Technology is great, but don't forget hospitality

While concepts are adding new digital ordering technology, robots or even AI, executives work to keep their focus on the customer.
Gregg Majewski at FSTEC said restaurants need to focus on serving customers. | Photo by W. Scott Mitchell Photography

Restaurants are adding technology at a breakneck pace. They’re adding robots and artificial intelligence, are pushing more digital ordering capabilities and loyalty programs and finding new ways to serve customers.

Yet even as this technology takes hold at more restaurants around the country, chain executives insist they’re keeping their eyes on where it matters: The customer.

“A company’s process has to be all about who you’re serving,” Gregg Majewski, CEO of Craveworthy Brands, said at the FSTEC conference on Thursday. “In the restaurant industry, we’re all about serving guests.”

Too many operators, he said, have not kept their focus on hospitality. “Hospitality is key,” he said. “It’s how you win guests, and it’s how you make your franchisees money.”

Majewski was one of a several executives speaking on the “C-Suite in the Hot Seat” session at the event Thursday. FSTEC is a sister company of Restaurant Business.

Technology has often been portrayed as a labor savior, and there's little doubt that's what many operators are hoping for as new technologies make their way into the restaurant space. 

But much of that technology is saving labor on the margins, simplifying tasks inside the restaurant and removing some more mundane tasks. 

At FSTEC, at least, operators didn't boast about saving labor as much as they mentioned their desire to improve hospitality. 

“We use technology in the back of the house to redeploy labor to the front of the house,” said Mark Lohmann, CEO of the 11-unit, Denver-based chain Birdcall. “To make that dining room extra clean. It allows people to get into the community and meet their neighbors and touch every table” in the restaurant.

Hospitality and personal experience, he said, is going to be central to the company’s strategy.

Majewski, for his part, took shots at some of the technology emerging in the restaurant industry, notably artificial intelligence. “AI is the devil in this industry,” he said. He said that there are some “outstanding components” for the back of the house, but he said it’s a bad idea to use that technology in the front of the house.

Employees, many of whom are working in restaurants as their first jobs, won’t learn hospitality the way they should if a restaurant uses artificial intelligence to interact with customers.

“You will never see AI in my front-of-house,” Majewski said. “We will always be hospitable to our guests.”

Other operators speaking referred to their efforts as customer-centric. “Guest metrics have been the No. 1 priority since I joined the team,” said Jim Bittick, president of Dave’s Hot Chicken.

The company focuses much of its marketing efforts on social media, particularly Instagram and more recently TikTok, which has lured customers to the chain even when it opens stores in new markets. The company constantly responds to customers, too. “It’s foundational,” Bitticks said. “It’s the whole ballgame.”

Indeed, technology is playing a massive role these days in how brands market to customers. “Marketing is all moving into technology right now,” said Denise Pedini, chief marketing officer with the 100-unit fast-casual chain Newk’s Eatery. “When I started I was doing traditional marketing. Now all I do is digital marketing and work with my team on IT.”

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