Tech gets its time in the main-stage limelight

Restaurant leaders’ growing reliance on interactive technology catapulted the topic onto the main stage of the RLC for the first time this year.

A panel of operators, tech suppliers and consultants provided their perspectives on the advances enhancing back-of-the-house controls and front-of-the-house guest experiences. The participants were as varied as the equipment they discussed: Mike Archer, the president of Applebee’s; Chris DeFrain of Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group, a Red Robin franchisee; Wally Doolin, the former T.G.I. Friday’s and Le Madeleine chief who now serves as CEO of the research firm Black Box Intelligence; Fred LeFranc, the operator-turned-turnaround-specialist who leads the Results thru Strategy consultants’ consortium; and Austin Mulinder of table-top entertainment provider and session sponsor Ziosk.

Major themes surfaced as the panel participant shared their experiences, challenges and successes using technology.

Forget a technology strategy

“We used to have a technology strategy. Now we have a business strategy and technology feeds into it. It’s not about a technology strategy, it’s a business strategy that is supported and enabled by technology.” –Archer

“Technology is an accelerant to what you’re already doing. Technology has to always be a part of the brand expression.” –LeFranc

Front of the house focus

“It’s about remaining relevant. Five years ago, we talked about technology from an infrastructure strategy and now it’s interval to everything that we do.” –Archer

“We can make the guest experience better with technology. So anything that can make the ordering and paying process quicker and get the guests in and out quickly is really important to us.” –DeFrain

Give control, get control

“I want the guests to be able to pay at the table or some other means where they’re not dependent upon the server during that part of the transaction. At the end of the day, it’s their money, it’s their time.” –Archer

“[Table top electronic ordering and payment] devices are putting more control in the guests’ hands … We see 60 percent of credit card transactions are using it … and it’s allowing them to control aspects of their experience.” –Archer

“I [used] a fishbowl for many years. Collecting email addresses on pieces of paper was a laborious, painful process. [Now], as a restaurateur, if you want to find out who your guests are, they can sign up for your email club, log in, be identified and earn rewards. There is a lot happening that gives restaurateurs more control over the conversation they have with their guests, on their terms. It’s not a one-way street; it’s now truly a two-way street.” –LeFranc

Technology dependency

Panelists agreed that technology makes processes more efficient, but they stressed that restaurateurs shouldn’t disregard the core skills and processes that make a place successful.

“We are so dependent on technology in the operation of our restaurants. If we were to lose the [Kitchen Display System] and have to talk to the cooks and actually call out orders, most of these folks have never worked in a kitchen that operated that way.” –Archer

Ordering and paying at the table

Ordering and payment processes provide the best opportunity for efficiencies through technology, according to the panel. Participants pointed out that if customers order and pay without staff involvement, , the workload and steps of servers could be cut appreciably. There’s the added benefit of reassuring patrons that their credit card information won’t be stolen.

“One of the things we’re working on is that at the end of the meal you give somebody your credit card, they disappears to the back of the house for a period of time, and then bring it back to you … We are essentially holding guests hostage with our current [payment] process.” –Archer

“[Guests] will pay with the credit card using the [table top electronic ordering and payment] device because they understand and like the concept of the credit card not leaving their hand.” –DeFrain

“A lot of guests bring in their own technology. We don’t want to dehumanize the guest experience in a restaurant. It’s about providing an environment. [By putting a] screen on the table, [we] can control the message to [our] guest and give them a means to ordering, payment, games, or whatever it may be to enhance their dining experience.” –LeFranc

“Conceptually [self-pay] isn’t new; it’s something that exists at the grocery store, hardware store, etc., so it’s something [guests] are familiar with.” –Archer

“If we are letting the guests and our employees interact with it, it has to be simple and easy to use. If it doesn’t work or they don’t like it, they will revert back to the old way.” –DeFrain

Team member acceptance

“Our team members are the ones that are using technology and interacting with our guests. So employees have to buy into the technology first and foremost in order to get the guest to buy in to it.” –DeFrain

“Ultimately, [employees are] the ones that have to believe in [the technology], understand it, trust it and be comfortable with the guest using it. They’re the ones interacting with it every day … [We found] that it’s helping them on the tip side. There is no better buy in when you see your compensation grow. We’ve been pretty successful with the roll out mostly because of our team itself.” –DeFrain

Technology won't replace a rude server

“I asked servers, ‘what concerns you about the new technology?’ They answered, ‘Being replaced.’” –DeFrain

“No technology is going to replace a rude server. Your team still has to engage. We’re the last point of human contact. Technology does not [replace] that, it just takes some of the pain points out of the process.” –LeFranc

Consumers wired for technology

“The challenge is that we have a generational gap in our customers that has never existed before. When you see a 3-year-old playing with an iPad comfortably, it really changes your expectations of what they want. We have a consumer that is fully connected and wired for technology. We don’t want to become a technology-based business, but we have to recognize that technology is a part of people’s lives. They come to us for an escape and an experience but at the same time, they want to remain connected with their social world. It’s a difficult balance for the restaurateur to figure out what [technology] to bring in.” –LeFranc

Adoption can be risky business

“Technology in this industry is always looked at with a lot of skepticism … it’s a two-year sales cycle … No one wants [to be on the leading edge] because it’s too expensive to take the risk. Yet at the same time, we have a consumer that is fully connected and wired for technology.” –LeFranc

“When do you jump in the pool? We put technology in our restaurants and don’t take them out until [its] last day.” –Archer

“It’s an operators business. Which technology do I choose? Will it become obsolete? It’s a big investment to be left with when the next big thing rolls around. Critical decisions will lead to ROI and a greater brand experience.” –LeFranc

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