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Bartaco CEO on the full-service digital revolution

Four take-aways from a conversation with Scott Lawton, the cofounder and CEO of this full-service brand serving street-style tacos and beach vibes.


Bartaco is part of a group of emerging full-service chains across the U.S. that are pairing high-quality food and drink with laid-back service and atmosphere. The brand dishes street-style tacos in a fun, fresh environment inspired by beach vibes, with the original service model including guests writing out their orders on a pad of paper at the table.

Scott Lawton was part of the cofounding team behind 21-unit Bartaco and returned to lead the brand as chief executive after L Catterton acquired it in June 2019 as part of a deal for Del Frisco’s, which had acquired it and sister concept Barcelona Wine Bar in May 2018.

Like every other full-service brand in America, Bartaco experienced a whiplash-worthy evolution during the COVID-19 pandemic to a digital-forward experience that has completely changed how the brand will operate in the future.

Lawton joined Nation’s Restaurant News editor in chief Sam Oches on the new podcast Take-Away with Sam Oches to talk about how Bartaco has embraced that digital evolution and why it’s still investing in a solid workforce to create that laid-back beach vibe. Here are Sam’s four take-aways from his chat with Lawton:

1. The digital revolution is poised to totally shake up the full-service industry. That’s of course true as it relates to off-premises service, as full-service brands quickly jumped onboard with third-party delivery platforms and online ordering if they hadn’t already. But Lawton also shared several other examples of how Bartaco is leveraging digital tools, including the ability to order from your phone at your table instead of filling out the order card.

“Doing that sort of rearranged our entire labor model as well. We have found that tables are turning quicker now because they're not having to wait for waiters, they're not having to wait to pay their check; it all just happens instantly on their phone,” he said. “So we're actually seeing quicker table turns. We're seeing much higher volume in the dining rooms.”

2. Restaurants have only scratched the service with data. The restaurant industry has been exploring the potential of data for several years now, but the massive shift to digital business in the past year has opened even more doors as it relates to how much data companies can collect, how many customers they’re collecting it from and what exactly they can do with that data. Full-service brands in particular were sort of behind the curve with data because they weren’t as up to speed on digital platforms pre-pandemic.

Now, however, full-service chains like Bartaco can take more ownership of their data and gain incredible insights about their customers.

“We're able to find out what our customers are buying, what they like, what they don't like,” Lawton said. “We're able to see ticket times and how fast food’s coming out, [and] when people are leaving. We have a trove of data now. It just kind of blows my mind every time I start thinking about all the possibilities of what this means for us.”

3. Digital tools like the smartphone cannot replace your workforce entirely. It’s tempting to imagine a future where restaurants are fully automated, where operations are completely streamlined and all of the friction between the customer and their food is stripped away. But table-service restaurants in particular are about far more than food quality and convenience; they’re about a great experience, a fun atmosphere, and personable, hospitable interactions.

This is something that Bartaco has built its brand around, and despite its success with its new digital ordering processes, Lawton says the brand is still investing in service leaders who walk the floor and ensure a high-quality experience in which customers aren’t simply abandoned at their table with their devices.

“What we're really trying to develop in our service leaders is that they are able to walk people through this experience in a way that they're comfortable, they don't feel intimidated, they don't feel that they're being spoken down to, and they're having fun,” he said.

4. Solving the labor crisis requires a deeper commitment to better employees. Lawton said Bartaco went from 25-30 hourly employees walking the floor to seven or eight salaried employees who are driving the high-quality experience. While salaries and benefits may seem out of reach for some restaurants, the ROI for Bartaco is that it has access to better workers and is building a positive culture that can help it recruit and retain that talent. It’s also improving the efficiencies of its team by getting more out of less.

“Because we need less hourly [employees], we've been able to add more salaried employees and create this position where they are really engaged in the customer experience and they are professionals who are really engaged in their job,” he said.

Stream the conversation above for more from Lawton, and join us in Denver Oct. 4-6 for CREATE: The Future of Foodservice, where Lawton will share more on Bartaco’s winning full-service strategy.

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