Mobile advances, ‘smaller data’ & other observables from tech’s big show

FSTec, the restaurant industry’s version of CES, is the highlight of my year. This year’s conference, held in late September in New Orleans, was no different, bringing together those in the industry who buy technology, those who enable it and those who promote and educate. Every year I come away with a few aha moments that get me thinking about the time until the next FSTEC.

If I were to consider the major themes being discussed this year, clearly mobility and tablets took the center stage. Suppliers of both hardware and software showed their applications on tablets. The number of companies demonstrating loyalty applications and ways of connecting with the guest in providing feedback was also up from previous years.

At the same time, marketing functions and the collection and use of data to support business intelligence and analytics were key topics of discussion, netting the attention of keynote speakers on the main stage.

As always, introductions and announcements can’t help but grab the limelight.  Right before the start of FSTed, three major POS-related announcements were made by several of the larger suppliers to the industry, which is to e expected. Fall is the time when restaurant companies plan for the next year.

If I were to think of surprises, finding out that keynote speaker Drew Brees became a fan of the #9 sandwich at Jimmy John’s while he was wearing the number 15 on his jersey at college, which seemed to be a foretelling of things to come, was probably one of the bigger ones.  Now, of course, the Saints quarterback and Jimmy John’s franchisee proudly wears #9 on his back. Trading him to the Giants in my introduction—in a mental slip, I said he played for New York, not New Orleans—might be something to watch for in the future.

The technology in use at FSTec’s host hotel was another thing to observe.  Sitting in the lobby each morning at 5:30, I had the opportunity to watch guests try to figure out how to use the elevators, which had automatic assignment of floors and no ability to change them once inside if you made a mistake.  In the old days, it was a revelation to see how many people stopped rushing to the pay phones when a session let out, a signal that mobile phones were making inroads. Now the sign of the times is how the hotel uses technology to move convention go’ers.

As we made our way around New Orleans, visiting some of the more famous, classic restaurants, it was clear that they, too, were looking at new technologies and were very focused on customer service and connecting with the guests. Wireless is the norm and the concerns about guests staying too long is not a concern in New Orleans – guess it just means more fun time. But also the adoption of customer-feedback applications and some testing of completely new capabilities is happening there as well.

Cloud-based, SaaS applications are now the norm for POS and back-office systems. While it seems to have taken forever to get to this point, the reliability of the connections is now there. More important, the pressure from up-and-coming specialists in tablet technologies has really upped the competitive game of all the traditional suppliers. 

The concept of Big Data was not really a key trend and buzz phrase, as it seems operators are now focused on how to use all the data available and analyze it in smaller, usable chunks.

And no single solution fits all. The number of standalone applications from new providers focused on specialized areas is leading to new partnerships and alliances between suppliers. This appears to be a good thing. The reluctance between suppliers to open up their APIs and allow integration seems to be a thing of the past. Technology is moving too quickly, and the realization that you can’t do it all has sunk in.

Lastly, there were a lot of newcomers to the marketplace. Innovation and new ideas coming from outside the industry were clear and available. I talked with several new suppliers to ask how they got their ideas and why they decided to enter the foodservice industry. The typical answer: Because they enjoy the industry and see a lot of opportunity. The speed of getting in and testing new ideas and technology is much greater than ever before and the cost to build applications has come down.

At the end of the day, FSTEC 2014 really highlighted and showcased new ideas and the vision of things to come. It will be very interesting to see where everything lands in 2015 and what makes the cut as a real trend and what falls out as a fad of 2014. In Washington DC next September we should have the answers.

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