In an industry where standing still means falling behind, innovation is the defining factor for the most successful restaurant brands. While many chains claim innovation around marketing, menu, service styles and more, those driving real change and creating the trends others follow are in a league of their own. And it's not just restaurant brands innovating within the restaurant space. Competitors such as Amazon, as well as vendor partners, are pushing chains to stay relevant. While many leading brands look outside the restaurant industry for their innovation inspiration, the companies here were selected as some of the world’s most innovative by Fast Company. They are setting the pace, and here is a breakdown of what keeps them moving forward.
Cava's informed data usage
The lone restaurant on the list of the top 50 most innovative companies, Cava ranks No. 37 for its innovative use of technology to improve the guest experience. (It was also named Restaurant Business’Tech Accelerator Award winner for the limited-service segment this past year.) The Mediterranean fast casual has been an industry leader when it comes to gathering data for informational decisions. In fact, much of its innovation comes from measuring anything it can. Instead of relying on observation, the chain lets facts dictate its operations: It has tracked customer lines, dining room seating and more, leading to reduced congestion, speedier ordering and new table configurations.
Part of the brand’s innovation comes from its investments in data. One reason the chain built its own mobile-ordering platform was because of the data that development could deliver. Beyond having a dashboard for this and more information to flow into, the chain invested in hiring a data scientist to interpret the numbers—the best way to make it actionable.
"Innovation and evolution are at the core of our business," says Brett Schulman, Cava CEO. "We like to say that Cava should conform to the lives of our guests, not the other way around. To do that means we have to constantly challenge ourselves to think smarter, listen better, and act wiser to ensure we anticipate the needs of the guest, the business and our local community before they happen."
Punch Bowl Social's modern gaming
Many have tried to crack the eatertainment trend, but Punch Bowl Social has managed to do so successfully, combining social gaming and high-quality, housemade food in a way that attracts a wide swath of diners, spurring growth. A big driver behind its innovation: Punch Bowl Social considers itself a lifestyle brand.
Differing from gaming leader Dave & Buster’s, Punch Bowl Social focuses on games such as pingpong, pinball, bowling and shuffleboard. “At Punch Bowl Social, we don’t confine ourselves within the boundaries of our current industry, [but] rather, innovate to become so much more than ‘just a restaurant,’” says founder and CEO Robert Thompson. “We’re a lifestyle brand for the millennial generation with a clear opportunity for social gaming.”
The expanding chain tapped celebrity chef Hugh Acheson in 2016 to develop its Southern fare, and as culinary partner, he’s converted to a seasonal menu. Continued expansion is planned for this year, thanks in part to an investment mid-last year from private-equity firm L Catterton.
Square's finance model
The payment company made the No. 3 spot on Fast Company’s top 50 list, in part for presenting an alternative to clunky point-of-sale systems. The processor expanded beyond the signature card reader with an iPad POS system and larger register, too. But much of Square’s innovation comes from its diversification.
“We’re excited to continue innovating to enable economic empowerment for all businesses, including restaurants,” says Gokul Rajaram, head of Caviar at Square—the third-party delivery arm of the company. His examples: Last year, Caviar debuted Pickup (an order-ahead function for deliveries), began testing pop-ups and commissary kitchens and broadened capabilities for Square Capital and Caviar for restaurants.
As part of the Square Capital development, certain restaurant partners of Caviar are eligible for funding through the company’s loan-style arm, Square Capital. Funding can go toward whatever the restaurant needs to grow the brand—marketing, equipment, inventory, etc.
Amazon's hand in everything
To sum up why Amazon made the list, Fast Company simply says, “For becoming a larger-than-life presence.” That’s especially true within the restaurant space. Amazon has become both a partner and competitor for the foodservice industry. To name a few examples: It’s a third-party deliverer through Amazon Prime, it’s running a foodservice operation with AmazonGo, and it’s offering restaurants voice-ordering capabilities through Alexa.
One indirect way the innovator is influencing the restaurant industry: It’s setting the model for the user experience for online purchasing. Amazon managed to set consumers’ expectations—they have grown accustomed to simple ordering and payment and quick product delivery.
&pizza's staff treatment
Founder Michael Lastoria refers to his workforce as “the tribe,” a group whose members are so loyal they are known to get tattoos of an ampersand, with the company footing the bill. Part of what makes the brand unique is its positioning as a creative, nonchain brand, even though it is, by definition, a chain. Each unit is unique—and brings in just under $1.6 million, Technomic estimates. Pizzas are oblong with a set price for unlimited toppings, the chain makes its own sodas, and music is played loud throughout its restaurants.
But culture has been at the forefront of its business model, as the brand strives to be a different type of workplace. “We went at it differently … setting up policies and procedures, but not too many policies and procedures—just enough to get the restaurants up and running,” Lastoria told Restaurant Businesslast year. Body art and piercings aren’t a problem, and staff can wear what they want.
Zume Pizza's robotic delivery
At a time when labor costs are rising, Zume Pizza started experimenting with automating some of the more menial foodservice tasks. Founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who wanted to bring food and technology together, the pizza delivery concept replaces some of the human elements of the restaurant with three robots. Marta, its robotic pizza maker, spreads sauce on crust before the pie goes down the line; another robot named Bruno scoops up raw pies and puts them in the oven; and a third cyborg transfers pizzas to the truck, which is driven by a human as food finishes baking in computer-controlled ovens. This last step is what’s really behind the innovation award, says Fast Company. With pizzas baked in the truck on the way to the destination, food arrives hot and fresh—one of the top concerns for many restaurants in the delivery space.
Starbucks' for-the-people mentality
The coffee giant continues to make headlines for its social efforts, which include attempting to boost underserved groups and instill policies that are fair to staff. For example, it committed to hiring 10,000 refugees as well as donating daily leftovers to community groups through a partnership with Feeding America. And as recently as January, the chain announced that it’d be giving all of its workers a raise, added benefits and stock as a result of tax reform.
While the brand was recognized for its social good, it’s also a restaurant innovator when it comes to mobile ordering and technology, something it has a very large budget for. And it’s not afraid to be an operational guinea pig. Most recently, the chain was the first to issue a co-branded credit card that ties to its loyalty program. And after trialing a pickup only store that takes orders solely via its app, the chain is testing a cashless unit in Seattle.