The race for tech talent

How top operators are competing against Silicon Valley for hires.
Illustration: Shutterstock

The pressure on restaurant chains to hire technology specialists is at an all-time high, as operators work to improve experiences in the front and back of house for the benefit of franchisees and diners alike.

At least two innovative brands in the industry, Domino’s and TGI Fridays, say restaurants today are required to operate more like Silicon Valley startups in order to provide the personalized experiences customers crave. The same is true in creating work cultures suitable for attracting and retaining the talent needed to develop new tech offerings, experts say.

Candidates want to make an impact and change the trajectory of a company, not be an ancillary part of it,”says Dennis Maloney, Domino’s chief digital officer. “We were in a somewhat lucky position because we spent so much energy making sure the consumer experience was good, it has actually helped out our reputation as a tech company.”

Domino’s IT department encompasses 500 employees, and has in the past helped launch initiatives such as its in-store carryout tracker and its Hotspots service for pizza delivery to places without a traditional address. The quick-service chain is also testing ordering kiosks in hundreds of its stores across the country.

Yet despite Domino’s claim as an industry innovator, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based pizza maker faces stiff competition from notable tech giants when in the market for new tech personnel, according to Maloney. Those companies include the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon, as well as automakers in nearby Detroit. 

The story is much the same for TGI Fridays, says Sherif Mityas, the company’s chief experience officer. “I was happy that Amazon didn’t pick Dallas as its second headquarters,” he says jokingly.

Not lost on him is the added competition from within the industry itself in finding top tech talent. In addition to other restaurant chains, there are a growing number of startups offering everything from new point of sale systems to food delivery services that Fridays has to contend with.

“This creates a bit of a double-edged sword,” says Mityas. “We want startups to have good people because they are not just competition, they are also potential partners.”

To remain competitive, both companies focus on a culture that excites candidates. While Domino’s keeps most of its innovation related to its mobile app, loyalty program and e-commerce business in-house, Fridays, which has a digital team of 30 employees, hosts quarterly “Shark Tank”-style meetings where industry newcomers can pitch new ideas applicable to its business. It’s this willingness to partner, in part due to limited resources, that wins employees over. 

Fridays already sports active partnerships with a startup specializing in marketing and customer engagement using a company’s historical data, and also has apartnership with an AI-powered mixologist tool the chain is now piloting in select U.S. markets. 

“There are no Caltech or MIT scientists on our payroll,” Mityas says. “We are looking at new startups and entrepreneurs that challenge us and bring that blue sky thinking to us in terms of what we can do in the restaurant industry.” 

Both Domino’s and Fridays said they have high success rates in hiring personnel for their IT and digital teams. And more importantly, their retention rates are high, including at the VP and C-suite levels, the companies say. 

Each chain is also very specific about what’s required of new hires, though they declined to provide details. “The tech is standard across industries,” says Maloney, of where he finds the talent that Domino’s goes after. “The consumer experience is where the differentiation occurs.” It’s the people keen on implementing technologies that will benefit customers that both brands seek. 

Neither wants to introduce new technology if it’s not right for the customer. “The more friction you take out, the better,” Maloney concludes. “How do I walk into a Domino’s as a customer, have someone greet me by name, give me my food, and I walk out? That’s the dream.”

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content

Emerging Brands

5 pre-emerging restaurant brands ready for takeoff

These small concepts are still proving out their ideas, but each shows promise as a potential candidate for the next generation of emerging chains.


This little-known iPhone feature could change restaurant ordering

Tech Check: Almost every customer has a POS in their pocket. Can mini mobile apps get them to actually use it?


Red Lobster gives private equity another black eye

The Bottom Line: The role a giant sale-leaseback had in the bankruptcy filing of the seafood chain has drawn more criticism of the investment firms' financial engineering. The criticism is well-earned.


More from our partners