As we continue our look-ahead to 2023, QSR opened the floor to 20 restaurant leaders. As you’ll see, technology continues to shadow much of what’s taken hold over the course of the past two-and-half years. The seemingly overnight, March 2020 cut of dine-in flooded the omnichannel gates. But what’s also happened, more recently for certain, is an understanding of where guest experience fits into all of it. From marketing execs to tech giants to restaurant chain mavens, here’s a glance into the future from the people who will live it every day.
Founder and Principal at Champion
Quick-service brands, like their fast-casual and casual-dining brethren, understand that guest loyalty is earned on the frontlines. While team retention and training are critical to delivering consistently excellent customer service, connecting with guests at the local level is absolutely imperative. We’re helping our clients create impactful, experiential events and big splashes in their local markets that help drive earned media, reinforce their loyalty programs, and stimulate incremental traffic.
Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux Founder and CEO
We value the commitment to people and giving them clear paths to growth and management in our restaurants—and think this will continue to resonate with the industry through 2023. High retention, and in-turn high performance, is a direct result of the culture we create in our organizations.
President and CEO of PAR Technology
In 2023, I predict we’ll see more enterprise and up-and-coming brands ditch all of their band-aid integrations and adopt a single, unified commerce technology model. Because of the pandemic, some brands rushed to adopt tons of software to solve a very specific need, like an online ordering presence or a mobile app. However, these different products if not connected to each other and not connected to the back of house or the kitchen remain partially ineffective. It no longer works to have a lack of integrations among products. Unifying your entire restaurant operations means you can deliver so much more to your customers, and I predict we’ll see more brands adopt this model in 2023.
CEO of Pokeworks
The in-store experience is back, and although consumers have been accepting of in-store technology that enhances that experience, such as tablet ordering, etc., consumers are back seeking an overall emotionally satisfying experience as they visit restaurants. As menu prices have been pushed higher by commodity and wage inflation, the consumer will accept those big price increases, but only if the overall experience delivers. On that same note, while the huge growth in digital sales is flattening out coming out of the COVID era, consumers still enjoy the convenience of ordering digitally. That said, there is no loyalty to the delivery brands, and now consumers are looking to mitigate their costs to enjoy delivery/digital ordering. Brands that can offer ways to economically make this experience seamless will win. Additionally, continued governmental regulation that impacts the restaurant business, such as the minimum wage situation in California, are a threat to the economic success of the industry. What appeared to be gains in public and governmental awareness around the fragility and low margins in the restaurant industry seem to be getting swept away post-COVID. The most at risk are smaller companies, independents, and smaller franchise owners. The larger chains will fare better, and probably consolidate more of the industry in fewer companies.
CEO of Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar
Restaurant operators have been challenged by staffing, supply chain, and other various issues over the past three years. Operators are finally realizing that this is truly a “new normal” and have adapted to operate in an environment where staff have more flexible scheduling needs, the supply chain is less reliable, and where the customer has increasing expectations. The economy will soften, and tech layoffs will cascade throughout other industries, but competition for high-talent individuals will remain tight in all industries including in our industry. Technology integration into the guest experience will continue to be a theme across all segments of the industry. The most successful companies will be the ones who let the guest experience guide their technology strategy. In the long run, those who approach it simply from a cost perspective will fail, as will those who fail to develop technology strategies that addresses the guest experience.
VP of Brand Development and Strategy at Savory Fund
The restaurant digital experience continues to be increasingly important for consumers. Loyalty, marketing, and online ordering experiences must be flawless and automated. Casual-dining consumers expect an easy-to-use reservation or waitlist system. AI and automation are critical for restaurants to attain intelligent actionable business data. A “digital table touch” solution where customers can communicate with you online after their dining experience is imperative. Remember, we need to meet customers where they are at—and the increasing majority are transacting online.
CEO and Founder of 1Huddle
2022 was a grab-bag year, with everyone reaching for whatever they could to keep themselves afloat. There was a lot of talk about how the industry was finally going to have to change—how the labor shortage would force them to find solutions that helped workers become more agile; diversify their skills and prepare them to shift from role to role if need be.
Some brands made tech investments that aimed at leveling up their people. And some brands definitely went in a different direction—I watched these brands jump into a lot of leaky lifeboats with tech investments that focused more on automating workers than developing them. 2023 will be the tipping point; the waters will calm, and we’ll get a chance to see which solutions were lifesavers and which weren’t.
Corporate Chef and Director of Menu Innovation at Taco John’s
As we enter 2023, it is safe to say that the Chicken Wars are here to stay—chains will continue to drive innovation with different flavor profiles and ways to present chicken in different forms. Another cool trend will be playing into nostalgia; this was a big play at the start of the pandemic with individuals and families staying home and making meals that are simple and easy. I feel that we will see this jump over to the quick-service restaurant realm with specific builds that are meant to evoke a specific happy memory, these items don’t necessarily need to be heavy comfort food but could be a specific flavor from their childhood or type of packaging for instance. Lastly, I believe we will see more pepper identification and heat level increases as consumers are wanting spicy food but also a true understanding on how that heat is being delivered and that will be coming from what type of pepper is being utilized. We may even see Chili Crisp really coming to life in the quick-service realm as it picked up at the start of covid in households around the U.S.
President of Hat Creek Burger Company
The pre-covid customer mentality has shifted monumentally in terms of expectations on how they choose to purchase their meals. For Hat Creek, we saw a big bounce in customers wanting and using online and third-party delivery options during COVID and that trend continues to grow. We not only need excel in those “digital” points of sale but also must continue to provide the same great value and in-store experience to our more traditional customers. The next logical ordering evolution, especially in the fast-casual space, is likely to be touch-to-order and ordering kiosks. This will further streamline the in-store ordering process allowing restaurants to effectively have a drive-thru inside the store. This certainly isn’t a new idea, and many large brands do this quite effectively. We should continue to see this method of ordering appear at more and more of our favorite spots.
CEO of BRIX Holdings
In 2023, we expect to see a continued shift back to in-person dining and entertaining for families and groups. Our focus is on ensuring every experience delivers high standards of quality and consistency of food and service. We have iconic brands and will continue to stay true to each brand’s core identity while finding new ways to bring each brand to life in a contemporary way.
Laura Rea Dickey
CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
In 2023, we expect to see more optimized, slimmed-down menus across the industry as guests seek more value from their favorite restaurants. We’re certainly seeing this at Dickey’s where we’ve simplified our menu by focusing on our most popular, core barbecue items. We can also expect to see fewer but longer-lasting Limited Time Offers. Coming up in 2023, Dickey’s will be introducing three premium, hand-crafted sausages, while working hard to ensure that our slow-smoked barbecue, from sandwiches to catering, provides our guests high-value and satisfaction from all of our restaurants.
Founding Partner of Dog Haus
Digital ordering is the future in the restaurant industry because it will allow us to be nimbler in the wake of crises that affect our staffing, as we saw during and after the pandemic, and focus on what the customer comes to us for—our food. The customer experience continues to evolve, and we believe that offering digital ordering, whether it’s through an app, online or in-store device or kiosk, will help us adapt quicker to meet the customer’s wants and needs. We’re committed to being at the forefront of this process because we want to bring customers the best burgers, sausages, and gourmet hot dogs on the market whether it’s at our Haüs or theirs.
CEO of One Table Restaurant Brands (Tender Greens & Tocaya)
We expect to see an influx in demand for comfort food. It’s no secret that the inflationary pressures of 2022 will likely spill into 2023 in some form of a looming recession. During challenging times, people tend to lean on nostalgia, comfort food and the familiar. How people go about ordering food is no different, as was the case during the onset of COVID. Brands that have depth and variety across their menu with items appealing to both the health-conscious and comfort food-seeking alike should be able to meet this demand seamlessly.
Andrew K. Smith
Managing Director and Co-Founder, Savory Fund
In 2023, I predict we’ll see more simplicity across the board: menu offerings, operational improvements, and technology offerings to simplify processes. This is the year of simplification and ridding ourselves of the unnecessary parts of the business that cause profits to leak out from the bottom of the ship. Additional automation will be introduced, and we will be faced with investments into these new automated systems—or we will lose ground to those who do. We will also see more value-driven meals offered by restaurants to gain the limited traffic that will be felt industry-wide for at least the first half of 2023. My hope is we start seeing stability in the back half of 2023. The best is not behind us—it’s yet to come.
Chief Marketing Officer of Naf Naf Grill
In 2023, consumers will be looking for speed and convenience. Delivery and 3PD marketplaces brought consumers the power of decision, with thousands of choices at the fingertips. Restaurants everywhere scrambled to make their products available to consumers in whatever capacity they could. Now it’s time to accelerate with offerings that are better suited for the channels they are going into. Products, bundles, packaging, and technologies that enable this will surface more and more next year.
I am also excited about seeing diversity in people and flavors. The restaurant industry has always been a leader in terms of diversity at least on the field side of things. I believe there’s still a gap in terms of how many diverse resources are part of the leadership positions both in restaurants and support centers. Having leaders, board members, investors that reflect the composition of your restaurants can create a culture where everyone feels seen. More and more, I see what was once considered fusion food (the irrelevant combination of flavors and spices of different cuisines match up together to create something new and exciting), becoming the normal across different brands. From TX BBQ Bao buns to Honey Harissa Spicy chicken sandwiches, there is a delicious interchange of flavors that transcends cultures and geographies, and it hits differently. Expect to see more global cuisine concepts, obsessed to deliver new flavors in familiar ways and connect with customers while surprising them.
Lastly, quick-service is ready to get back to basics. COVID threw a wrench on what we knew about the restaurant experience, in the front of the house and back of the house. There’s a new normal, but the industry will go back and double down on the things that always made it strong. Hospitality, loyalty driven by experience and not discounts and operational excellence.
CEO and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Joe’s
I expect 2023 to be very similar to 2022 regarding the restaurant trends we are experiencing, on the positive side, along with on the negative side. On the positive side, I expect to continue to see automation and innovation play a leading role in helping operators overcome the labor shortage we are wading through. I also expect to see comp store sales remain positive, but lower than prior year, as the innovation will spill over into offerings, menu creativity, bundling, and LTOs. On the negative side, I expect to continue to see financial pressures on Cost of Goods, Labor, and Restaurant Supplies because the fossil fuel policies under this administration will not change or return to prior administration policies. Hence, since the fossil fuel industry impacts 90 percent of the restaurant industry costs in some form or fashion, I expect margins to be under pressure throughout 2023. Overall, I am cautiously optimistic about the restaurant trends in 2023 continuing to lead us out of the quagmire we find ourselves in.
Cofounder and CEO of Apóla Greek Grill
We foresee smaller “proper” portions becoming more the norm. Across the board regardless of concept there has been overportioning. There is a movement toward more normal portions with the excuse of a more health-conscious menu, but the reality is that restaurants need to lower their COGS. Prices are increasing tremendously across all proteins, dairy, etc. but restaurants must remain competitive. Customers are starting to become more price conscious again and will pull away from larger portions (or will start sharing). Besides that, online ordering will continue to become more and more popular as order accuracy is higher and service speeds are faster and more importantly, customers already got their “dose” of socializing once COVID restrictions were lifted but we slowly see them slipping back to wanting to deal with less people! We should also expect to see more self-order kiosks popping up both in quick- and full-service environments. In terms of cuisine, Mediterranean and Greek food are gaining significant traction but anything that is properly packaged and easy to eat on the go will gain more popularity—whether it’s a Pita Sandwich, a Chicken Sandwich, or a Poke Bowl.
Chief Business Officer at Kitchen United
Consumers continue to seek out convenience when it comes to restaurant occasions. We fully expect delivery adoption and frequency to continue to increase in 2023, but at the same time we’re also seeing more demand for pick-up of restaurant food at places customers are already going—grocery stores and C-stores—both inherently located for convenience. Consumers like the idea of being able to pick up groceries for the week and a restaurant-prepared dinner for tonight in one stop—like the six Kitchen United locations open inside of Kroger stores.
Delivery adoption and frequency have increased in 2022 and we expect that growth to continue in 2023. However, as that demand grows, we see more and more customers expecting to have a greater choice of cuisines within a one single order. Parents want to get Indian food for them and chicken fingers for the kids. Groups want to feel confident that both the meat-lover and vegan co-worker will have good options to pick from. To do so effectively requires coordination and creativity—and it’s enabled both by new technology on the market—like our Mix Operating System, and co-located restaurants—like the three we just open with Kroger in Columbus.
Chief Operating Officer at PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans
With low consumer confidence in the short term, future of the economy and overall franchise inquiries down according to multiple CRM platform CEOs, restaurant and service industry growth in general is slowing and will continue to do so for the first half of 2023. This would seem at odds with the current 10 percent same-store sales growth in full-service restaurants and 7 percent same-store sales growth in limited-service restaurants for 2022. However, adjusting for inflated menu, costs, wipes out most, if not all those gains. That being said, brands are going to be driving more capital toward automation and driving ULE’s rather than brand acquisition or territorial expansion, as there are a lot of headwinds in the market for borrowing capital. At Ballard Brands, despite the market challenges, many of our franchisees are seeing increased EBITDA and overall investment growth. This is why we have seen a record number of franchisees adding to their location account. We are focused on growing our established territories and pushing internal unit growth in 2023 and beyond.
The pace of automation development, coupled with a lack of access to products will drive more businesses to tighten menus and reduce SKUs to meet customer demand at the speed the customer wants it. Because we have added AI and automation, Ballard Brands has increased overall same-store sales and added incremental sales to our weaker dayparts while increasing throughput and lowering costs. We will continue to invest in increased co-botic enhancements to our offerings to drive more efficiency.
CEO at 7shifts
The top-down management approach operators have been instituting for years is why we continue to see hiring challenges. The best operators know how to get their desired outcomes while ensuring their teams feel empowered and heard. There’s a shift taking place in how the best operators are thinking about their teams—they’re asking for feedback and they’re taking it seriously. Feedback around better work environments, improving pay transparency, and encouraging flexibility that meets the needs of the workers, while also fulfilling business needs. They get that this creates a higher level of trust and plays a key role in retention. In 2023, we’re going to see more operators openly sharing how they’ve benefitted from putting their teams first.