Here's what we learned at the Restaurant Leadership Conference

Kiosks’ benefits aren’t on the labor line, casual dining does some soul searching and you can’t eat ice cream while on the phone are among the lessons from the three-day event.
Restaurant Leadership Conference
The three-day RLC offered all kinds of lessons for all kinds of restaurant operators. | Photo by W. Scott Mitchell Photography.

The Restaurant Leadership Conference (RLC) concluded on Wednesday and, as always, the three-day event in Scottsdale, Arizona was a good temperature check on the state of the industry, its opportunities and challenges.

The editorial staff of Restaurant Business, a sister company of RLC, was everywhere at the conference, talking with operators and moderating or attending sessions. Here is what we all learned.

Kiosks are no money-saver

Oh so you think that kiosks will save your labor line from the perils of a $20 wage? Think again. The self-ordering devices have generally not replaced actual people, at least among the companies that have implemented them to date.

Dave’s Hot Chicken fast-tracked kiosks when the company learned about the California fast-food wage last year. But, said President Jim Bitticks, it didn’t cut the need for people. “We didn’t pull labor out,” he said.

The benefits were elsewhere. “Average check went up by 15% when people use the kiosk,” he said. “It’s an indirect price increase.”

Said Kerri Harper-Howie, a 21-unit McDonald’s operator that has had kiosks for years, “you need more people to handle your larger business.”

Casual dining does some soul-searching

It was a tough few days for casual dining. During a presentation Monday on the state of the restaurant industry, leaders from Technomic shared data showing that the segment’s growth is lagging behind others, and that consumers are seeing less value in casual-dining chains. 

Menu prices have risen by double-digits over the past three years, and consumers are shifting their spending to lower-priced quick-service brands and limiting their visits to sit-down places. It led to a lot of soul-searching among full-service operators at the event, who grappled with how to offer customers a bang for their buck while still protecting their margins.

As if to underscore those challenges, it was reported Tuesday that casual-dining stalwart Red Lobster is considering a bankruptcy filing.

Integration is the hottest thing in tech

Integrate or die. That was essentially the message from RLC attendees, who are increasingly looking to transform their tech stacks into cleaner, more flexible systems.

Benefits of integration include a more centralized view of data, a more consistent experience for the customer and the ability to more easily add new technology in the future.

It was this philosophy more than any single tech product that stood out at the event.

 “Technology integration is gonna be a key driver of business success,” said Rich Shank, VP of innovation at Technomic.

That demand was reflected on the trade show floor, where many vendors were hawking “unified” tech solutions for restaurants.

But maybe not at the ice cream shop

“You can’t eat ice cream while talking on your phone,” said Jennifer Schuler, CEO of Handel’s Homemade Ice cream.

Handel’s is the antidote to the world of tech and AI and she aims to keep it as a place to get away from it all and celebrate. Waiting in line is part of the experience, so whipping people through the line is not what they do. People come in happy and they leave happier.

Yes, Chef

Look for opportunities to build cultural currency. Cindy Syracuse, CMO of BurgerFi and Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, is active on TikTok and noticed that a lot of consumers were trying to replicate the cheeseburger Ray Fiennes cooked for a guest during the movie The Menu.

She had her chef follow each step of the cooking sequence, freezing the frames on YouTube, until he perfected it. When it launched at BurgerFi, they called it the “Yes, Chef” burger and it became a hit—especially when “The Bear” debuted six months later and that phrase became part of the lexicon.

Keep the team happy

The guest experience is only as good as the team member experience.

Kelly Costanza, Cava’s chief people officer, stressed the importance of creating a very intentional strategy for improving the team member experience. “How people feel about coming to work has evolved,” she said.

Employers don’t need to simply provide a job and a paycheck. They need to address the full scope of human needs. “Before the pandemic, people went to your company so their work would be better,” she said. “now, people come to your company so their life will be better.”

Don’t skimp on anything

Here is one major lesson that came out of the whole event: The business is competitive. To wit, the panel of eatertainment CEOs noted that they work to keep both ends—the eater and the tainment—in good graces with their customers. There’s no skimping on either side.

“We truly believe long-term success in this space is a fun and compelling game,” said Joe Vrankin, CEO of the minigolf-and-food concept Puttshack. “That’s a barrier to entry. But we also have to create an equally strong dining experience.”

If there is one lesson from the event, that’s it. Don’t skimp on the business. Consumers are demanding, particularly now when they’re dining out less often than they would like. They are not going to go out for something less than special.

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