The COVID-19 pandemic has forced restaurant operators to accelerate their technology investments, which in turn is now helping them operate more efficiently and improve service amid an ongoing labor crunch.
“Technology is there, hopefully, to facilitate an interaction between people,” said Khalilah Cooper, senior director of service and hospitality at Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A. “If we can take tasks off of our team members to allow them to give that warm welcome, a genuine smile to the guest, that’s what we are going to lean into.”
That has included such steps as increasing customer access with the chain’s Chick-fil-A One app or placing staff with iPads outside to speed drive-thru times.
The pandemic has raised consumers’ expectations around convenience and the ability to order food anytime, she said, and restaurants must continue to evolve their digital and off-premises experiences.
“Guests are expecting experiences that we had not been expecting until 2024 or 2025, so we need to look at how things have changed, and how do we do things differently, with a fresh perspective,” said Cooper.
Cooper is one of more than 50 restaurant leaders speaking at Nation’s Restaurant News’ inaugural CREATE: The Future of Foodservice conference next week in Denver. Ahead of the event, NRN spoke with Cooper as well as CREATE speakers P.F. Chang’s CEO Damola Adamolekun and Focus Brands restaurant category president Joe Guith about how accelerated tech investments are reshaping restaurant operations and offsetting ongoing labor challenges.
At P.F. Chang’s, technology is helping staff perform their jobs more efficiently, Adamolekun said.
“Given the labor shortage, it’s become that much more important,” he said.
He cited as examples a reservation management system that provides hosts with information about customers’ previous visits, loyalty status and special occasions, and a kitchen management system that automates some elements of inventory accounting.
“Now it requires less hours to do the same thing,” Adamolekun said.
Technology is also playing a role in helping P.F. Chang’s become more channel-agnostic by creating better off-premises customer experiences, he said.
“The customer will engage with you how they want to,” Adamolekun said. “The customer is evolving, and that’s going to be the case whether you evolve with them or not, because others will.
“That means however the customer chooses to engage — if they want to come to our restaurants and have a birthday party, or whether they want to order delivery — they will have a great experience either way.”
Multi-concept operator Focus Brands, meanwhile, is on a journey to create more unified technology platforms — particularly its point-of-sale and loyalty systems — across its portfolio of concepts, which includes McAlister’s Deli, Carvel, Jamba, Schlotzsky’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s.
Part of the challenge, said Joe Guith, president of restaurant brands at the Atlanta-based company, is creating an experience that is not only seamless for customers, but also seamless for employees.
“If you start introducing too many things, it can weigh things down,” he said. “Anytime you introduce complexities into the system, it takes time for training, and time is money.”
For example, McAlister’s Deli had originally prioritized the ability for people to customize their items when ordering through digital channels, but that added more operational complexity, without providing significant incremental value for customers, Guith explained. The company subsequently moved the ability to customize orders to appear further down in the ordering process.
Focus Brands is also investing in upgrading its digital loyalty programs and unifying them across its concepts, he said. Creating a tiered loyalty platform and using data to better understand its customers are among the company’s goals when it comes to loyalty technology investments.