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RLC floor.jpg Photo courtesy of Informa Connect Foodservice
The Restaurant Leadership Conference in Phoenix.

5 takeaways from the Restaurant Leadership Conference

Labor – both from a cost and culture perspective – dominated discussions on the show floor and in general sessions.

And that’s a wrap on Nation’s Restaurant News’ first Restaurant Leadership Conference experience following parent company Informa’s acquisition of Winsight last year. Together, with our new-ish colleagues from Restaurant Business, we followed, participated in, and led several conversations on topics weighing most heavily on the operators in attendance. Here are five key takeaways.

  • Labor. LOTS of discussion about labor and wages against a backdrop of California’s AB1228 that went into effect earlier this month, raising the minimum wage to $20 an hour. One operator told me he’ll “never” expand in California again, while another felt confident about the combined pricing and technology strategies her team has put into place to soften the inflationary blow. We’ve seen plenty of stories so far about layoffs and kiosk implementations and even menu adjustments to navigate these higher wages, but time will tell how it ultimately shakes out. Will this $20 watermark trickle beyond QSRs? Likely. Other markets? Maybe. Will California’s restaurant growth stagnate a bit? Perhaps among smaller players, but not likely among the bigger players who have the advantages of scale to absorb the higher costs.  
  • Speaking of labor, I had the privilege of leading a power panel discussion about people strategies alongside Kelly Costanza, chief people officer at Cava, Laura Rueckel, chief marketing officer at Freddy’s Frozen Custard, and Sara Bittorf, chief experience officer at Red Lobster. The industry had a major reckoning during the pandemic and ensuing labor shortage that caused companies to re-think their employee propositions and these executives noted those propositions are now about more than just wages, but also benefits, training and development, culture/buy-in. It requires ownership across the business (not just HR) and also investment, but there is a return when retention rates rise. The executives also noted that the employee proposition should lead with their experience – is their job satisfying, purposeful, as simple and safe as it can be? Happier employees equal happier customers.
  • And speaking of pandemic-related reckonings, it’s no secret this industry had to sprint to catch up on technology but the narrative around technology has shifted a bit. We’re less interested in bells and whistles (e.g. robots) and more focused on labor-saving features (kiosks, scheduling), back-of-house efficiencies (kitchen display systems), and omnichannel strategies. Also, a lot of people talked about AI on the show floor, but in the context of what to do with it, acknowledging that this question should be answered sooner rather than later because AI is coming in hot.
  • A pre-pandemic mindset: Technomic’s Joe Pawlak and Rich Shank presented a state of the industry update based on their company’s recently released data and dubbed 2024 the “year of a reality reset.” “The last four years we’ve been dealing with an abnormal situation. Sales dropped dramatically, then spiked, then they were down, then they spiked. Now we’re getting back to normal patterns. Same with inflation. This year we’re going back to reality and reality is a pre-pandemic mindset,” Pawlak said.
  • Celebrity sightings. There are celebrities, like Martha Stewart, and then there are celebrities to us restaurant people, like Jersey Mike’s CEO Peter Cancro. Both graced the main stage during RLC, with Cancro receiving the “Restaurant Leader of the Year” award and Stewart stepping in as the event’s keynote speaker. Cancro was recognized for taking the sandwich chain from the original Mike’s Subs shop on the Jersey Shore that he bought 49 years ago, to nearly 3,000 locations today.

Every year and every day, we just show up, and you see the slow incremental growth,” Cancro said. “Then all of a sudden, we look around and say, ‘huh, I think we got something here….’ The past three years we hit the 300-store mark every year and we still think it’s consistent slow growth that does the trick.”

Stewart commiserated about her experience as a restaurateur after opening her first restaurant at 80 years old. The Bedford by Martha Stewart, located in the Paris Las Vegas, was named after her hometown in Bedford, New York, and features offerings like Oysters Rockefeller and Golden Ossetra Caviar.

“Why I didn’t do a restaurant sooner, I’ll never know,” Stewart told Restaurant Leadership Conference attendees Tuesday in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I kept saying, I like to go out to restaurants. I don’t want to work in a restaurant … Restaurants are one of the hardest businesses on earth.”

“Here I am at 80 years old, and why I didn’t do a restaurant sooner, I will never know,” Stewart told attendees. “I kept saying, ‘Well, I really like to enjoy going out to restaurants, but I’m not sure about owning one.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

TAGS: Technology
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