Technology

9 tech tidbits from the National Restaurant Show

RB’s technology reporter empties his notebook after a busy few days in Chicago, where restaurants showed they're hungrier than ever for tech.
The Tech Pavilion was a popular spot, as usual. | Photos by Joe Guszkowski

Three days spent on the floor of the National Restaurant Show in Chicago this week turned up quite a few tidbits on the current state of restaurant technology. Here are nine lessons from the big event.

Tech is the hottest thing since free samples

It’s not news, and it’s not even necessarily surprising, but it is worth taking a step back and marveling at just how central technology has become at the Show.

At certain points, it was hard to even get through the aisles in the Tech Pavilion due to traffic overflow from the booths. (And wow were there some spectacular booth designs this year.) 

You’d think vendors were giving away hot dogs or something, but no—just software demos and the occasional piece of new hardware to admire. It was a testament to restaurants' growing appetite for tech.

Everyone wants to do it all …

The most noticeable trend while trawling the tech booths was the number of suppliers claiming to be the one and only tech platform a restaurant needs.

Vendors have been pushing in this direction for years, in part because restaurants are demanding more simplicity from their tech.

That’s how Square got pulled into the kiosk game. The POS company has long integrated with other kiosk providers, but this year it launched one of its own.

“Sellers on the Square platform were always asking, ‘When are you gonna build our own kiosk?’” said Ming-Tai Huh, Square’s head of food and beverage. “They don’t want one more integration to manage.”

all-in-one

This was a common refrain on the Show floor.

… But a patchwork approach has its perks

Then again, some operators are of the mind that using a mix of vendors is better than going all-in with one.

Grant Krueger, owner of Tucson, Arizona-based Union Hospitality Group, said diversifying gives restaurants more flexibility if they ever decide to make a change.

“It’s gonna be better to have a tech stack with different players rather than have all your eggs in one basket,” he said, noting that a POS overhaul can be a painful process.

Small firms look for an exit

The shift toward more all-in-one platforms has had an impact on smaller, more specialized vendors, some of which are hoping to get swallowed up by a bigger fish. “We’d love to get acquired,” said a rep from one small firm that asked not to be named.

There are certainly buyers out there. Back-office tech supplier Restaurant365, fresh off its acquisition of training specialist ExpandShare, just raised $175 million and plans to use some of it on more acquisitions, for example.

A tech community is forming

There’s a real movement underway among vendors and restaurants to create more community within the fragmented tech world.

That was visible at the Show via the proliferation of podcasts being recorded on the floor. Shawn Walchef, a restaurateur and podcast veteran, said the format is a great way for operators to learn from one another. “Because we’ve started podcasting, we’ve connected with people all over the globe,” he said.

Some suppliers are looking to foster similar connections for their customers. SpotOn, for instance, has begun hosting monthly online meetups where restaurants can talk shop. And Toast was passing out literature inviting operators to join its free online forum, Toast Community. "Connect with your industry peers whenever it's convenient for you," the handout says.

Walchef pod

Shawn Walchef, right, hosts a podcast at the Show on Saturday.

Keep an eye on Otter

The digital ordering company run by CloudKitchens CEO Travis Kalanick quietly launched a POS system this year, and operators are taking notice. 

Rafael Alves, CEO of New Jersey-based Snack Mania, is a longtime Toast customer and superfan (we found him taking a picture in front of their booth). He said Otter is the only system he saw at the Show that came close to what Toast offers.

What can’t AI do?

Need something done in your restaurant? If AI can’t do it today, it will probably be able to soon.

At the Show, there was a camera that monitors burger quality, software that automates invoicing, and a system that spits out ways to add avocado to your menu, to name just a few of the applications on display.

And while AI has officially achieved buzzword status, there seemed to be a lot of genuine enthusiasm for it among attendees.

“We get really excited by the right use cases,” said Patric Knapp, VP of operations at Bobby's Burgers by Bobby Flay. “AI can really take data today, capitalize on that information and present it in a way that is useful to us.”

Avocado AI

Avocados from Mexico was showing off an AI tool that generates avocado-based menu items.

Tech support goes AWOL

Several operators lamented the sorry state of customer service that’s being provided by some vendors these days.

One noted that a lot of what used to be known as customer service is now self-service. Another complained that it’s hard to get an actual human on the phone when there’s a problem.

Knapp spoke to a lot of providers while building Bobby’s tech stack. He valued the ones that made him feel like a partner rather than a potential sale.

“We were not looking for a POS system, but a POS partner who says, ‘Here’s how we can support you,’” Knapp said.

Restaurants are a data business

Believe it or not, there are still operations out there that have little insight into how sales are performing or what items are selling best. That’s a big limitation at a time when costs are changing rapidly and every penny counts. 

“The future of restaurants is data-heavy,” said Bryan Solar, chief product officer at POS provider SpotOn. “It’s one of those things where it’s like, evolve or die.”

SpotOn has invested a lot in its data capabilities, developing dashboards that reflect a restaurant’s performance in real time, down to which servers are selling which items.

That level of visibility is vital for improving operations, Solar said: “You can coach to stuff if you can see it.”

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