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From right, panelists Josh Kern, Dan Klehm, and Peter Newlin, and moderator Bret Thorn

As AI creates ‘perfect’ solutions, authenticity in restaurants will stand out

Executives from Logan’s Roadhouse, Cheba Hut, and Bird Call share their perspectives with Denver operators at CREATE Road Show event

New technology, from better point-of-sales systems to artificial intelligence, can make restaurant operators’ lives easier, but it also makes the basics of great food and service and operational excellence all the more important, according to restaurateurs who discussed the state of the industry at a recent gathering in Denver.

At the CREATE Road Show meet up in the Mile High City, sponsored by Johnsonville Foodservice, restaurant executives with diverse approaches to adjusting to the changing times shared their insights.

“My prediction is it’s going to be all about the authenticity,” said Peter Newlin, chief experience officer for Gastiamo Group, which operates chicken sandwich chain Bird Call, casual-dining chains Park Burger and Homegrown Tap & Dough, and one-off Denver restaurants Perdida, Lady Nomada, and Park & Co.

That’s especially true as AI tech comes onstream that allows anyone to produce any images that they want out of thin air.

“I think the concept of, ‘Dude, this is my real soul; this is who I really am,’ is going to be more relevant than ever because everything is going to be so perfect,” he said.

Newlin said he spends much of his time working on what he calls “experiential design” for his restaurants, from great uniforms to the right lotions in the restrooms to music, but all of that is now table stakes for running restaurants in the city.

“You gotta have a dope vibe, you have to have beautiful art, you have to have well-thought-out music, your team needs to be on point, but it’s just going to come back to food,” he said. “More than ever, ops are really the core to a restaurant.”

But new tools can make that easier, he said, including the AI he has been using to analyze his employees’ performance.

“I haven’t written a performance review in the past six months,” he said. “I’ve literally put my data into a [AI] model and said, ‘write a performance review of this person,’ and I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done, and it’s taking me 50% of the time. Whether it’s that or the POS that you’re implementing or [other issues] that you’re trying to solve, I think it’s going to get easier quickly [thanks to AI].”

Elevated Inc., which owns cannabis-themed sandwich chain Cheba Hut, with 19 units in Colorado and Nevada, and the five-unit fast-fine concept SkinnyFats in Nevada and Utah, is decidedly “tech light,” according to chief operating officer Dan Klehm.

Cheba Hut, which is more than 20 years old and therefore well ahead of its time when it comes to its weed-oriented messaging, has what Klehm called “a built-in experience” thanks to its theme that draws people in, and in the past couple of years has focused more on its bar experience with DJ nights, live music, bingo, trivia contests, etc., and he agreed that authenticity is essential, as is good service.

“People really go out to eat because they want an authentic connection with people. You can stay at home and get bad service, I always say.”

That authenticity relies on the people they hire and the chain’s saying: “No scripts, no titles, no bullshit.”

Klehm said he wants his employees to come as they are, and because they’re willing to hire front-of-the-house workers that other chains might shy away from, and on top of that make them feel welcome, it helps with turnover.

“They don’t wear uniforms, they play whatever music they want, so the experience really comes off as authentic,” he said.

SPB Hospitality, the parent company of casual dining concepts including Logan’s Roadhouse, Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, as well as upscale J. Alexander’s and Stoney River and, as of April, quick-service slider chain Krystal, is working on using AI technologies such as voice recognition and order patterns at Krystal’s drive-thru, but CEO Josh Kern told attendees he didn’t see it going much beyond that.

“I wouldn’t take that into casual [dining],” he said.

Rather, the company is taking the elevated service model of J. Alexander’s and Stoney River, which were both acquired in 2021, and bringing it to SPB’s more casual operations.

Kern said the company is working to hire people with a real desire to provide great hospitality — a difficult ask given the labor market, that is looser than it was a year ago, but still tight — “but once you find them and you reward them, it certainly is better for the brands,” he said.

He, too, said that authenticity was important for all of the brands, and that they had to maintain their distinct personalities.

“Homogenization is the worst thing that can happen,” he said.

Kern also advocated for letting employees be themselves on social media — within certain parameters, of course — adding that servers with many followers can attract people to their restaurants because of their celebrity status.

“It’s an interesting conundrum, because there’s some weird stuff that just gets out there and you’re like ‘Oh God. What’s this going to do?’” he said. “But you do want to have some elasticity out there because you don’t want to get too corporate or just full of yourself.”

The CREATE Road Show is part of Nation’s Restaurant News’ CREATE: The Future of Foodservice programming that includes live and virtual educational and networking sessions culminating this year in a three-day experience in Palm Springs, Calif., Oct. 1-3.  

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Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

TAGS: Operations
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