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8 key challenge areas for restaurant leaders in 2020

How multiunit managers can prepare their teams for another year of disruption

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News. 

Our company invests a good deal of time, money, resources and research every year into multiunit leadership development programs for foodservice and hospitality chains worldwide. We transform that insight into books, reports, videos, podcasts, e-learning, and workshops for the industry. In the last two years we’ve designed and delivered workshops and created strategies on multiunit leadership for companies like Panera, Texas Roadhouse, Chipotle, Wendy’s, Dunkin’, IHOP, Portillo’s, Burger King and many more.

Something that we’re routinely asked this time of year is to forecast key trends and challenges that above-restaurant leaders and multiunit franchisees will likely be facing in the coming year and beyond. And while no one can see the future — which is why you’ve never seen a headline that says “Psychic Wins Lotto” — one can reasonably look around corners by analyzing current trends, watching the outliers, and connecting the dots between disruptive tech and the status quo.

Here are eight areas smart multiunit owners and leaders should be focused on in 2020 and beyond.

Strategic clarity. Make certain your teams are clear on your 2020 targets and goals, and that each person clearly understands their role in helping to achieve those goals.  Take control of the things that control your time. Choose partnerships carefully and strategically. Say yes to opportunities that align to and reinforce your core values and say no to ones that don’t. Distinguish between what’s urgent and what’s important, and teach your managers to do the same.

Communication. No matter how good of a communicator you think you are, both you and your unit managers communicate less clearly and less often than you think you do. The best multiunit Leaders make pre-shift meetings mandatory in every unit as a primary communication tactic. After all, what kind of coach puts all of his or her team members on the field and then neglects to call any plays? Set specific goals at your monthly unit manager meetings for every shift in the upcoming 30-day, 60-shift period.

Retention. Annual employee turnover in the foodservice industry now exceeds 100%, and it can scale even higher among the kitchen crew.  So until burger-fry-prep robots become scalable and affordable on the prep, grill and fryer stations, your key strategies are to 1) keep your best people and 2) grow the rest. This means unit managers have to be adept at the twin skills of retention and coaching. Recognize and acknowledge that every team members’ job is important to and dependent on another team member’s job. Unit leaders can maximize retention by making every team member feel, and be, both confident and competent.

Technology. The biggest technology trends that will transform foodservice in 2020 include: Artificial Intelligence, digital ordering, third-party delivery, kitchen robotics, distributor disruption from Amazon and others, and virtual reality/augmented reality in training. This will require the "upskilling" of current team members whose jobs may be replaced by tech. Upskilling is the process of training managers and employees to apply (and troubleshoot) new technologies as well as equipping our shrinking employee base with the skills necessary to remain relevant as our industry and technology evolves. We are already seeing the acronym AI being used as a verb: “I was AI-ed out of my job as a cashier.”

Even bigger data. The proliferation of new apps, mobile devices, ordering kiosks and wearables will continue to produce a tsunami of new wireless data and information that will need to be made meaningful and applicable to unit-level economics and team productivity. Factor in the projected growth of things like predictive analytics, predictive scheduling and predictive ordering (for instance, McDonald’s purchase of Dynamic Yield Ltd to automate and maximize suggestive selling at the drive-thru) and multiunit leaders may soon need an associate’s degree in IT to make sense of the cascading data and additional reportage that will result from the data swell. Understand that your unit managers are — or will soon be — drowning in information but starving for knowledge. Multiunit leaders must filter and streamline that data.

Cybersecurity. Technology in foodservice has traditionally supported our business, now technology is used to grow it.  That’s a seismic shift in tech application and undoubtedly a good thing. But with the growth in productivity that technology enables comes an exponential cybersecurity risk, especially as mobile ordering and payment expands and 5G networks come online in 2020. To minimize the threat of cyberattack or denial of service issues, foodservice operators must treat and address cybersecurity with the same importance and priority as we do food safety.

Third-party delivery. Sometimes called “the new drive-thru,” restaurant delivery is predicted to grow three times faster than on-premise dining by 2023. Multiunit leaders must rethink facility layout, process and throughput to maximize pickup and delivery efficiencies in restaurants that were originally designed without those opportunities in mind.

Fun. And finally, let’s not forget why we got into this business in the first place. This industry is too hard to work in to not also have fun while doing it. Ingrain that into the team’s daily labors.   

Incorporating the eight challenges above into the long list of tasks and duties that multiunit leaders are already responsible for is tough. But challenges must be met, not ignored. Here’s the thing about the restaurant business: It doesn’t get easier. We have to get smarter.

Companies using Jim Sullivan’s products or programs include The Walt Disney Company, Chick-fil-A, Panera, taco Bell, Texas Roadhouse, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Marriott.  His two bestselling books, Fundamentals and Multiunit Leadership, are available at Amazon or He has over 400,000 social media followers at LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter.  You can email him at [email protected]

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