10 tech takeaways from the NRA Show

At this year’s National Restaurant Association Show, there was an entire pavilion devoted to technology. Vendors were touting tech-forward products for ordering, delivery, managing the waitlist, tabletop payments and more, and operators filed back to the educational area throughout the four days to hear sessions on topics that ranged from payment security to leveraging data. In case you didn’t make it down all of the rows, here are a few takeaways that showed up a few times throughout the show.

1. Minimal interference of tech.

Technology might be increasingly evident in many restaurant operations, but the goal is to keep the distractions stemming from tech—both to the staff and the customers—to a minimum. “We care more about the GM than the customer coming in the door; we need to make it easy for him and not let tech break the system,” said Tony Pigliacampo of Modmarket. Lou Grande of Red Lobster shared a similar belief. “We wanted to minimize the impact against the restaurants and operators,” he said. “We didn’t want them to be distracted by the sale, distracted by everything we’re doing [including movement to a cloud-based system],” so they can continue to deliver a great guest experience.

2. Engagement equals loyalty.

It was a theme that rang clear throughout the Show. Carl Segal, CEO of Roti Mediterranean Grill, for example, measures loyalty through engagement—how the brand opens a dialogue and engages new customers to become regulars. For Roti, its approach to tech is to improve the guest experience, and that includes a level of communication with the guest in addition to convenience factors such as online ordering and allergen information.

3. Data security is multifaceted.

The realities of the switch to EMV technology are finally sinking in for restaurant operators; the October 2015 deadline to put chip-and-pin credit-card readers in place is fast approaching. But now there’s a realization that this card technology only is a piece of the puzzle, and POS suppliers are pushing that message. EMV protects against fraud, but PCI Compliance focuses on securing sensitive data. Mike English, executive director of product development for Heartland Payment Systems, broke data security down to three pillars: EMV to reduce counterfeiting, encryption of card data at the earlier part of the transaction, and tokenization when the card data comes back as approved.

4. Training goes digital.

During a panel on millennial staffers, Molly Melman, director of training for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, said it has shifted its training materials to be accessible via mobile. Because millennials want a scrubbed-down, give-me-only-what-I-need-to-know program at the tip of their fingers, the trend away from binders is sweeping the industry. The future, says Ed Beck, chief information officer at the National Restaurant Association, is incorporating learning via wearables. His example: Google Glass could help a bartender learn and recall a recipe. Ultimately, though, more learning management systems will be tied to the Internet and will be interconnected, he said.

5. 3D printing.

It’s cool, but don’t expect to see it at restaurants anytime soon. While there are applications beyond sweet sugar sculptures for the pastry chef—think of a lattice of sugar and bitters for a mixology-forward presentation at the bar—it’s still in the experimental phases. The goal of the machine is to create delicate edible pieces not possible by hand, but the time it takes to make a single piece is not practical for everyday restaurant use. During a panel on the topic, a member of the Culinary Institute of America team admitted that savory applications were still in the “thinking about it” stage.

6. Tech to cut the wait.

And that’s not just before guests sit down. Yes, a number of companies were pushing products to help operators digitally control the waitlist, but several suppliers were talking about consumer-facing tech at the table. Imagine if a guest could tap their phone to a small tabletop device and type in a message for your server that shows up on the POS system, whether it’s that they want another drink or their check. One vendor suggested that this technology increased table turns by 10 minutes and increased alcohol sales for his test market.

7. Delivery as the next area of growth.

And that’s because online and mobile ordering are becoming increasingly popular, especially among younger consumers. A number of operators admitted to exploring delivery to increase incremental sales, though many emerging chains are exploring out-of-house services. And it’s not just the big giants like Grubhub Seamless that are getting their attention. A number of courier-based operations, like ones from Uber and Amazon, are popping up and gaining steam.

8. Mobile is becoming a must.

“If you’re not doing mobile, you should be looking at it. That’s where your consumers want to be,” said Michael Hagen of LevelUp. Pigliacampo said that what’s now a point of differentiation in technology will soon become something you have to have if you’re going to compete for millennial traffic. And to further that notion, when asked which demand has picked up the most recently, both Segal and Matt Hood, chief marketing office at The Habit Burger Grill, said tech. For Hood, guests want to use tech to make the experience quicker and easier, and the chain is exploring a number of platforms and initiatives to deliver.

9. Big data is big.

The data-analytics market in 2015 is expected to hit $125 billion. “And the variety of data in foodservice is extreme,” said Justin Massa, president of researcher Food Genius. The challenge for many operators, though, is what to do with the data—how do they leverage it to reach and engage with consumers. A big part of data analysis is looking for correlations, said Massa, which operators tend to struggle with, because there isn’t always rationale behind what the data is saying. Another area of concern that came up from several operators: who owns your data.

10. Movement to the cloud.

“The movement to cloud is obviously here,” said Lou Grande, vice president of IT at Red Lobster. Almost every POS vendor was talking up cloud support. And operators are buying in. Red Lobster has a five-year plan to move everything to its cloud and out of its brick-and-mortar data center. Grande said he’s already seen a cost savings. Still in the early stages, though, he and his team, like other brands, are still building a level of comfort with the new storage system. 

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