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5 keys to building a strong tech stack

Whether upgrading an existing system or starting from scratch, here are some things to keep in mind.
Photograph: Shutterstock

The restaurant industry is not known for being the most tech-forward. But over the past two years, restaurants have turned increasingly to technology, and, as has become a common refrain, the pandemic has only accelerated that.

About a quarter (23%) of chains said their tech investment has increased greatly over the past two years, and 30% said it will increase greatly over the next two, said Melissa Wilson, principal with Technomic, during a presentation at this year’s FSTEC Community.

Some of those will likely upgrade existing systems or add new, in-vogue services like contactless ordering or curbside pickup. Others may be starting from scratch. Regardless of your place on the technology curve, here are five things to keep in mind when building a technology stack.

Choose a foundation

The number of products and suppliers out there can be overwhelming—especially with the flood of new services during the pandemic—and restaurants may be wondering where to even begin. 

“The thing they have to do is prioritize,” said Rob Chapman, director of security architecture for Cybera, during a webinar hosted last week by research firm Incisiv. “There’s a huge temptation to try to sneak in all these other little things, and that’ll kill you.” Cybera is a networking and security provider.

When P.F. Chang’s set out to develop its tech stack, it decided to make Olo’s online ordering platform its foundation, atop which it would build other capabilities such as reservations and loyalty. 

“Choose that middle, your center system, right?” said Subha Rajagopalan, Chang’s VP of IT innovation, during an FSTEC Community session. “What is it that you consider is a pillar of what you do, and then build your ecosystem around it.”

Make sure it’s integration-friendly

Few if any tech suppliers will be able to offer all of the solutions a restaurant needs. That’s why it’s important to make sure your foundation integrates with other services you plan to use—or is open to working with you to build integrations down the line. Otherwise, you could end up with a bunch of platforms that don’t talk to one another, creating operational headaches and allowing customer data to slip through the cracks.

For P.F. Chang’s, which prides itself on its loyalty program, integration was its top criteria when shopping for tech, even more so than pricing.

“If you don’t have that integration connected, you really can’t trace that customer end to end,” said Rajagopalan.  

A platform with strong integration also makes it easier to add bells and whistles. That was a key consideration for Fat Brands in deciding to work with Revel Systems as its POS provider.

“We know that if something new and shiny comes down the line, we can say ‘Hey, we’ll work with Revel, they’ll work with you and we can get this integrated and make this work,’” said James Newell, director of construction and purchasing for Fat Brands, during FSTEC. 

Consider the cost

While integration is key, cost still matters, especially for a franchisee-centric chain like Fat Brands. Be wary of tech suppliers that say, “‘Well, for another $300 a month you can do this,’” Newell said. “And then obviously every penny starts to become critical to the store’s success.”

Revel and other cloud-based operating systems tend to offer a lower price than legacy systems, he said. 

“We cut our initial investment more than in half,” Newell said. “On top of that, we got 50% more bells and whistles,” like EMV processing, online ordering and inventory tools. “That is a huge selling point.”

Operator-friendly pricing also reduces risk, he said, freeing Fat Brands to experiment without making a major financial commitment.

Think about the customer

When building an ordering system, mobile app or other customer-facing interface, simply making it functional is not enough—it has to be easy to use. 

As a consumer, “The first think that I’m curious about is, OK, is this something that they’ve tried to build really quickly and this kind of mish-mash to put together, or is it something that’s been thoughtfully curated?” said Chapman of Cybera. “Some people are doing this really well and some people aren’t.”

A bad experience can damage customers’ opinion of a brand. Things like speed, consistency and simplicity are key. 

“All of those things build inherent trust,” he said. 

Think about your staff

Adding a new tech system can have a massive impact on a restaurant’s operations, calling for new processes and additional staff training. That should be a key consideration when selecting a tech partner. 

“Ultimately the success of foodservice tech is going to depend on operators’ ability to use and navigate the benefits of certain programs,” said Wilson. 

But as the pandemic drives years of tech advancement in a matter of months, it’s important to manage expectations and give staff time to adapt.

“What good leaders understand is that these are not tech issues,” Chapman said. “These things are battleships that take awhile to turn.”

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