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

Craveworthy Brands CEO Gregg Majewski

Wienerschnitzel Operating Chief Rusty Bills

SpotOn Chief Product Officer Bryan Solar

What are you checking out this year?

I’m interested to see what AI is doing for the restaurant space. Because we’re fast casual. So we need as many employees as we have. We could probably cut some hours, but we need those smiling faces taking care of the customers. The way we’re built, I can’t see a robot fitting in there, right? We do everything to order. But with things like taking orders over the phone with AI, ChatGPT, and all that fun stuff, I’m interested to see what that turns into. I’m not currently looking for it because I think it’s still new, but I’m watching that trend.

I don’t see where it’s fitting yet. Washing dishes—that would be great. There are some robotic functions going on with cooking and like I said, the phone answering—that’s pretty neat. Somebody takes your order and it transfers over into our app. That would be pretty cool.

Do you have any drive-thrus?

We have one, but it’s different. They’re taking the order over the headset and making it. The person is making the food or burrito like they were inside. It makes sense for us. So when somebody gets to the window it’s there. That’s how our line works now, like Subway or Chipotle. You talk to somebody and they make it right there in front of you. What would you like on it? Withthis, they’re telling us. Instead of ringing it into the computer, we’re making it.

How’s dine-in coming along these days?

That’s one thing about our concept is that we’re built around the surfer-skater scene of the Jersey Shore. We have Bubbakoo’s TV, surf and skate videos on, so we have more of an atmosphere. It’s going strong.

Fast forward a year. AI is not the (main) headliner. What is?

Wow, Bubbakoo’s has really grown. Sorry, I had that one ready to go. But honestly, I have a couple of answers on that one. I think the employee retention and hiring in the job force is going to be a big one. If AI does start taking some jobs, there’s going to be a ton of people looking for work in our space. We were just at a conference and it was really interesting because the talk was it might take away restaurant jobs, but it’s going to add a whole lot of tech and repair jobs. I almost feel like we’re going to have the same number of people, just doing different functions. What is that going to do to our restaurant economics? Now we’re not paying minimum wage. I would imagine they’re going to be pretty high-caliber people who are going to figure out how to fix these machines. I think that’ll still be a topic next year—how to make that even easier and how to trust AI and robots more, if they come around. 

For me personally, one of the things I’m looking at is how to make the employees’ jobs easier and more efficient, so I can use less hours but not replace them. I want all my people to smile more and converse with the customer more. If their job is easier, that’s a good place to start. I want to see more of the manufacturers using the robots, more of the distributors—Sysco, US Foods. They’re having a tough time themselves with employees, so they need some help, which would help the operator. A lot of the operators’ challenges, my managers at least, is just things that go wrong that shouldn’t go wrong. That’s what I’m here to look at. Not just for me, but for my franchisees.

The GM job has really changed, it feels like. These are involved careers with a lot of aspects now.

You know what it is, too? All this tech that’s been here for years, now you’re managing your own reviews; they’re managing too much tech and not enough customers. Sometimes you want to go back to basics. That’s what we’re doing. We did that with our menu, it rolled out June 6. We upgraded our app. We upgraded our website. All to make our managers and owners jobs easier. A better functioning loyalty program. A better functioning consumer perks website. Everything we’re doing is around that customer experience, and it starts with employees.

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Restaurant Operations, Story, Bubbakoo's Burritos