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    The Digital Revolution

  • Technological advancements have changed everything about the quick-service experience—and woe to the operator who falls behind.

    Slim Chickens
    Slim Chickens’ 46-inch digital menuboards provide more room for photos and prices, giving the brand more opportunity to communicate with the customer.

    Acquiring new restaurant technology can be a tricky business. Because of ever-decreasing prices, an operator may not want to be the first to buy a new application or software system. Plus, no one wants to invest in untested equipment, regardless of its technological prowess.

    But, at the same time, if restaurants wait too long, there’s a real risk of getting left behind by both the competition and customers. Just as it has changed every other aspect of modern living, technology is constantly—and drastically—reshaping the quick-service and fast-casual businesses. From digital menuboards to online ordering to targeted social media campaigns, technology’s reach in the industry has never been more widespread. And there’s no question that all operators, regardless of size or segment, must have their hand in the game.

    But industry insiders say that is easier said than done. Up until now, restaurant technology systems have remained somewhat fractured. Separate applications have handled separate tasks—mobile apps handle ordering, software systems track food and labor costs, online platforms manage marketing campaigns.

    “The landscape of restaurant technology is unfortunately one where it’s very proprietary and the various systems don’t really talk to each other,” says Brad Chun, CEO of TechCafe. “It doesn’t really make it easy for the operator that’s running a restaurant to try to leverage technology.”

    The digital revolution in the restaurant industry is starting to change that, though, and quickly. And operators must be prepared to take part in the changes.

    TechCafe, run by former New York City restaurateurs, helps connect restaurants with various technology solutions. In operating their now-shuttered

    fast-casual burger concept, 4food, Chun and his business partner Matt Sheppard realized just how daunting the tech landscape is for operators trying to keep up with the hundreds of new apps that roll out every day.

    “When people think about technology in restaurants, you kind of start off with the point of sale,” Chun says. “But surrounding that central part of the technology ecosystem, you have loyalty, mobile payments, employment management, and supply chain management. There are literally hundreds of technologies that can help you out in your business.”

    While some applications have found favor among operators for their ability to draw in new customers, Chun says, more applications are helping restaurants manage the massive amounts of data they collect—on customers, sales, and other trends. These tools use analytics to help operators make better decisions, engage customers, and manage efficiencies, he adds.

    Tech companies now are working to integrate their various products so that restaurants can manage their data easier. “Eventually it will be simpler,” Chun says. “It’s just going to be a standard component of a restaurant, period. That’s why it’s a very exciting time to be in this space. The environment is changing every single day.”

    Restaurants are anxiously awaiting those more harmonized systems. Greg Smart, cofounder of the 14-unit Slim Chickens, says whatever tool manages to bundle all of an operator’s needs into one platform will be a “game-changer” for restaurants.

    “The biggest problem we find, even with digital menuboards, is getting everything to actually work together, to talk to each other,” Smart says. “It’s a challenge. Everybody seems to be great at one thing, but not multiple.”

    The Arkansas-based Slim Chickens implemented digital menuboards two years ago. It started with 46-inch indoor panels and it’s now piloting the digital panels in the drive thru of a new Fayetteville store. The digital drive-thru setup is about two-and-a-half times as expensive as traditional menuboards, Smart says, so the corporate team is still studying whether the boards will be implemented systemwide. But with high-definition graphics, digital menuboards can fit more photos and prices, Smart says, giving the brand a better opportunity to communicate to the customer. In addition, with a cloud-based operating system, the corporate office or the restaurant can constantly customize the boards to rotate offerings or highlight certain promotions or higher-profit menu items. The drive thru and indoor counter can feature different items, and the restaurants can immediately post new promotions, whether it’s for iced tea on a hot day or a deal to celebrate the local high school football team’s win.

    “It’s really fun, really exciting stuff to play with,” Smart says. “I feel like it’s really in its infancy.”

    The digital boards have already posted measurable results for Slim Chickens. Customers’ order times have decreased, allowing the restaurants to increase their throughput. Promoted items are selling at higher rates than with the traditional menuboards.

    Consumer-facing technology is often what garners the most attention in the restaurant business. Apps like OpenTable and GrubHub have become engrained in the foodservice business, and more brands are launching apps and mobile ordering systems. But technology in the back of the house is innovating just as rapidly, says Aaron Allen, CEO of global restaurant consulting firm Aaron Allen & Associates. Tech solutions offer sophisticated data tracking and graphing, whether it’s for human resources, scheduling, procurement, inventory control, or labor costs. Technology systems, often from the palm of a manager’s hand, are helping control costs and maximize efficiency.

    This period of rapid innovation is important not just for restaurants, Allen says, but for all of humanity.

    “Technology has fundamentally changed our lives, and irreversibly so. And, absolutely, it’s fundamentally changed the restaurant industry,” he says. “If you look at the evolution of human communication, we’re living in a point in time that’s as significant a milestone as the invention of language and the printing press.”

    For restaurants, the goal shouldn’t be to simply catch up, he adds, because there’s no end in sight when it comes to technological advancements. Customers are used to—and now demand—accelerated innovation. Consumers expect Apple to come up with a new iPhone each year that makes last year’s version obsolete, Allen says, and they’re increasingly demanding that restaurants similarly innovate on a regular basis.