Editor’s note: At this year’s National Restaurant Association Show, QSR caught up with restaurant executives to get their take on 2023’s biggest topics and what’s on the mind of operators. We’ll share their insights and observations from the floor, thoughts on the future, and what matters most headed into the back half of the year and beyond.

Past interviews:

Geoff Alexander, president and CEO of Wow Bao

Starbird CEO Aaron Noveshen

Taziki’s Marketing Leader Julie Wade

Give me a topic, product, tech, whatever it might be, you have your eyes on this year.

So we wanted to see what the world was doing in robotics. We wanted to see if the kitchen equipment was at a point yet that made sense to start exploring without ruining or replacing staff. My whole thing is, I feel the restaurant industry should be the starting point for people’s careers, the starting point for jobs. And if you go ahead and put all the remedial jobs for all those high school kids and all those getting their first jobs and give them to robots, it takes it away. So how can you still get people excited about being in the industry with us. That was the main thing we wanted to look at—to see if it was allowing us to do both, or are we going to sacrifice what I feel the restaurant industry is supposed to be: people’s first job experience.

So what did you find?

There’s absolutely nothing. 

In other words, robotics aren’t here to replace people yet?

They’ll replace people, but the quality will never be the same consistency as it was before because there’s no art to it. That extra shake of a French fry, it’s great, the fries will be perfect every time. Sure, if all the variables leading up to that robot putting it down are correct. But the fries had been thawed once, you’re still not going to get the same fry because it changes the texture, and it gets cooked a little differently. It’s just not there. And I don’t know if it’s every going to be there. It works great for the chains that just have the drop, bump, and dump all the time, but for the smaller chains and startups, it’s too expensive.

When you choose to go out to eat, you choose to have an experience. And that experience requires human interaction. That’s what’s made restaurants special. That’s why you can charge more than what you can cook for at home, because you’re giving people an experience. A robot just dumbs it down so there’s no experience. It’s cool for a minute but then you just don’t get that same hospitality that you need to be successful. At some point, people are going to push back on them. Back of the house? For sure, going to happen. Front of the house? We sell an experience.

OK, well, what about AI? Is that in the same boat or is it something different?

I think artificial intelligence is a lot of fun to play with. I think there’s reasons you should use it, especially when it comes to customer service and responses of that nature, and stuff like that. I think there’s ways it should be used and ways it’s going to be used. But again, it’s a fun toy to play with right now and you can do a lot of cool things; I just think it’s too soon to see where it’s going to go in the industry. But customer service would be the biggest need for it to step in right away and hopefully allow us to be more personable. But it should never replace the way we write to fix the issues when they’re wrong. Someone else can go ahead and type it and have it rewrite it and stuff like that—that’s OK. Having just a robot be your customer service agent where you’re not actually giving them any personal answers or questions for a problem, instead of the boilerplate that they give, that I don’t agree with.

I’ve been asking people to look ahead, but I want to speak specifically to Craveworthy Brands here and the role consolidation will have in fast casual going forward. How do you see this evolving?

The consolidation play, or the platform play, the umbrella—whatever people are going to end up calling it—it’s the only way companies are going to be able to survive and fight against the people who control the industries. Unfortunately, I think the industries have always been controlled by the big boys and as the big boys continue to add and get bigger and bigger and bigger and more powerful, it’s made it very, very hard for somebody who’s in their field because they have everything. If you look at Roark, they have every segment covered. So they don’t need you. And they can squash you. So it’s going to get really, really hard for those startups who have whitespace to be able to compete. The platform companies and stuff like that is going to help those kinds of people establish and design more and more.

What kind of brands are you looking for to grow at Craveworthy?

My big thing is I want brands that have to go up against the kings and beat them. So I want brands that are trying to find the whitespace; there’s somebody dominating the market in that segment and there needs to be somebody else to do it better and right. Those are the brands we’re looking for. When we acquired Wing it On!, the thing that excited me was better food, better product, and Wingstop is very, very set in their ways. And so, this allowed me whitespace to go after them with a better product and take their customers from them, because they’re not doing what they used to do. 

How do you step in and help these brands?

They need the scalability. They need the infrastructure. They need the connections so they’re not growing one or two mom-and-pops, they can now grow with the four- or seven-store guy who wants to open. They need the purchasing power to actually compete. They need marketing help. So all the tools when you’re small you don’t have access to—they couldn’t go and get a bank loan because they didn’t have real financials that made sense. Now you have a VP of finance from McDonald’s as their CFO, now they’re all of sudden on a different platform and a different level.

It feels like this reality has spread to start-ups, too. I’ve heard a lot of operators switch plans from opening an indie to become a franchisee, due to the financing.

And that’s going to run a course for a while. And then it will change again. This isn’t the first time that all this has happened. This is the first time that things have sort of changed and gone differently with how you build your brand, how you do things, and all that. There’s always been the consolidation play. But this is the first time there are groups out there trying to do it for the right reasons; to help people get to a certain point. Before, it was always PE-led groups saying, ‘do this.’

How are you enjoying this career path over the old days of big-brand exec?

This is a lot more fun because you’re involved in everything. You can help dictate where we’re going and how we’re going and not have to deal with all the bureaucracies or a founder that is stuck in his ways. This is allowing you to touch a bit of everything but also surround yourself with people hungry to do more who want to go on a ride with you. And you can steer their lives and change it. That’s the best part of this industry: I have the opportunity to effect so many people’s careers and lives. That’s what motivates me every day to come to work, because I can make the next generation so much better than ours.

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Growth, Operations, Restaurant Operations, Story, Technology, Wing It On!