As I wandered the vendor marketplace at my first FSTEC conference this week in Dallas, it was impossible not to feel a bit overwhelmed.
To put it plainly, there is a whole lot of restaurant technology available today. These days, nearly every task in a restaurant, from taking an order to mixing a drink to scheduling shifts, can now be managed with a layer of software.
All of it was on display Sunday through Tuesday in the more than 130 booths that lined the aisles of the conference floor. Many of those companies do similar things. Many claim to offer “all-in-one” platforms that eliminate the need for a patchwork quilt of tech products. All promise to make the complicated business of running a restaurant less so.
And therein lies the central obstacle in restaurants’ journey to becoming a more high-tech industry, along the lines of retail and travel. The sheer number of products available, coupled with the challenges of vetting them, and then getting them to work together in a streamlined way, are actually making that journey more complicated.
So as operators praised what technology has done for their business, they also lamented the difficulties that come with it.
“What happens is you get into a situation, you start to build something, and a piece of it doesn’t work,” said Trish Giordano, head of sales and marketing for Earl Enterprises. “The integration is critical. And I think fragmentation still needs a little bit of work.”
The three-day conference, hosted by RB's parent company, Winsight, was sprinkled with similar pleas from operators to their counterparts on the supplier side: We need more integration, more collaboration, more of a sense that we are in this together.
“The level of innovation we can have in this industry is huge,” said Pankaj Patra, SVP and CIO for Brinker International, during a panel about customer data—if only restaurants and suppliers could get on the same page when it comes to who owns that data.
If you think of a restaurant tech stack as the human body, data is like the blood, one operator told me. A system with poor circulation is therefore limited. Many operators said that is their top challenge when it comes to technology.
To the tech companies’ credit: They’re working on it. The importance of integration came up with virtually every one of them I talked to because they know it’s a key selling point for operators. Darien Bates, CTO for &pizza, said it was encouraging to see vendors touting open APIs (application programming interfaces) that make their software easier to integrate.
“Ultimately, that’s going to be the thing that drives product innovation,” he said during the data panel.
There is a communication gap in addition to a technological one. Operators said vendors need to do a better job of explaining what their products actually do.
“I can’t tell you how much I’m pitched with this jargony nonsense,” said Vincent Sjwazkowski, CMO of Blaze Pizza. He noted that today’s restaurant boards and C-suites aren’t necessarily equipped to understand the ins and outs of the latest technology, and urged suppliers to “make sure you have ROI-driven business cases that are achievable.” As a reporter, I second that motion.
Along with the good-natured airing of grievances, though, there was also a sense of gratitude. I heard from both operators and suppliers that they were happy to finally be in the same room, hashing things out face to face.
Fragmentation in restaurant technology remains a challenge. But it was nice to be together, even for a few days, to make some connections.