In the wake of COVID-19, the foodservice industry is entering a new era. Spurred on by the need to handle online orders and curbside pickup, document compliance with capacity restrictions and other safety rules, and smooth out staffing and supply-chain issues, restaurants are embracing new technologies. According to a recent survey, one in four food-industry leaders now considers their company a tech-forward early adopter—more than double the number who could have said the same pre-pandemic.

But while restaurants are learning to use new technologies in new ways, many are still struggling when it comes to data and analytics. According to the Boston Consulting Group, better analytics programs can drive a 10 percent increase in revenues and a 15 percent decrease in operating costs for restaurants—but despite the rewards, the National Restaurant Association found that a third of restaurants are still lagging behind when it comes to data and tech adoption.

That’s especially problematic when it comes to food-service franchises. On the one hand, data is potentially an enormously powerful tool for franchised brands, which have large networks of restaurants to glean insights from—but on the other, the diffuse and organizationally complex nature of franchises makes it hard to centralize those insights and package them in ways that individual franchise operators can take advantage of.

Solving problems with data

Franchising allows you to scale up a business concept at breakneck speed and conquer huge new markets. But while decentralization is a powerful force multiplier, it comes at a cost. As any franchise network operator knows, it’s tough to maintain visibility into the operations of individual locations, or to channel insights either from the front line back to headquarters, or from HQ out to individual operators. Too often, franchise networks can be lumbering, slow-moving behemoths that struggle to share information effectively, or to leverage the data insights that are transforming other parts of the business world.

Sharing information and insights more effectively can address many of the big challenges faced by the restaurant business. Inventory control is hard enough at the best of times — but if individual locations can share insights horizontally with one another, or vertically with HQ, then it becomes much easier to spot trends, anticipate upticks in demand, or pilot new menu items effectively. Better data strategies can also help franchise networks to develop and apply performance benchmarks, boost productivity, and troubleshoot issues at locations that aren’t making the grade.

To achieve that kind of dynamic data-sharing and fluid performance benchmarking, however, you’ll need new digital tools. Instead of franchisors relying on clunky Excel-based reporting processes, you need to give franchise operators slick, easy-to-use tools that can turn data into a common language for restaurateurs—a kind of connective tissue linking individual restaurant locations, and frictionlessly connecting each franchisee back to central HQ. That means implementing software that captures the power of commercial analytics, but doesn’t require individual franchisees to have a degree in data science in order to benefit from the insights buried in the data.

Start telling stories

What restaurants really need, in other words, are tools that focus on data storytelling. The aim isn’t to drown individual franchise operators in data—it’s to give them simple, easy to use data dashboards that live alongside their existing business intelligence or franchise management software, and enable them to easily unlock previously hidden insights. Ideally, these tools will also be mobile-first, allowing franchisees to integrate data into their existing workflows on a moment-to-moment basis, without requiring them to head into the back office to access data insights.

The benefits of such an approach should be clear. Better data can help franchisees and network operators to better understand the marketplace and their customers’ needs, for instance. Individual franchisees can report the things they’re seeing at point-of-sale, and that data can be consolidated and repackaged to surface trends and highlight opportunities for other franchisees, or to help franchise operators to develop new guidelines, resources, processes, and product lines for deployment across the entire network. Data isn’t just about numbers—it’s about identifying and codifying best practices, so that you can tell what you’re doing well and how it can be replicated.

Data tools also help to increase efficiency: having clear data can help a restaurant manager to realize that their frontline team is taking longer than the network average to carry out certain tasks, or isn’t quite keeping up with brand maintenance and sanitation standards, for instance. Comparing KPIs across regions or product lines and cross-referencing performance metrics lets store managers drive continuous improvement, and helps regional managers to identify both success stories and areas where more work is needed.

Build agile franchises

At the end of the day, data is about telling stories, and that means it’s also about communication. For franchise HQ, better data means clearer information-sharing across the network as a whole—not just with existing operators, but also when recruiting and onboarding new franchisees. With easy-to-understand data at their fingertips, even novice franchisees can quickly grasp what’s expected of them, master KPIs, and bring their performance up to required levels.

In the post-pandemic era, such capabilities will be vitally important for food-service franchises. In recent months, we’ve all seen the importance of agility, and the need for foodservice brands to be able to pivot rapidly to implement new business models and ways of working. With the right data infrastructure, franchised restaurant chains can be every bit as nimble and responsive as their independent counterparts—and can gain an important competitive edge when it comes to staying connected and driving growth across the network as a whole.

Charles Miglietti is the CEO and co-founder of modern BI platform Toucan Toco, which is trusted by more than 500 global clients to build insight culture at scale. He was previously an R&D engineer at Apple and a software engineer at Withings.

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