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10 FSTec lessons for the non-techie

If there were any lingering doubts that technology is pushing beyond the IT department to reshape every discipline represented in a corporate headquarters, they were laid to rest at FSTec, once an industry conference for restaurant CIOs. At this year’s event, you were as likely to hear a question posed by a marketing, HR or ops specialist as you were to catch two tech heads speaking in their tribe’s peculiar code.

Clearly discussions of foodservice technology have been broadened so that every department can participate, as it should. In a session I moderated on the adoption of tabletop tablets, we touched on everything from ops’ need to accommodate daily battery recharges to how server compensation is changing (fortunately for the better) and how much high-fiving is likely to erupt in Finance when it learns of the new revenue opportunities.

FSTec, which Restaurant Business’ parent bought earlier this year, is no longer just about processing systems and data capture, just as restaurant tech has grown far beyond that core. Here are some of the takeaways from the show that anyone in the business would likely find of value.

1. Culture should win

Five Guys Burgers & Fries was one of the first restaurant chains to adopt a smartphone app, but don’t expect to see staffers sporting Google Glasses underneath their old-style peaked hats anytime soon. Simplicity is in the concept’s genes, and that means steadfast avoidance of any cue that suggests cutting-edge sophistication. “You’d have a hard time getting Wi-Fi in one of our stores,” said Zerrick Pearson, senior director of information technology for the fast-casual darling. “There is actually a mandate for us that we can’t see a wire in our store other than the POS” cables.

Similarly, there won’t be a rewards component to the chain’s now-4-year-old app. “Five guys, we don’t do loyalty. It’s not part of our culture,” Pearson said.

2. Saving labor and food on a rainy day

Forecasting demand is about as novel to restaurants today as a CFL light bulb, but the factors entered into the model seem to keep increasing. Wendy’s units, for instance, weigh the local weather forecast in gauging their food and labor needs for the day, according to one of its suppliers.

3. A digital wallet without the wallet

Don’t discount PayPal and similar app-less systems as a way for restaurants of all scale to slide into cashless payments, noted Smoothie King’s John Laperrouse. For instance, he said, his chain is investigating a system called Index as a door to card and cashless payments.

4. Rethinking the jukebox

A number of FSTec speakers and attendees said they were convinced jukeboxes will make a comeback, albeit it as buttons on a tabletop touchscreen. Guests who want to hear a song can pay a small fee to get it on the playlist for the restaurant’s sound system. Pay a premium and the selection jumps up the queue.

5. Games may need some adjustment

Applebee’s franchisee Apple American Group was ahead of the system in adopting tabletop tablets, a lead that afforded considerable learnings. For instance, said the Apple American manager of the project, Cas Banaszek, games playable on the devices aren’t as popular as some might think with game-obsessed teenagers. “Teens seem to prefer playing games on their phones,” but children below cell-phone age tend to view the on-screen games as the coolest. He indicated that his company might look into some tailoring of the entertainment package to that age bracket. Monthly revenues from games already amount to about $500 per store.

6. App parking fees

The proliferation of smart phone apps has reached the point where consumers are concerned about screen clutter and reluctant to add more. “’I don’t want 25 screens of apps,’” mimicked  Five Guys’ Pearson. “’You’re asking me to add another. If I’m going to add one, you need to give me something.’”

7. The enticements are worth it

Orders placed through Five Guys’ app or website are 50 percent larger than an in-store purchase, Pearson added.

8. Still, it takes time

After tabletop tablets were installed in about 100 of Apple American’s 400 or so units, guest satisfaction scores dipped as customers got accustomed to the new set-up. But they were back up to pre-installation levels within three months, said Banaszek.

9. Topspin for menu simplification

The drive evident within many chains to pare back menus and reduce the complexity of kitchen operations could get some impetus from the industry’s embrace of tablets, Apple American’s Banaszek suggested. His company allows customers to order anything off the menu via tabletop tablets, while the rest of the chain limits the self-ordering options to apps and drinks. The reason: Apple American had simplified the menu so fewer item codes had to be factored into the system. As it was, he said, the task of was challenging. Given all the variety that’s evident on standard Applebee’s menu, the codes could run well into the thousands, he commented.

10. New ordering process, new tipping attitudes?

Research results released at the conference by Technomic showed that most consumers tip the same percentage of a bill that’s run up on a tablet as they do on a traditional paper check. But not everyone. “Baby Boomers are going to lower their tips because they perceive the service level is lower,” said Technomic EVP Darren Tristano.

FSTec 2015 will be held Sept. 27-29 at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park, just outside Washington, D.C.  Marketers, HR leaders, financial types, we hope to see more of you there.

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