Having 1,600 restaurant-chain executives under one roof provides an unequaled opportunity to check what’s on the minds of industry leaders. All an observer at the Restaurant Leadership Conference had to do was note which utterances from the stage or casual conversations triggered the most head movement. Here are five that posed considerable danger of collective neck strain.
The POS system as albatross
No topic merited more airtime at the RLC than technology and the opportunities it affords the present-day restaurateur. The biggest challenge, many attendees contended, was overcoming the limitations forced upon them by yesterday’s cutting-edge piece of tech, the POS system.
McAlister’s President Carin Stutz wondered aloud during a breakout session why there’s a disconnection, literally, between many systems and what operators need the devices to do today. It’s not as if the tech is inexpensive, she noted.
It was a lament heard frequently from chain chiefs. Many mentioned that their plans for introducing a remote-ordering app were complicated by the need to interface with the POS network that’s currently in their stores. Others, not coincidentally from franchised chains, lamented the lack of standardization from one system to another.
‘Your screw-up, my fault’
Delivery through third-party services was a frequent topic of discussion during the conference’s frequent networking opportunities. Usually a restaurant-chain CEO was observing that he’d resisted tie-ins with services like PostMates or DoorDash because of fears they’d tarnish the brand while handling the food or interacting with customers. Yet how can any concept remain on the sidelines when so many competitors are adding delivery through the partnerships?
That’s why so many heads lifted when Technomic President Darren Tristano suggested the laggard adapters aren’t being unduly cautious. When food deliveries are botched by third-party services, 55 percent of the unsatisfied customers blame the restaurant rather than the carrier, Tristano explained.
‘Afraid of a $15 wage? Get over it’
There was near unanimity among speakers at the RLC that the $15 “living wage” would soon be a reality for the restaurant business. The observation was typically followed not by predictions of gloom, but by laments about the impact on customers and the very people whom the new minimum is supposed to help—restaurant employees.
“We restaurants will adjust; we’ll find a way to make it work,” said Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, better known as the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s burger chains. “But it will really hurt the people who work within our restaurants.”
Many will see their jobs eliminated through automation, he and others predicted. Puzder remembered that a team of people used to greet his car when he pulled into a service station in the 1960s. On his way to the RLC, he’d stopped to fuel up his rental car at a gas station where he didn’t interact with a single human.
Others predicted that scheduling systems would be used more ruthlessly to shave expensive hours, and shifts would be staffed more precisely to match more accurate forecasts of sales and traffic volumes.
But make no mistake about the future of a $15-an-hour wage, said former Starbucks President Howard Behar. “That horse is out of the barn.”
Informal discussions with and between restaurant executives often led to the question, “What’re you going to see while you’re here?” The RLC’s host city of Scottsdale, Ariz., has become a major incubator for new restaurant concepts, and attendees used the opportunity to scout the latest in what they characterized as an exceptional volume of startups nationwide.
True to that trend, several acknowledged that they’re open to new ventures.
Randy Gier, CEO of Pie Five and Pizza Inn parent Rave Restaurant Group, said his company plans to add a number of concepts to its fold, though he would not provide a clue as to what they might be.
Asked about his recent comment that CKE might build an employeeless restaurant, Andy Puzder said he is not looking to develop a fully automated Carl’s Jr. or Hardee’s. He explained that a high-tech, employeeless spinoff sporting a menu of chicken and better-for-you items would make far more sense, and that he’s open to a one-unit trial.
‘It’s a drone!’
Necks craned upward at the opening reception when a few keen-eyed attendees spotted something hovering over the open-air event: a drone. The crowd was treated to a glimpse of how technology is shaping another field: professional photography. The RLC’s official photographer was using the remotely controlled device as a new way of capturing video of the event.
As far as we know, it was the first time a drone had been used at a restaurant conference. And, no, it did not simultaneously deliver Domino’s pizzas, as some wags contended.
Some of the more senior members of the team smile at the junior staff who are excited to uncover an interesting trend in “eatertainment” or the latest single-ingredient concept. We try not to be condescending when we suggest they do some research by looking at past issues of Restaurant Business or old Technomic top chain reports before calling it the next big thing.