monthly basis.” He also uses an automatic dressing dispenser that inputs the sauce into a cup and seals it, a job previously done by team members.
At Bar(n), a Dash Hospitality concept, one of their automated time-saving devices is the Alto-Shaam brand of oven. “Think of it as an oven,” says Crowder, “but it’s not drying out the food, not taking out the flavor, not shrinking the product, but cooking it in such a way that you’re almost able to put it in there and forget about it.” Calling it a remarkable piece of equipment, Crowder says it maintains quality and quantity and produces food in the same amount of time. “It’s great because you can use it for prep and production, but you can also use it for the cook to order.”
And there’s growing interest in robotics, and not just in the back of the house. As a consultant, Crowder has identified some concepts that could benefit from robotics in an industry that is still driven by human interaction. Working with concepts that lean more toward dine-in, his approach is to use robots that meet demand with consistency and quality “without sacrificing any element of the guest experience.” Those might include robots that work an entire fryer station or prep items like vegetables. In other settings, robots are front and center.
Whether the goal is increasing efficiencies, streamlining operations or dealing with staff shortages, there’s no doubt that embracing technology can only help an industry built on creating customer experiences.
“My main focus will always be how do we simplify the process internally, because that equates to better customer service and a better customer experience,” Rabai says. “Then we have the ability to focus on the consumer instead of our operation.”