Our usual Friday recount of head-spinning moments has been pre-empted this week, but the danger of neck strain remains at Whiplash 4. We bring you instead some seriously head-raising developments, as revealed during a gathering of more than 1,200 global restaurant leaders in Dubai from Sunday through Wednesday, the second annual Global Restaurant Leadership Conference.
Sprinkled into the presentations by more than 100 speakers were these revelations, each a heads-up on innovations that have not yet reached U.S. shores but could do so soon. The repercussions will clearly turn heads, drop jaws and maybe even rattle some vertebrae.
Here are a few of the news tidbits you missed if you weren’t at GRLC.
1. Dunkin’ is blazing a new sales channel
“We are doing vending to sell ice cream and coffee all around the world,” revealed Bill Mitchell, president of Dunkin’ Brands International, the parent of Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins. He explained that the vending machines are provided either as an in-store alternative to waiting on line for more conventional service, or outside the stores, as another way of reaching consumers.
2. Going beyond cashless
Element Fresh, a fast-casual concept that’s making waves internationally with its promise of fresh and healthy fare, is about to attempt a disruption of restaurant operations as we know them. CEO Frank Rasche revealed the chain is about to open a unit that will not allow guests to pay with cash or credit card. He did not reveal the particulars, urging the GRLC audience to stay tuned, but the context suggested mobile payments will be the means of settling tabs.
The unit will also promise customers they’ll never have to wait to order or pick up their food.
China-based Element Fresh, which has yet to enter the North American market, cites technology as its second most important focus, after food.
3. Never mind kitchen workers’ gloves
Not all of the revelations during GRLC came from the stage. Attendees who wandered into one of the casual restaurants on-site at the host hotel, a J.W. Marriott of Dubai-worthy splendor, might have been surprised by what was provided with their meal. Burgers are served in the Bridgewater Tavern with what looks like a takeout container for Chinese food. Inside are disposable gloves that customers can wear while munching their sandwich to keep their hands clean and prevent any contamination of their food.
Also inside the box is a packaged sanitary wipe.
4. Yes, POS systems can talk to one another
An overseas partner of Dunkin’ Brands has done what operators in the U.S. cite as their white whale: getting various legacy POS and other tech systems to exchange information seamlessly.
The Korean partner, SBC, actually has the systems of five concepts networked together, and that includes loyalty programs and beacon technology systems, said Mitchell of Dunkin' Brands.
He stressed that the integration was no easy feat, requiring years of effort.
5. Curbs on customization
The GRLC was truly a global conference, with restaurant operations assessing opportunities on all continents, including North America. Several chains born overseas shared their strategies for cracking the U.S. market, and one, Operation: Falafel, proudly announced it wasn’t going to blindly follow every convention embraced there. Customization, for instance.
CEO Kazem Abu Ghazaleh explained that any number of concepts already in the States are specializing in falafel and Mediterranean food. Virtually all, he said, allow guests to customize their orders by adding ingredients and toppings. “You add 22, 23 toppings, what you end up with is not Middle Eastern food,” Ghazaleh said. He suggested the brand will give patrons an authentic alternative—but possibly fewer choices.
6. Paul Brown: Arby’s CEO, tech author
One of the challenges facing tech-minded restaurant chains is convincing franchisees to make the necessary investments. In the case of Arby’s, CEO Paul Brown has sometimes addressed those concerns by teaching the operators about tech in a fairly formal manner. As he revealed during GRLC, “I’ve written white papers on technology that were distributed to franchisees.”
Brown took the leadership at Arby’s after working in the tech field, having served as president of the Expedia.com travel-booking site.