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Technology

5 tech execs share what’s next for their chains

Leaders from Chipotle, Wingstop and others gave a sneak peek into their innovation pipelines during RB’s FSTEC Community.

The restaurant industry made a huge technological leap in 2020, undergoing many years’ worth of innovation in a matter of months and making terms like curbside, contactless and QR code commonplace.

Of course, we were in the middle of a pandemic—restaurants had little choice but to adapt. But while daily life will eventually return to normal, operators don’t plan to stop innovating. During Restaurant Business’ ongoing FSTEC Community, editors asked tech leaders from five chains about what’s next in their innovation pipelines. Here’s what they said.

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Chipotle is rolling out an AI-driven messaging platform to automate communication customer service and, eventually, order-taking, said Nicole West, VP of digital strategy and product. 

The messaging bot, dubbed Pepper, is currently active on Chipotle’s customer care page, where it fields FAQs about everything from rewards to queso blanco. West said the bot will soon show up in more places and with additional capabilities.

“You will be seeing Pepper make an appearance in-app, as well as some other places where you may be able to message and they'll take your order that way,” she said.

Wingstop

One of the big winners of the pandemic, Wingstop has a stated goal of moving 100% of its transactions to digital channels. The last frontier in that mission? The old-fashioned phone call. 

“Restaurants often have a lot of background noise. Many guests can feel rushed when ordering from a restaurant. It's also very labor-intensive for our brand partners,” said Stacy Peterson, the chain’s chief technology officer, of orders placed over the phone. “So if we can turn those phone orders into digital orders, we see a lot of potential.”

To tackle that challenge, Wingstop is testing an AI-driven voice ordering solution that uses natural voice processing to manage phone orders. 

“We're really excited about it, but we're definitely still in the test phase and we're still learning,” Peterson said.

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit

The barbecue chain has long offered holiday feasts featuring large portions of smoked meats and sides for families. Going forward, the company is looking at making those meals available for delivery from a central hub, said Carissa DeSantis, Dickey’s VP of information technology. That way, customers can avoid having to go into a restaurant to pick it up, and it presumably reduces the complexity of restaurants’ workflow as well.

Speaking of delivery hubs, Dickey’s has leaned heavily into ghost kitchens in 2020, with 30 slated to be up and running by year’s end, DeSantis said. 

Another tech innovation on Dickey’s plate is geolocation—the type of technology that alerts the restaurant when a customer has arrived for curbside pickup, for instance. 

“To be able to best take care of their customers and understand where they are and what they’re doing, you have to use geolocation to be successful quickly,” DeSantis said. 

Modern Market

The 16-unit health-forward chain has seen delivery become a significant part of its business since the pandemic began, so much so that it plans to launch a virtual brand, said Director of Technology Brian Anderson

The chain was set to begin testing the brand this month in Colorado on the major delivery platforms, though Anderson couldn’t share any details beyond that.

Modern Market uses every delivery provider available in its markets (Arizona, Colorado, Indiana and Texas) and has a direct integration between its POS and Grubhub, which has improved the chain’s performance on that platform, Anderson said.

“I think it's an interesting strategy on their part because they don't have to share any of their data—the middleman is taken out of the equation. So the data is just between us and GrubHub,” he said.

He expects to see more providers offering such integrations because it streamlines operations and limits the amount of data being shared.

Brinker International (Chili’s and Maggiano’s)

Brinker has been busy during the pandemic, rolling out curbside pickup to all of its restaurant locations, accelerating its contactless ordering and payment program and launching a virtual brand, It’s Just Wings. Going forward, it will look to use tech to make things easier for both customers and staff, said Pankaj Patra, Brinker SVP and chief information officer. 

Customers should not have to think about technology when they visit a restaurant—it should happen seamlessly, he said.

“When a guest walks in, if they are ready to fire an order to the kitchen, they should be able to do that, when they are ready to pay, they should be able to do that, when they are ready to interact with us through the loyalty program, they should be able to do that,” he said.

While emphasizing the customer experience, Brinker will also focus on developing tools for staff to allow them to better interact with diners. 

“I think we are looking at a balanced approach on this, because what has generally happened in the industry is that you focus on the guest side, you miss on the team member side, or you focus on the team member side and you miss on the guest side,” he said.

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