If there was an overriding theme to Day One of FSTEC, the restaurant industry’s annual gathering of technology executives, it had to be the fear of blinking. Digital surprises are coming so fast for the business that only unbroken attention can fend off future shock.
Still, even the bug-eyed would have had a tough time digesting what they heard at the conference, which is presented by Restaurant Business' parent company, Winsight Media. Here are some of the revelations that likely prompted attendees to pause—if not panic.
1. Tesla is eyeing restaurants
Is Tesla bound to muscle into the restaurant business? That possibility was raised at FSTEC by JB Straubel, the electric car company’s chief technical officer. He revealed how the plug-in stations being constructed by Tesla for roadside recharges are morphing into full-scale rest stops that could offer food.
“People are coming and spending 20 to 30 minutes at these stops,” waiting for their Teslas to suck up electric power, Straubel explained. “They want to eat, they want to have a cup of coffee, they want to use the bathroom.”
He showed an aerial depiction of a recharge center that included what looked exactly like a c-store. “They’re starting to look a lot like convenience stops,” said Straubel. “It’s amazing how quickly things are evolving.”
Still, he stressed, Tesla has no interest in managing a foodservice operation. More likely, he said, the company will pursue partnerships.
“We already have been working with restaurants,” said Straubel. “That can only start scaling up.”
2. Technology’s other labor impact
Technology has sparked debate about machines replacing restaurant crewmembers and eliminating gads of jobs. At FSTEC, the discussion shifted to the impact on headquarters hiring. Are chains making a mistake if they don’t add data analysts to the support team ASAP?
“Before, you couldn’t afford an analyst,” said Jim Balis, CEO of the Norms Restaurants chain. “Now you can’t afford not to have an analyst.”
Not every speaker agreed. Gala Capital Partners, a company that operates franchised and proprietary restaurant brands, hired a college intern to boil data into insights for 20 hours per week, revealed managing partner Anand Gala.
He contended that the right dashboard and analytical component of data-generating software should provide easy-to-absorb intelligence if it’s done right.
“Not everyone has an analyst, not everyone can afford an analyst, not everyone needs an analyst,” Gala said. “If you can have a solution that pulls in the data and analyzes it in a KPI dashboard, that’s it.”
The need to manage legacy systems while adopting new technology may require companies to expand their teams initially, said Maureen Cushing, VP of technology and processes for Union Square Hospitality Group. But “if we do technology right and move forward, you probably will end up with less people to support it,” she said.
3. What’s the right ROI?
A recurring topic during FSTEC was determining when to embrace a new piece of technology. The consensus was to base the decision squarely on the return. The yardsticks for gauging that payback were as varied as the concepts represented at the conference.
Look beyond money, recommended Cushing, who came to the USHG fine-dining group from the retailing and tech businesses. “The technology that’s going to win the race and change the game is going to be the one that gives back time—time for your staff, and time for your guest,” she said.
Gala Capital Partners uses a checklist to determine if a technology merits adoption. “Does it impact sales positively? Does it impact profits positively? Does it impact process positively? If it does not check two of those boxes, it’s not a priority,” Anand Gala explained.
4. Avoiding tech mistakes
Going by gut is definitely not a sound way for choosing a technology or vendor, a number of speakers agreed, some citing their own blunders as proof. They recommended a number of specific safeguards, all of them pivoting on information gathering before the contract is signed.
Gala Capital Partners was one of the operations that admitted getting burned. And it knows now how to avoid a repeat. “We should have been more diligent and called every one of their customers who were in our industry who were of similar size,” said the company’s namesake.
“One of the questions we usually ask is, ‘What’s your refresh rate?’,” said Balis, of Norms Restaurants. “How many people re-up after using your solutions?”