Top tech tips from the Restaurant Innovation Summit

Restaurant operators and technology experts shared their advice for choosing, rolling out and expanding upon tech solutions for foodservice at the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Innovation Summit. Here are some key takeaways from the three-day event held last week in Austin, Texas.

Seek out tech that simplifies, solves problems

Four in five restaurant operators agree that technology can increase sales, according to NRA data, but investing in tech can still be a difficult proposition. One of the factors that may keep restaurants from instituting a tech plan is that they don’t see how tech tools will fit into their existing operation. Instead of focusing on flashy tech innovations that are eye-catching but can be impractical, operators should identify a problem and look for a program, machine or other technology that can provide a solution.

During a presentation and panel discussion on Internet of Things technology, tech expert Stacey Higginbotham said restaurants shouldn’t get overwhelmed by “whiz-bang-cool, paying-with-your-face or VR goggles in the kitchen technology,” and should focus instead on, “actual, practical things...The kitchen is like a factory, and you need to start treating it like one.”

Increasing speed and streamlining operations is a top concern for many restaurants, and there are a slew of tech-based programs and tools with that goal in mind. “Line-busting” and speeding up the transaction process was one of the main reasons behind Union Square Hospitality Group switching to a cashless payment system at three of its restaurants, Maureen Cushing, USHG’s Vice President of Technology and Processes, said during a discussion about cashless payments.

Front of house tech tools may be a good way to entice tech-savvy diners, but there are plenty of ways to use tech in the kitchen and along the supply chain that improve the experience for both operators and diners. “We’re looking at a lot of the infrastructure that helps us bring data, analyze it, waste less food and solve for out logistic and supply chain problems,” said Brian Frank, founder of venture fund FTW Ventures.

Start small, make sure staff is on board

When it comes to rolling out a tech plan, it’s wise to “look at the bigger picture first and then start small,” Susan Ann Carrol-Bosler, director of information services for White Castle, said during the Internet of Things panel discussion. Phasing in new technology piece by piece can keep costs manageable and make the transition easier on employees. A good strategy when introducing new technology is to “get buy-in from your employees by showing them how it helps them,” Higginbotham said during the panel.

During their discussion of cashless payments, USHG’s Cushing and Michael Hong, chief financial officer of Austin-based eatery Chi’Lantro, talked about explaining the benefits of cashless payment to staff members before the transition began. Knowing that cashless was safer, cleaner and more efficient made for a smoother rollout, they said. Another thing Cushing and Hong agreed on was not to rush when introducing new practices. Hong said the transition to cashless at Chi’Lantro took six months, but in hindsight he wishes the restaurant had gone with a one year timeline. Cushing stressed the importance of a gradual transition, explaining that USHG always pilots new practices at one location before rolling out to other restaurants.

Although tech solutions like cashless payment systems offer many benefits, speakers also made it clear that it’s imperative to know the risks of any new system. With cashless payment, it’s important to have a backup plan in case the internet fails or a new customer comes in with only cash, Cushing said. Carrol-Bosler advised operators to have a cybersecurity plan in place before adding new tech. “Internet of Things devices are on the internet, and they need to be protected,” she said. Working with experienced providers that can offer support for the lifetime of a machine or application is key, as is making sure security concerns are part of staff training.

“Be aware of your own vulnerabilities with your employees,” Higginbotham said. “If your employees have the password to something, they can share that, and they can be phished. So you need to train the people in your organizations to not give out crucial data.”

Consider the big picture and keep an open mind

When adding new tools to complete the ‘big picture’ solution they first envisioned when making their tech plan, it’s important for restaurateurs to keep an eye on what’s new, since the restaurant tech landscape is constantly evolving, speakers said. Rob Seigel, co-founder of HeadsUp Weather, talked about the expanding opportunities for restaurants to use weather analytics to plan shift schedules or marketing campaigns. Sarah Smith, research director for Food Futures Lab, discussed what’s on the horizon for food innovation, including technology that could someday lead to the gamification of the gut biome, with consumers using wearable devices to track how their food choices affect their gut health.

Richard Blais at the Restaurant Innovation Summit
Blais (Photo: Tricia Contreras)

Tech companies are taking a cue from restaurants to create the next applications and devices that will solve their biggest problems. Rising labor costs are a major concern for many restaurateurs, according to a recent NRA survey, and using wearable technology to track workers’ efficiency could help identify areas where time is being wasted and employees who may need additional training.

During his opening keynote speech, celebrity chef and restaurateur Richard Blais imagined a setup that would offer valuable insights in the quest to increase productivity. “I would love to have stats on my grill cook that are like stats of a baseball player,” he said.

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