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

Your top innovation to check out at this year’s show, go:

Definitely AI is the buzz for us. It seems like there are so many different ways to use that technology now. We’re just getting started with Ovation as a partner in our customer engagement platform. They’ve got a really good product and we’re piloting it in five stores right now and going to roll out to other markets very shortly. They’re doing some AI responses to guest comments. That’s really going to help us because one of the big things that we were concerned about was just the sheer volume of comments that we’re getting. Because with their platform, we’re getting tons and tons of guest feedback, which is great, we love the guest feedback. But it can also be somewhat overwhelming.

Yet having these AI-generated responses is going to help our staff be able to handle the ones that they need to focus on. Where the ones that are just kind of general things, that an AI can handle, those can go out and not have to engage any of our staff. That’s just one way that we’re going to be able to engage AI.

Social media—that’s another way. We’re looking at all of the different things where we can use those automated-type things, from a marketing standpoint, to be able to facilitate a guest interaction where it does sound real. We don’t want it to come off as fake or not genuine. 

OK, my next question was actually going to be about AI, so you beat me to it. Are you getting into any other applications?

We’ve looked at other tools as well. I talked to somebody about an AI phone answering system in the restaurants. For us, one of our core values is human connection. So we feel like replacing a human person answering the telephone in our restaurants is not really the direction we want to go at this point. I don’t see us changing those types of interactions with AI. But I think, especially in the written form, that’s where we’ll lean into more of those artificial responses than a voice type of response.

What about marketing?

The same way kids are using them to do term papers and that type of thing, you can use them for prompts on your press releases. I’ve never tried doing that personally because we’ve got a great PR firm that does all of our stuff. But I think for small brands that have very limited resources, I think that’s likely a great way to at least give you a conversation starter. I wouldn’t think you’d build your entire press release that way. You’d have to go back and tweak it and fix it. But I think it would give you a base to start with at least.

There was a new product we were rolling out last spring. We were having a hard time with the description. And we were like, ‘OK how do we want to talk about this item? What are some key words we want to use?’ So I went into ChatGPT and asked, ‘how would you describe this Mediterranean version of this item,’ and it spit me out a response. We didn’t use that exactly, but it gave me a few words that prompted us to think, let’s look at this route; let’s key off of this word; this is an angle we hadn’t thought about. There are definitely some ways we can use it in marketing.

Let’s talk about the future. What do you think we might be a year away from or so?

I think we’re probably looking at more of the remote delivery stuff. I know we’ve looked, just very quickly, at some of the delivery by drones. It didn’t fit our model at the time. But I’d like to see more of that. I think that as third-party delivery continues to be very important to our stores, drivers continue to be somewhat of an issue. I think they’re feeling the squeeze on getting good, reliable drivers for every single order. So if you don’t have a good driver pool, what do you do? 

What’s your third-party delivery business look like these days?

Our food does travel well. It really does hold up well for a 15-to-20-minute delivery time. So we do a tremendous amount of takeout. And then also, delivery. We use DoorDash Drive as our first-party partner. And then we do a good bit of third-party delivery as well. Each store typically has DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub as their partners, and then we have a few franchisees who will have a local partner, too.

But yeah, it’s still a tremendous part of the business and I don’t see it slowing down any.

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Growth, Operations, Restaurant Operations, Story, Technology, Taziki's