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

This edition features Aaron Noveshen, founder of The Culinary Edge and CEO of fast casual Starbird.

What innovation interests you most this year?

I think the thing I’m most interested in today is relevant technology that actually makes the guest experience better and is also operationally feasible. 

It’s all relative to where you are in the country, right? So if drive-thru innovation means building six lanes to cover everyone’s need, good luck getting a single lane in California. So some of these solutions are not viable. And I’m curious about the things that are most relevant, most investment and operationally sound—solutions like that. I don’t have the luxury of Oklahoma land, you know, as we’re talking about real estate. It all has to be super efficient.

What’s the lay of the labor land in California these days?

Our average hourly wage is over $20 now. But the thing is, that doesn’t mean people don’t want to make the average $28. It’s not like, ‘oh we’re already there, $15 per hour isn’t a big deal.’ There are already things on the books to get it to $23, $24, $25.

Makes me think of the FAST Act

It’s real. It’s coming on the ballot in November 2024. The good news is there were enough signatures collected (to get it on said ballot). The California Restaurant Association did a good job supporting that. It’ll be on the ballot in November, and I hope it loses. I don’t think it’s helping anyone.

What is more broadly going on here?

Problems exist. There is a disparity in earnings of people who are working at minimum-wage jobs in relationship to the profits that are happening at the top. So there’s a problem. If people say there isn’t one, they’re blind to what’s going on. [The FAST Act] is just not the right solution. 

OK, give us your take on artificial intelligence.

It’s really important, especially to solve the drive-thru problem. Because if you think about a drive-thru, it’s not all that convenient. You look at Domino’s most recent commercial. The ‘oh, do I want to sit behind these eight cars?’ It’s not convenient. We clocked 22 minutes at a Chick-fil-A the other day. That’s not convenient. So Starbird, we’re all about utilizing technology for convenience. We don’t have drive-thrus. And our hypothesis is that’s not fixed yet. Figuring out how to use AI to capture voice and ordering and that type of experience, when you’re on the go, is key. Because people make the decision, most likely, within five minutes for the majority of purchases in quick service. And AI is going to help allow people to use voice technology and not text and drive. 

Do you have any kiosks at Starbird?

We do, absolutely. I think kiosks are great because if they allow you to know who you’re working with, they can curate the right menu for that person—in the way that apps do. It’s a smart app. If someone knows your ordering behaviors and things of that nature, and people can opt in to be recognized by a kiosk, for those who do, it’s a win-win. The customer can navigate it more quickly, things are curated to the things they’re interested in. You’re not showing the vegetarian promo for the meat eater or vice versa. This person is always ordering plant-based protein, so you don’t put a big piece of bacon in front of them. 

You can obviously upsell more as well. Your average check is much higher in a kiosk.

What do you say to kiosk naysayers?

I think there’s an old-school mindset where people want to have hospitality; they want to connect. So a lot of restaurateurs think, ‘I can’t connect with the guest if they’re just using the kiosk.’ 

It’s funny, the theme of our upcoming conference is on hospitality. And we’re a company that takes 80–85 percent of our orders digitally. The idea is, how can we become more hospitable while being tech-forward. Literally, I’ve challenged our tech team to think about the entire customer journey with our technology. How can we be hospitable in understanding their needs, not creating friction, wowing them with things that are surprising, connect with them. I think that’s one of the big future solutions—is to figure out how technology can be more hospitable.

Let’s talk about the future. Is automation on your radar?

You can take a self-driving car as a taxi today in San Francisco. Literally. They are all over the place. Everywhere there are driverless cars. It’s mind blowing. It’s turned on really fast. It’s great because all the USF students can get automated rides back, so they prevent drinking and driving. For free.

A year from now, what are we talking about?

Tech wise, I think it’s consolidation. 

Business Advice, Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Growth, Operations, Story, Starbird