In many ways, 2023 has been the “year of the [quick-service restaurant.”
Not only have quick-service restaurants’ more affordable food prices increased their competitive advantage, their mastery of drive-through dining, a big trend, is also working in their favor.
What is helping quick-service restaurants build on these advantages and further maximize their financial performance? Automation—but not just any “shiny objects.” Many are carefully selecting the technologies that can deliver meaningful, and sustainable, savings, efficiencies, or revenue growth.
Tackling the Energy Behemoth
On that basis, the ability to drive down energy costs has become a significant spend driver. Quick-service restaurants are by nature heavy energy users due to the capital equipment they depend on—from freezers, ovens, and dish machines to HVAC. ENERGY STAR notes that restaurants consume “about five to seven times more energy per square foot than other commercial buildings.” With quick-service restaurants, that figure may even approach ten times more.
However, national quick-service restaurant facility managers (FMs) can’t reduce energy consumption without enterprise-level technology to support them. As it is, they are challenged to stay on top of energy usage across dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of sites. With extreme weather, higher-than-average temperatures, consumer concerns about sustainability, and corporate ESG mandates, FMs have no choice but to fill the gap. Technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) and AI are helping them to do just that.
These technologies hone in on quick-service restaurants’ “energy guzzlers”—their equipment. Enterprise-level IoT platforms, for example, enable FMs to connect all of their machines so they can control and manage them from the cloud. The data from the equipment provides surprising insights to first-time users across both the restaurant and retail spaces. One major brand, for example, found that a rooftop air conditioning unit was not powering down on schedule due to a malfunctioning switch, resulting in excessive energy usage.
Powering up the IoT with AI
There is another way that facility managers are driving down their energy use—avoiding excess consumption during times of peak demand. These are the 15-minute intervals when businesses collectively put the most pressure on the electric grid. The electric utilities charge them as much as 50% more during these periods. Quick-service restaurants have become aware of this issue and are using their connected equipment to sequence air conditioning, heating, or lighting and adjusting on/off times and set points accordingly.
AI, in conjunction with the IoT, enables quick-service restaurants to further improve this practice. AI technology processes equipment usage data, analyzing it alongside pricing and other inputs, to optimize energy usage across the enterprise.
Maintaining Food Safety and Quality
Technology to connect equipment has also emerged as a shield against food safety and quality issues that cost quick-service restaurants money over the long term. One quick-service restaurant, for example, discovered that some proteins were going into ovens before they were fully defrosted, leading to these kinds of concerns. They learned this when sensors showed that food wasn’t heating to temperature on time. Given staff attrition in the restaurant industry—and demands on existing team members to do more with less—these slip-ups can easily go unnoticed. A connected equipment strategy serves as an extra safety and quality check.
Today, as quick-service restaurants embrace food lockers to serve the large number of consumers who prefer takeout, that role is further expanding. No diner wants to pick up and reheat a cold pizza or hamburger, and IoT data helps ensure lockers are performing optimally, so food stays warm until it’s picked up.
Small Data Points Make a Big Difference
Harnessing such data to answer simple questions—like whether teams are turning ovens on and off on a schedule—has a much larger impact on quick-service restaurants’ performance than leaders may first realize.
Consider a location where an oven is normally set at 450 degrees for 10 hours/day, and instead stays on day and night for a week. Without an alert to that kind of deviation, restaurants potentially compromise their sustainability, efficiency, safety, operational, and revenue goals—all at the same time.
Running the oven that high for that long shortens its useful life and may necessitate early replacement, especially if the machine is already approaching the end. The cost of the wasted electricity and heat speaks for itself. No one can clean the oven until it finally cools—meaning it may have to stay out of service because of safety protocols. And because the oven never goes into standby mode, staff don’t benefit from automated menu updates, including new recipes for limited time offerings and menu updates.
Other applications for a connected equipment strategy range from automating routine tasks to predictive maintenance. ConnexFM has found that reactive repairs can be three times as costly as a more proactive approach.
However, if quick-service restaurants choose to maximize their competitive advantage in the year ahead, they should analyze the long-term return on every potential investment. Like the restaurants themselves—which have emerged strong from the pandemic—the wisest technology plans are those with staying power.
Drew Holst is Vice President of Powerhouse Dynamics, a leading provider of Internet of Things (IoT) and AI solutions to help multi-unit restaurant brands improve operational and financial performance. These include the Open Kitchen platform for restaurant and foodservice operations. Contact him at email@example.com or visit powerhousedynamics.com.