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Creators-awards.jpeg Joanna Fantozzi
CREATORS are some of the best innovators in the industry.

The 2023 CREATORS award winners discuss the state of restaurant innovation

The CREATORS Class of 2023 — Wetzel’s Pretzels, Wow Bao, Donatos, Tupelo Honey and Sweetfin — took the stage at CREATE to discuss their trailblazing brands

What do the 2023 CREATORS all have in common? While they cover a breadth of segments, demographics and portfolio sizes, Wetzel’s Pretzels, Wow Bao, Donatos, Tupelo Honey, and Sweetfin all lead the way in innovation in different corners of the industry.

At CREATE 2023 in Palm Springs, the CREATORS were presented with their awards and had a fireside chat with Nation’s Restaurant News executive editor, Alicia Kelso, to discuss creative problem-solving and and pushing their concepts to new limits. The awards and the panel were sponsored by Keurig Dr. Pepper.

Automation innovators

As robotics take over the pizza segment, Donatos has been at the forefront of automation investment. Brian Thompson, vice president of operations at Donatos said Tuesday that the company is trying to make the best pizza out there with whatever tools are available to them, so they have introduced an automatic saucing machine and are working on implementing the “Peppamatic” – a pepperoni slicing machine.

“Of course, it helps with labor, and [the machines] make it fun to work,” Thompson said. “So instead of you sitting there and saucing a pizza over and over, you’re operating a machine that’s doing it….I don’t know if it was 100% our goal to create labor savings, we just took those labor dollars and moved them elsewhere.”

Donatos also has an innovation center where the company is able to test out new technology and ideas like the upcoming automated pizza slicer, which is still in the early stages of testing.

“Innovation is a pretty big word,” Thompson said, adding that Donatos is unafraid to invest in AI and automation, if only to make things easier for their employees. “It’s really stressful in restaurants. Let’s say it's pizza night, it's five to eight, and you get 200 phonecalls coming in. And now we get the stress relief [from outsourcing to a phone center]. Granted, you don't get to talk to customers as much but there's a value to this culture.”

Social media kings

While many iconic, larger restaurant brands are known for partnering with celebrities as a common marketing tactic — especially Taco Bell and McDonald’s — smaller brand sizes can take advantage of high-profile partnerships as well. West Hollywood-based poke concept, Sweetfin, has perfected its social media outreach and impact, proving that even 20-unit restaurant concepts can develop a cult following and iconic branding though social media.

“We thought the best way to cut through the noise was to leverage other creators and chefs and build our brand through the development of our content creator program,” Seth Cohen, president and cofounder of Sweetfin said. “Every quarter we develop a new menu item that lasts for three to four months, and we partner with creator chefs that help us build legitimacy within the restaurant space.”

So far, Sweetfin has worked with two Michelin-starred Phillip Frankland Lee, Top Chef Antonia Lofaso, and celebrity chef Richard Blais, all of whom have helped to spread the word not only about Sweetfin the brand, but — at least in the early days — about poke as a concept.

“Back in 2015 [when we first opened] there was no such thing as poke outside of Hawaii to the point where I would go to investors and tell them about our concept and they thought we were talking about a Facebook poke,” Cohen said. “We originally partnered with chefs because we wanted to be innovative…The way we market ourselves has always been innovative out of necessity.”

Omnichannel creativity

Chicago-based bao concept Wow Bao was recognized at CREATE for its omnichannel flexibility, by expanding its presence and accessibility through ghost kitchens, vending machines, CPG, and more. Wow Bao founder and CEO Geoff Alexander discussed how the company used its startup scrappiness as an advantage when pushing the product.   

“We [at first] didn’t have access to capital, so it was about, ‘how can we get food into people’s hands?” Alexander said. “I took some of the boxes of baos, went to my local grocery store and begged them to let me sell it on it on shelves. If you don’t have the wherewithal to grow your business, that is when the best ideas come.”

Alexander said that being the leader of Wow Bao has come with responsibilities to make sure that you’re pushing the envelope and opening the door for opportunity for a growing business.

“To me, innovation is evolution,” he said. “If you are doing the same work you were doing last year in your business, then you did not innovate. But if you created a new floor to make your job easier, or a new benefit for your employees or a new way to communicate or robotics, we all innovate. Right?...Don’t be afraid to keep improving.”

Workforce investment

There’s nothing more important than investing in your workforce in the restaurant industry, especially given all of the labor retainment issues operators have been facing. For Tupelo Honey—the emerging Denver-based Southern brunch chain — they have been offering unique employee benefits since before it was cool.

“It’s not necessarily about making to Tupelo a better place -- It's about making our industry a better place,” Alesha Sisk, senior director of talent & training said in a statement. “We were the first restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina to have offered medical benefits. We were the first to offer paid parental leave to all of our employees, not necessarily just our salaried employees…We push for a better work environment for all.”

Sisk said that in trying to figure out the best benefits for her employees, the best thing to do was figure out exactly what they want outside the four walls of the restaurant, when it comes to things like family care or taking care of themselves. Within the four walls of the restaurant, Tupelo Honey just began offering the Aspire program, which takes restaurant leaders and enrolls them in an extra 30 hours of management training to let them advance in the company.

“We're not competing within our own industry anymore—we’re competing with every industry out there,” Sisk said.

Concept experimentation

One of the most interesting ways to stand out in the industry is by coming up with new store concepts: Twisted by Wetzel’s is part-Wetzel’s and part-innovation kitchen, where the company can experiment with different forms of pretzels, hot dogs, dips and lemonade to come up with new products for customers to enjoy. These new products include different types of pretzel dogs, spicy pretzels, and loaded pretzel “Bitz” (small pretzel nuggets.

“We wanted to create some energy and excitement in the marketplace,” Vincent Montanelli, COO of Wetzel’s Pretzels said. “We took our core products and began creating new experiences and inventions….sometimes, innovation for us is just about redefining how you deliver the product to the customer.”

Contact Joanna at [email protected]

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