Getting up-to-date technology is top of mind for restaurateurs, but the constant sales pitches can make it difficult to sort through the programs that’ll ease operations versus those that’ll be an unhelpful money pit. While adoption rates are up, according to the National Restaurant Association, where to invest is a clear pain point for brands. The biggest barrier for chains and independents alike remains cost. So during the evaluation stage, before signing up with and writing a check to tech suppliers, be sure to ask these questions.
1. Does it solve a problem?
“Are these [technologies] solving a real problem, or is it a problem made up in the entrepreneurs’ head, not having any real food experience?” asked angel investor Brian Frank of FTW Ventures at the NRA’s Restaurant Innovation Summit. Operator-turned-investor Rob Wilder of Think Food Group has a similar filter when evaluating technologies being pitched to him: “Does this directly improve the human hospitality experience? Does it free up people to spend more time with guests or the kitchen staff to focus more on the excellence of their food? Does the tech allow [operators] to put more effort into people-to-people?”
2. Is it too complex for staff?
Most of today’s data-driven technologies use algorithms that spit out complex data. While some programs have built-in functions that synthesize the information into quick, easy-to-understand takeaways, others force users (aka operators) to find the patterns in the numbers themselves—a big time suck. “A lot of us are ADD to begin with,” said celebrity chef Roy Choi at the Summit, adding that a lot of people in the restaurant industry don’t sit at a computer for multiple hours at a time, whether it’s because they are in the kitchen, visiting stores, in meetings or traveling. Choi is hoping for more app-based innovations that’ll help at the everyday, localized store level. For example, he’d love an app that could cost out dishes simply by speaking into it.
3. Will integration be relatively painless?
It’s rare that adding any new tech will be pain-free. Ask any CIO or CTO about their biggest pain points, and they’re sure to mention the many different programs that run separate APIs. And even when some vendors do work together, they might not necessarily integrate easily into an existing POS system (not to mention the headache for chains with franchisees running multiple POS systems). “It has to be a smart solution to real problems that can be implemented without a lot of stress,” said Wilder. “It has to slide easily into [the restaurant’s] world.”
4. Can it adapt?
“You need to be able to have some control over the technology you use,” said Liz Garner, VP of the National Restaurant Association’s Merchant Advisory Group, at the Summit. Her example: Apple has announced that it’s changing its hardware and will eliminate the headphone jack. For the past few years, though, operators across the country have switched from traditional credit card processors hooked into a POS to a hardware system that plugs into smartphones or tablets via the jack, connected through an app. “How much control do you, [the operator], have over that technology?”
5. Is there long-term funding?
One question Wilder has begun asking startup tech companies: “What’s your capital structure? Are you set up to support my company for the long term, if I’m going to invest time in you?” While he says it’s nice to work with scrappy startups that adapt to the company’s needs, it also should raise a red flag. Several operators at the Summit shared the same groan-forcing sentiment: They had worked with small vendors that changed to meet their needs, but the companies either shut down or were bought up by bigger companies relatively quickly. Operators should be asking how well funded tech companies are and what their growth plan is. As for those quickly willing to bend, said Wilder, “Is the core product not enough to pay the bills?”
6. Is it secure?
It’s a crucial question when bringing on any supplier partner who will have access to any back-end information. Beyond payment data, operators need to be aware of personal data, employee information and intellectual property such as recipes and pricing. The last thing operators want, Garner said, is suppliers having access to data that the concept is not okay giving out.
Still, payment safety is a key concern when it comes to tech. While EMV regulations are aimed at helping ramp up payment processing security, they aren’t a guarantee—and many operators haven’t made the switch yet. Operators need to make sure any payment vendor they work with is PCI compliant and has a plan if a breach does occur.
But it’s not just the processing hardware to be concerned about anymore, especially as more operations try to add new technology to move payments online. “Digital wallets are so much more sophisticated, and there’s so much more information flowing. You need to know who is controlling your data,” said Garner. “What data do your partners have about your sales? Find out how data is shared.” After all, both the Target and Home Depot breaches occurred through a third-party supplier who had access to their systems.