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The RB/FSTEC awards: digital all-stars

RB names industry’s best social media and tech innovators
Panera FastLane Kiosk Bravo Sandwich

Whether it’s 140 emojis or a single word, a well-done app or a top-to-bottom initiative, these chains represent the best in social media and technology as winners of our first-ever Restaurant Business/FSTEC Awards. Here, lessons from the winners and memorable contenders.

Social media marketer of the year (large and small chains)

Best single social media post

Most surprising use of social media

Social media: most tantalizing food porn

Best social media event

Best app

Best project/team

Tech accelerator, full service

Tech accelerator, limited service

Tech accelerator, nontraditional


About the awards

“The awards are really about celebrating thinking—the thinking behind putting out a thought-provoking tweet or post,” says Chris Tomasso, CMO of First Watch Restaurants and board member of the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group, our partner in naming the five social-media award winners. For all the awards, our team reviewed digital posts and programs of the past year from nearly 200 of the top national, regional and emerging chains. The Restaurant Business/FSTEC Awards are a collaboration between the magazine and the technology conference by RB’s parent company, Winsight, being held Sept. 27–29 in Washington, D.C. 

Social media marketer of the year

Winner (large chains): Arby's

While some chains shy away from haters, Arby’s sees such disses as opportunities. Its banter with Jon Stewart is a prime example of turning lemons into lemonade (earning the brand an honorable mention for Best Single Post). And though it was a brand some recently saw as needing life support, it boldly turned to social media to help right the ship. Its tuned-in, fast-paced, authentic voice and enthusiastic use of food art resonated with our young testers. 

Winner (smaller chains): Whataburger

Despite a somewhat stodgy brick-and-mortar image, the chain’s online voice bridges the generation gap. Posts enlist on-trend terms and references without feeling like the uncool uncle, our millennial testers contend. In August, the chain scored points—and likes—by weighing in on the feud between rappers Drake and Meek Mill, prompting the former to show one of the brand’s tweets from the stage during his concert.


More awards
Best single social media post
Most surprising use of social media
Social media: most tantalizing food porn
Best social media event
Best app
Best project/team
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Best single social media post

Winner: Chipotle’s rainbow connection

After the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in July on same-sex marriage, many brands tweeted their support. Chipotle’s version, “Homo Estas? Very well, thank you. #LoveWins,” matched pins and coupons it handed out at gay-pride parades in various cities this year. The chain took a risk and was met with mixed reactions. Some said the tweet exploited a major event in human rights. But it wins for being bold, timely and standing out in a sea of rainbow and homogeneous hashtags.

Honorable mention: Jimmy John’s brandjacks its pizza papa

The sandwich chain simultaneously summed up and solidified its brand voice with a one-word tweet to celebrate Father’s Day: “Dad?” directed at Papa John’s. Amused fans rewarded Jimmy John’s post with 35,000 retweets and 42,000 favorites. When Papa John’s replied, “Yes, my son?” it garnered the pizza chain 17,000 retweets of its own, proving interactions among brands—a go-to tactic for Jimmy John’s—can expand one’s reach.

Honorable mention: Arby’s buries the hatchet with Jon Stewart

From funky Pharrell hats to beloved comedians, Arby’s has mastered newsjacking and self-deprecating humor. After The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, a longtime Arby’s critic, announced his retirement, the QSR had the last laugh when it tweeted, “Jon, feel free to reach out to us at careers@arbys.com.” Of course, Stewart rebutted. The chain’s response: an ad during Stewart’s final show featuring a montage of his best digs. Multiple news outlets covered the exchange. 


More awards
Social media marketer of the year (large and small chains)
Most surprising use of social media
Social media: most tantalizing food porn
Best social media event
Best app
Best project/team
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Most surprising use of social media

Winner: Domino’s confuses and captivates with emojis

To announce its tweet-to-order feature, for one day Domino’s flooded its Twitter feed with posts and responses consisting solely of pizza emojis. The move garnered some questions as well as thousands of retweets and favorites, starting a buzz and capitalizing on the language of today’s youth.

Honorable mention: Little Caesars’ hack attack

To celebrate its new bacon-wrapped pizza, Little Caesars invited fans to “Tap the Bacon” and hack their feeds. Facebook users were congratulated with a video of applause while the Twitter hack flooded users’ timelines with 3½ inches of bacon photos, flanked by a branded message.

Honorable mention: Taco Bell shows love on Snapchat

Taco Bell was one of the first to pursue Gen Z via disappearing messages. Its Valentine’s Day effort showed its grasp of the platform with a Snap story, allowing users to screen shot, personalize and share branded virtual valentines.


More awards
Social media marketer of the year (large and small chains)
Best single social media post
Social media: most tantalizing food porn
Best social media event
Best app
Best project/team
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Social media: most tantalizing food porn

Winner: Shake Shack

The chain is captivating not only investors but Instagram with authentic, simple, well-shot photos that look like they were taken by a regular (burger-loving) guest.

Honorable mention: Applebee’s

It takes a neighborhood to run an Instagram account. At least that’s Applebee’s philosophy. The casual chain’s #Fantographer campaign kept it real, populating its Instagram with strictly user-generated photos—some better than others—for a whole year.

Honorable mention: Chili’s

Chili’s reportedly spent $750,000 to make its photos (#NoFilter) more appetizing on social media. It paid off in shares and likes, with margarita pics regularly topping 20,000 likes on Facebook, where the chain’s also earning engagement with its video content.


More awards
Social media marketer of the year (large and small chains)
Best single social media post
Most surprising use of social media
Best social media event
Best app
Best project/team
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Best social media event

Winner: Buffalo Wild Wings crashes a grad’s party

To kick off its Alive Events campaign, BWW surprised a Minnesota high school senior with an impromptu graduation party on his front lawn after he commented on Facebook that the chain’s wings were the “perfect graduation food.” The company brought games, Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson—and, of course, food—and shared a professionally produced video of the festivities on Facebook (14,000 likes) and YouTube (1,000 shares).

Honorable mention: Starbucks plays matchmaker

Love is all about finding the right partner. Starbucks hooked up with Match.com to add a “Meet at Starbucks” feature to the online-dating service’s app that culminated in the World’s Largest Starbucks Date on Feb. 13. Per the Facebook event, hosted by Starbucks, 9,500 people participated.

Honorable mention: Applebee’s earns street cred in Times Square

As part of its marked effort to appeal to millennials, the casual chain threw a party in New York City’s Times Square, which it streamed via live-video app Periscope. Customers shared their pics from the restaurant, which Applebee’s posted on the electronic billboards in real time; it also offered tastings and giveaways from the heart of the city.


More awards
Social media marketer of the year (large and small chains)
Best single social media post
Most surprising use of social media
Social media: most tantalizing food porn
Best app
Best project/team
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Best app

Winner: Taco Bell

On launch, it went big with a social media blackout that hurtled its revamped app into iTunes’ top 10 list of food and drink apps. It offers a restaurant experience guests only can get by using their smartphone. They can preorder and prepay to skip the line in-store or pick up food from the drive-thru without ever pulling out their wallet. The Rotate-to-Reorder function makes ordering seamless for repeat guests. And in-app users can customize anything on the menu, a feature that’s resulted in check averages that are 20 percent higher than in-store.

Honorable mention: Starbucks

Starbucks’ bellwether of an app continues to innovate. In the past year, it’s enhanced the features through collaborations with Match.com and Uber, new order-ahead features and The New York Times newsfeed, taking the morning coffee and paper routine digital. Delivery is the next frontier, and the industry’s watching.

Honorable mention: Chipotle

While the chain has said traditional loyalty apps don’t work for its customers, it fully embraced the uniqueness of wearables with its app for the Apple Watch. A “Burrito Button” allows for one-touch ordering, and a countdown lets watch-wearers know with a simple lift of the wrist, exactly when their burrito will be ready at the nearest location.


More awards
Social media marketer of the year (large and small chains)
Best single social media post
Most surprising use of social media
Social media: most tantalizing food porn
Best social media event
Best project/team
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Best project/team

Winner: Waffle House

The sleepy breakfast chain decided after all these years to swap out its electronic cash registers for a POS system. While that’s not unheard of, it’s an upgrade that required a lot of effort and capital. And it’s paying off for the traditional concept that’s history has been fairly free of techie advancements. It found a system that worked and was worth the investment.

Honorable mention: Brinker

The company has made strides integrating more digital platforms into its restaurants. It added tabletop kiosks in units, starting in January, to allow customers to do everything from order and redeem coupons to pay their check. Brinker also improved its online-ordering experience, showing that it plans to continue to integrate technology as a part of operations.

Honorable mention: Dunkin’ Donuts

The chain found success when it initially launched its mobile app in 2014. But that didn’t stop it from undertaking a major overhaul that included an entirely new online strategy, integrating mobile pay, loyalty, localized offers and more social media outreach. 


More awards
Social media marketer of the year (large and small chains)
Best single social media post
Most surprising use of social media
Social media: most tantalizing food porn
Best social media event
Best app
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Tech accelerator, full service

Winner: Buffalo Wild Wings

The sports-focused chain moved beyond online ordering and high-def TVs, adding gaming and digital signage that many others don’t have. But the chain isn’t just rolling out tech to stay on-trend. While it tested tablets, CEO Sally Smith said it wouldn’t do a full rollout until tableside-payment capabilities were added.

Honorable mention: TGI Fridays

Instead of tabletop kiosks that many casual-dining chains are trialing, Fridays invested in tablets for servers to place orders and take payments tableside. The goal: Cut the time it takes staff to log orders at the POS.

Honorable mention: BJ’s

BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse was so far ahead in adopting tableside payments that it had to teach consumers how to do it. It also offered a frictionless option—letting guests order from their phones—before that term came into use. 


Who will win?

The Tech Accelerator of the Year will be named at the FSTEC event, Sept. 27–29. For more information and to see these finalists’ videos, go to fstec.com.


More awards
Social media marketer of the year (large and small chains)
Best single social media post
Most surprising use of social media
Social media: most tantalizing food porn
Best social media event
Best app
Best project/team
Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Tech accelerator, limited service

Winner: Panera Bread

An innovator out of the gate—it was one of the first chains to offer in-store WiFi—its ambitious undertaking with Panera 2.0 set the technological tone for the bakery-cafe segment. As it continues to roll out related initiatives as well as learn and adapt based on customer interaction, it’s reflective of a broad strategy to modernize everything from its online presence to apps to how food is delivered tableside. It’s no surprise, given that much of the leadership at Panera hails from tech-centric companies.

Honorable mention: CKE

The operator of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. has a history of technological innovation (it was one of the first to put an ATM in its stores). It also has made strides in digital signage, back-office systems, ordering apps and POS systems. The latest advancement: Teaming up with tech suppliers for its in-store ordering kiosk, continuing to prove that it’s not afraid to make the investment to try something different.

Honorable mention: Domino’s

Pizza powerhouses continue to push boundaries, yet Domino’s stands out. It was among the first to really drive online and mobile ordering, and now it has pushed ordering to a number of new platforms—including Ford cars, video games and smart TVs—and new formats, including its DOM voice ordering and emoji ordering.


Who will win?

The Tech Accelerator of the Year will be named at the FSTEC event, Sept. 27–29. For more information and to see these finalists’ videos, go to fstec.com.


More awards
Social media marketer of the year (large and small chains)
Best single social media post
Most surprising use of social media
Social media: most tantalizing food porn
Best social media event
Best app
Best project/team
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Winner: HMSHost

The most challenging feat that HMSHost faces is its need to tie multiple brands together through its POS system. But it’s managed to integrate many different concepts through tablets in airports and link that all through mobile as well.

Honorable mention: Compass

With the large quantity of foodservice dollars spent in the business and industry and the college markets, Compass invested in automating its systems, allowing for intuitive-ordering platforms, data-based reporting and an expanded reach for delivery.

Honorable mention: Marriott

The hotel chain has added much technology into its operation, down to automating the limited-service side of food. In-room ordering is dialed into the POS system for seamless integration, and the addition of a mobile app is paying off in engagement.


Who will win?

The Tech Accelerator of the Year will be named at the FSTEC event, Sept. 27–29. For more information and to see these finalists’ videos, go to fstec.com.


More awards
Social media marketer of the year (large and small chains)
Best single social media post
Most surprising use of social media
Social media: most tantalizing food porn
Best social media event
Best app
Best project/team
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech accelerator, limited service

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