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Restaurant industry is focused on labor landscape, tech innovations

Foodservice professionals addressed the labor market, technology implementation and more at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show.

5 min read

FoodRestaurant and Foodservice

The National Restaurant Association

Foodservice professionals from around the world gathered at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago this week to celebrate restaurants and discuss how stakeholders across the industry are meeting the needs of both operators and customers. Many of the educational sessions during the four-day-long event focused on how to navigate the current labor landscape, how technology is best utilized for restaurant operators and what is next for the future of the foodservice category.

Overcoming labor challenges

Restaurants across the country are facing a challenging labor market, and panelists at several sessions remarked that operators should be seeking out many different solutions to the issue. 

Jim Wilson, director of professional advancement at the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, and Keegan Conrey, senior vice president of sales for North America at employee experience platform Harri, both used the phrase, “There is no silver bullet,” when creating solutions to labor problems.

Another hot topic during sessions this year was California’s recent enactment of a higher minimum wage. Many operators have raised prices to accommodate higher labor costs; in addition to those increases, Juancarlos Chacon, a Jersey Mike’s Subs franchisee, shared what practices he has implemented that may not seem as obvious.

 One of the best ways to cut costs and improve efficiency is to reduce employee turnover. Chacon shared that he has had many of his stores’ managers working for him for several years, and Harri’s tools have recently aided him with predictive scheduling, implementing digital paperwork, compliance and more—all of which have helped build long-lasting relationships with workers.

During another session, chef and restauranteur Justin Sutherland echoed that the current labor market has presented challenges, but adaptability is the key to overcoming them. Sutherland and Maarten Potjer, executive vice president of innovation growth strategy for water hygiene company Ecolab, agreed that the current labor availability for the foodservice industry is likely the new normal. So, instead of ignoring the issue, Sutherland encouraged operators to focus on finding “utility players” for their businesses. Employees who can do many different things are the most valuable, especially as the culture of restaurant kitchens continues to evolve.

“We may have a labor shortage, but we don’t have a labor shortage for employers who are really taking care of their folks,” said Nate Hybl, founder and CEO of bowl and wrap restaurant chain gusto, at another panel discussion.

Operators harnessing tech alongside employees

Technology such as robotics and automated systems have been a significant presence at the show in past years, and many vendors focused on these tools were present at this year’s show; however, several presenters emphasized that the best tech is not meant to replace workers but instead complement operators and their employees. 

While tools such as QR codes and mobile ordering have permanently altered how customers view the foodservice experience, “restaurants are still a place of human interaction,” Sutherland said when discussing how technology has changed the industry. 

While patrons are now used to interacting with technology in most restaurant concepts, much of the tech that operators need most is at the back of the house. Christopher Tompkins, founder and owner of Broad Street Oyster Company, shared that data from financial services firm Square is essential for making difficult decisions about his business, such as removing menu items or increasing prices.

AI is a trending topic in virtually every industry right now, and the restaurant industry is no exception. The usefulness of AI was brought up during several panels, for tools such as predictive scheduling systems, phone answering, food waste management and more.

At a session with representatives from Popmenu and one of its restaurant users, panelists showcased how AI can assist operators with automated marketing via AI. Popmenu’s system can be used to build a monthly calendar of personalized promotional materials such as social media posts, text messages and emails. 

Popmenu co-founders Brendan Sweeney and Tony Roy shared that the goal of its marketing tool is for the restaurant operator to “become the editor-in-chief, rather than a content creator.” They also asserted that this function provides consistency, which is often what is most valuable to businesses in the foodservice industry.

Eric Peterson, vice president and partner at Fado Pubs, shared that using the AI system has increased his sales while delivering his business a high return on investment in terms of time. Scheduling out content can often take up a lot of time for a smaller restaurant operator; automation of marketing allows for staff members to focus on their primary tasks instead of being taken away from customers and their needs, Peterson added.

Data and AI are key to driving efficiencies across the restaurant category, and Tony Smith, the co-founder and CEO of restaurant software provider Restaurant365, stressed that when introducing a featured session on the future of foodservice.

“All of this [data] as we move into the coming years will be harnessed properly,” he said. “And I think that is going to help us all make some fantastic decisions for what we should be doing in our restaurants. … I believe [AI] will be harnessed with people to make each of us better.”

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