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Post-NRA Show attitude adjustments

If you doubt the restaurant business is getting more sophisticated, chances are high you spent the weekend far from McCormick Place, the Chicago home of the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention. Persevering through all four days should have earned attendees some sort of graduate degree in restaurateuring, with possible minors in technology, social media, New Age sourcing, new menu realities, motivation circa 2015, and of course hospitality-party survival.

Here are some of the lessons “A” students likely absorbed.

Long lines are a business disaster.  Once upon a time, having a queue out the door was the dream of every operator. Unless they’d really botched their business model, the indisputable proof of unsatisfied demand meant Easy Street; the biggest challenge was feeding all that money into the bank deposit slot every night.  Every day they could look at the queue and see a neon sign blinking, “RAISE PRICES! RAISE PRICES!”

But the standard text is being rewritten. The new objective of smart restaurateurs is line busting, a catchphrase on a lot of lips during the show. With industrywide traffic still marshmallow-soft, operators realize they have to get while the getting is good, and that means boosting throughput during peak periods. They also know that long wait times are a turn-off to customers, especially if they opted for a drive-thru or takeout line precisely for the sake of convenience.

An objective sounded again and again at the show was the elimination of lines and the shortening of wait times. The means put forth by restaurateurs and vendors could have filled a whole hall at McCormick Place. Operators spoke of using all sorts of techniques to cut lines and speed customers through the service process, from having a server walk down the line with a remote ordering device they operated for guests, to centralized call-in ordering services, delivery, kiosks and pre-ordering via apps.

Tech vendors spoke of the near-term possibility of having customers wearing a bracelet or other “beacon” that in-store tech could read and tee-up the patrons order. The guest’s usual order would appear on a counter server’s screen, so the customer could just give a yea or nay.  Payment would be handled in the ether, so transactions won’t be slowed by cash changing hands.

Embrace government interference.  Among the big-marquee speakers at this year’s show was Jonathan Tisch, co-chairman of Loews Corp., co-owner of the New York Giants, and a leading national proponent of tourism promotion. Some forks dropped during his lunchtime presentation when he turned his attention to what he described a fourth partnership for business people, akin to shareholders, customers and employees.

“Government is an important partnership because they play an important role at all levels,” he said. Politicians and regulators have a say in all aspects of business, from how much of sales and profits are sucked up in taxes, to the relationship of employer and employee, to what any business can and can’t do.

But his was no tirade against Uncle Sam.  “We need to work smarter with government,” he urged the restaurateurs and lobbyists in attendance.

In bygone years, that suggestions might have invited a barrage of flung food.

What size matters?  If anyone doubts that untethered ordering and management systems are the way of the future, they should park the velocipede, clean off the monocle, and fax in requests for some remedial help. Touch screens are well on their way to become a standard restaurant tool. A question that could be heard repeatedly at the NRA Show: What size should those screens be?

The 10-inch tablet was still the format most in evidence at the show, but clearly minis are making inroads. As we reported here earlier, The Habit even plans to use the smaller-sized devices as kitchen display systems, mounted on arms that can be moved for maximum visibility.

Less visible at the show but figuring into conversations were the “phablet,” a hybrid size somewhere between the smart phone and the mini-tablet.

The attitude that seemed to prevail: Focus on pleasing guests and making payroll, and let the tech geeks in the supplier community come with ready-made solutions. They’re always professing that they want to be the operator’s partner; here’s the time to prove it.

But a few operators acknowledged the change in attitude that’s required on their part: that mandates a change in attitude on the operator’s part:  Here more than ever, purchasing departments have to be attuned to relationships as much as price.

Doh! vs. E=MC2.  Despite all the education sessions, exhibits and conversations that focused on mobile capabilities, clearly not all attendees felt up to speed on their options and how to exploit them. It’s not that they didn’t seek the knowledge; judging from what we saw and heard, the unenlightened lacked the fundamental understanding and vocabulary to grasp what they were being taught about mobile 2.0. Meanwhile, the overachievers were pressing for glimmers of mobile 3.0 and beyond.

It’s the same sort of knowledge gap that emerged after a few restaurant explorers slipped on their space helmets and dove headlong into social media. The others nervously paced the sidelines, knowing this was something big, but fretting because they had no idea about how to seize the opportunities.

In this instance, the mindset isn’t wait and see. Because mobile advances are happening so quickly, ignorance is no longer bliss.

The new attitude: Educate me, then help me sort through my options.

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