5 bits of wisdom from an industry think tank

A panel of executives shared advice on hiring, loyalty, robots and more during a crowdsourced session at the Restaurant Leadership Conference. And they weren’t afraid to challenge popular opinion.
RLC panel
The executives, from left: Jodie Conrad, Greg Flynn, Anissa Mandell Chance, Pankaj Patra and David Whitaker. / Photo by W. Scott Mitchell

An unusual panel at the Restaurant Leadership Conference this week used audience polls to stoke a panel discussion on a variety of topics, from hiring to supply chain, marketing and tech. 

The lively session delivered a number of useful nuggets for operators trying to make sense of the post-pandemic environment. Here’s a look. 

Employees want to work where they want to eat

Attracting and retaining employees is not all that different from attracting and retaining customers. Just like guests, they want to be in a place that’s clean, friendly and well-run, panelists said. 

Bojangles’, for instance, found that it had a harder time hiring at locations that had lower customer-service scores, said COO David Whitaker, calling it a bit of a “chicken or egg” situation. 

Cleanliness and maintenance go a long way, too. “[Employees] don’t want to work in dumps,” said Flynn Restaurant Group CEO Greg Flynn, whose restaurants have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to the appearance of its restaurants, right down to cigarette butts in the landscaping. “The best people want to work in the best environment,” Flynn said.

Don’t skimp on suppliers

An audience poll revealed that when faced with rising COGs, many attendees preferred to shop around for lower prices. Panelists cautioned against this approach. 

“Jumping ship for the lowest cost is not always the best option,” said Anissa Mandell Chance, SVP of supply chain for Focus Brands. Whatever savings the switch might yield could be quickly eroded by capacity and logistics issues. 

“Changing suppliers is disruptive,” Mandel Chance said. Partners that execute well shouldn’t be taken for granted, even if they’re more expensive. 

Don’t sleep on TV marketing

Asked what form of marketing will be most important going forward, the audience overwhelmingly voted for loyalty programs. Flynn wasn’t buying it. 

“I’m surprised by this answer,” he said, noting that just one of FRG’s six brands relies heavily on a loyalty program.

“It’s primarily discounting your most regular customers,” he said. “We’ve made the decision that there isn’t a cost benefit.”

FRG’s brands spend most of their marketing budget on TV commercials, Flynn said, particularly during live events like sports. “Frankly it works better than all this stuff,” he said.

The audience ranked TV fourth, behind loyalty, social media and digital ads and just ahead of direct mail. Other panelists said it’s become a smaller part of their spending. 

TV used to be “the key thing we planned around,” said Donatos Pizza CMO Jodie Conrad. Now it’s one part of the pizza chain’s multifaceted marketing strategy, which has shifted more toward digital.

Lean on loyal customers for ideas

While the ROI of loyalty programs may still be up in the air, they provide other benefits that can be more difficult to measure. Focus Brands, for instance, leans on its members for new product ideas and has gotten good results, Mandel Chance said. 

“Your loyal fans will tell you exactly what they think. They’re not gonna hold back,” she said. “We’ve seen such great benefit from listening to them and then acting upon that.”

Technology and humans have to co-exist

Innovations like robots and QR codes hold promise for restaurants, but they shouldn’t be forced on employees or guests. 

Chili’s learned this first-hand with its test of Rita the robot, which helped run food and bus tables. The idea was to make employees’ jobs easier: The bot would cart the food to the table, where it would be met by a server to dole it out. But that system required serious coordination, taking into account speed, timing and possible obstructions, said Brinker International CIO Pankaj Patra. Chili’s has since paused the test.

“It has to be coexistence between the AI platforms and the humans that are doing the work,” Patra said. “It helps guests tremendously when it works flawlessly.”

It’s a high bar, but it hasn’t dissuaded brands from exploring automation. Donatos is looking into it, Conrad said, and Flynn believes it could have a transformative impact on fast food and pizza concepts.

He predicted that in 10 years, AI will have replaced human order-takers in QSR, and that there will be no humans involved in pizza, period. “And it’s gonna save our P&L’s,” he said. 

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