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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments

The next sommelier/hostess/maître d’/runner/expediter?

Some colorfully named positions are being hatched by restaurant chains in a newfound attempt to bolster sales by improving service. As we reported here two weeks ago, Chick-fil-A’s corporate org chart now lists both a voice of the customer guest-advocate and a voice of the customer manager. This week brought details of Buffalo Wild Wings’ new in-restaurant post, the guest experience captain, a manager-level floater charged with making the customer’s visit a little more high-touch. That could extend to helping with a channel change on any of the gazillion flat-screen TVs that stud BWW’s new “stadia” design. 

Or the captain could teach patrons how to use the chain’s new tabletop touch screens, which will be upgraded with guest-ordering and payment capabilities later this year as part of the deployment to every company-operated store.  About 145 restaurants currently use the tablets, but only a few have the ordering and payment capabilities, according to CEO Sally Smith.

She and other executives acknowledged that guest experience captains are not an insignificant cost, but the returns have prompted the chain to continue with the program.

Another tech pioneer

Almost nothing has been reported about BWW’s plan to join archrivals Chili’s and Applebee’s in adding tabletop technology. Even less attention was paid this week to Taco Bell’s potential blockbuster of a tech initiative.

Instead, most of the tech-related headlines arising from the business referred to Chipotle’s 2.0 app, an outreach device that will enable consumers to place and pay for an order far from the maddening lunch or dinner crowd. The chain has earmarked $10 million for development of an app that co-CEO Steve Ells has described in Steve Jobs-like terms. It will not be “the latest technology gimmick,” Ells said in a fit of trash talk during an analysts call. The chain said the tech package would provide a host of benefits, including greater throughput and new staff-training capabilities.

That’s sexy stuff, but hardly the va-va-va-voom news that Taco Bell leaked in an analysts’ conference call a mere few days later. David Novak, chairman of the Mexican chain’s parent, Yum! Brands, disclosed that Taco Bell would roll out a mobile ordering system by the end of the year. “Make no mistake, technology is among the highest priorities that we have in our company,” Novak said.

Smell-o-rama is coming, fast

Consumers can already drool over pictures of favorite restaurant dishes. In the not-too-distant future, they’ll be able to salivate from the aroma, too. Two technology professors announced a collaboration last week to create a food-featured app that will convey the smell of restaurant menu choices.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider that the capability is merely an extension of technology already available to iPhone users. A device called Scentee enables the buyer to generate smells by plugging the gizmo into the phone’s headphone dock. It’s analogous to the air fresheners that plug into electrical sockets on a wall.

Our bet: Coffee concepts and bakery-café chains will be all over the food version.

1-percenters on food stamps?

The farm bill that President Obama is signing into law today has been controversial in part because it slashes funding for food stamps, an assistance program in high demand. It’s a debate restaurateurs could watch with detachment, since the impact of the $8.7-billion cut doesn’t have much of an effect on them. Or so they thought. Wrongly.

New data from Technomic shows the cuts will affect the food-buying behavior of all consumers, including those in the strata that spend disproportionately at restaurants. Among consumers with household incomes of $100,000 or more, 14 percent told researchers the funding rollback would leave them with less money for food. Grocery dollars would also shrink for 11 percent of households with incomes of $75,000 to $99,999.

Wage-hike debate: How will spending change?

New data on the economic effects of a minimum wage increase could draw a collective gulp from restaurateurs. The information, based on a survey of 64,000 consumers, suggests a hike might not deliver the anticipated positives to businesses that depend on discretionary spending, like restaurants.

One of the strong arguments for raising the wage is the effect on consumer spending. Economists, academics and other experts say the increase would put more money in many consumers’ pockets, and raise the economic confidence of others, stoking economic growth. But a new survey from Snagajob said the increase in pay would go toward essentials, not entertainment or treats like a night out. Only 2 percent of the respondents said they’d use the money for indulgences.  Thirty-six percent said they’d use the increased income to pay bills, 31 percent said the additional dollar would go toward debt, and 24 percent indicated they’d bank the dough in savings accounts.

Head-turning shorts: Dunkin’ Donuts introduced more than 40 menu items in 2013, according to CEO Nigel Travis … Consumers with gluten sensitivities don’t have to sit out the buzz-catching in Colorado. USA Today reported that “edibles,” the marijuana-laced food items being sold there for a Rocky Mountain high, are all the rage, and are often offered in gluten-free varieties … If you doubt the drawing power of Chick-fil-A, consider that people were camping outside the store that’s about to open near Restaurant Business’ office. The temperatures were below zero, and eight inches of snow fell, but there were the diehards, sleeping in tents. They’re hoping for the free food for a year. 

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