Executives from Chipotle, Jersey Mike’s, Big Chicken, Modern Market, Tropical Smoothie Cafe, Focus Brands and Garden Catering reveal the technologies they deem worthy of investment.
Restaurant customers can be a fickle bunch. Most, however, seem to be doubling down on technology when it comes to engaging with their favorite brands, which means companies of all sizes are exploring ways to digitize their experiences. Many are also reaping the benefits of automating employee engagement and back-of-house operations. In fact, the restaurant technology industry was worth over $220 billion in 2019 and is projected to surpass 342 billion by 2027.
Once viewed as “trendy, innovative or cutting-edge,” fast casual executives are using technology to manage a variety of tasks, including:
- Controlling ordering and loyalty programs.
- Increasing the speed of service to improve the customer experience.
- Engaging, training and managing workers.
1. Ordering and loyalty programs
|Chipotle is leveraging advanced location-based technology to enhance app functionality and provide a convenient experience for guests.|
The increased popularity of online ordering has inspired brands to try to change their clients’ remote-ordering behavior by offering rewards through loyalty programs tied to their own branded apps, said Don Smith, Givex director of business development, sales-POS Canada.
“The ROI of a cleverly designed loyalty program can hopefully move their clients away from the ordering apps that claim a 30% commission,” he said in an email to FastCasual.
Scott Scherer, CIO of Jersey Mike’s Franchise Systems Inc., said the 2,500-unit chain was hoping to move the needle by combining its legacy systems into a unified platform that stores customer info — online ordering, loyalty points, etc. — in one place.
“From the marketing side, this helps provide customers with personalized offers targeted to their likes and needs,” he told FastCasual. “This also provides an easier experience for store employees. The updates allow for the hyper-quick addition and enhancement of custom features. As customers now order in many ways, the ongoing simplification of technology is important. The project ensures every customer touch point from the app to online ordering is simple, intuitive and quick.”
Beth Hardy, VP of marketing at Modern Restaurant Concept, which owns Modern Market Eatery & Lemonade, said the company is rolling out a points system within its loyalty program giving customers 10 points for every $1 spent.
“Given a pending recession and more competition for guest dollars, putting focus toward improving customer loyalty is something I feel we’ll hear a lot more about in 2023,” she told FastCasual. “Technology can help provide an even better guest experience through reliable and appealing loyalty programs and first party online ordering. It can even improve order accuracy and hospitality through fast and convenient customer service platforms, both of which help retain guests and increase their frequency.”
Customer loyalty has been a huge part of Chipotle’s digital strategy for years, but Nicole West, VP of digital strategy and product, said the chain is taking it a step further by leveraging advanced location-based technology to enhance app functionality and provide a convenient experience for guests.
“Our Contextual Restaurant Experience identifies loyalty members’ intent upon arrival and utilizes data to improve their experience with order readiness messaging, reminders to scan the Chipotle Rewards QR code at checkout, wrong location detection, and more,” she told FastCasual.
Big Chicken, owned by Shaquille O’Neal, is at the beginning of its loyalty program journey and will soon launch its own proprietary platform as opposed to partnering with a third-party company.
“We believe that the key to building loyalty is by focusing on the actual consumer, not just the person whose credit card goes through the system,” CEO Josh Halpern said in an email to FastCasual. “As a result, different consumer cohorts/generations will be able to react differently within our platform, which we believe is key to really winning the hearts of our guests.”
Charles Watson, CEO of Tropical Smoothie Cafe, agreed, saying the 1,150-unit chain is providing mobile app users with an intuitive experience featuring the same functionality as a person-to-person transaction.
“If we do a really good job with that experience, what we really want is for our guest to say ‘the food and smoothies are delicious, and the tech is easy, so I should join their loyalty club, come here more often, and gets some benefits,” Watson said in an email to FastCasual. “I think we are doing some of that because our Tropical Rewards loyalty program added over 1 million new users in 2022. We also restructured our program and continue to focus on providing our loyalty guests with more exclusives and a unique experience that shows them they are valued.”
Brands cannot create personal experiences without collecting customer data, which has been a problem for smaller brands — until now, said Zino J. Carr, CTO of Garden Catering, a small chain of fast casual restaurants based in Connecticut.
“Most successful large brands have been able to throw substantial sums at tools for crunching large datasets to understand customer behavior, but now we see those tools becoming more democratized and available to smaller, emerging brands,” he said in an email to FastCasual. “If you aren’t committing to know your guests better and creating a more personal relationship with them, you will quickly lose ground to those who are.
“So the scrappy ones, like us, need to use whatever tools are available to us to capture and analyze as much data as possible to make those lasting connections with our fans.”
3. Increasing the speed of service to improve the customer experience
Because customers expect fast casuals to be nearly as quick as their QSR competitors, Jersey Mike’s is using artificial intelligence to streamline digital orders.
|Tropical Smoothie Cafe recently opened a store with a double drive-thru in Oklahoma. Provided|
“Digital is now 40% of our sales, and AI tweaks the system in real-time to deliver on promised pick-up times to ensure customers are getting their subs fresh off the slicer or hot off the grill,” Scherer said. “It will look at parameters such as crew size, how many orders (both instore and online), etc. and build in appropriate lead time. This new technology, along with our second lines added during our recent systemwide retrofits, are helping create operational efficiency to deliver on our promise to customers.”
Tropical Smoothie Cafe, which recently opened a store with a double drive-thru, is also using technology to drive efficiencies in the order, make and product delivery (make lines, drive-thru, curbside) processes.
“All of these processes have to get more efficient and faster to service an increasingly impatient guest — a guest who expects similar speed in all sales channels — be they digital or brick-and-mortar,” Watson said. “That ‘Need for Speed’ component is already changing the way restaurants look and feel so we can execute faster. As I have seen over the past couple of years (us included) we can all come out with digitally focused drive-thru boxes, but we better be able to make the products fast enough to keep up with the demand we will need to pay for said new development boxes — and that means pleasing our guests who want speed. Brands that can provide their food fast with quality will have an advantage.”
Modern Market’s Hardy agreed AI technology has been especially important to fast casual brands competing at the drive-thru.
“Drive-thru technology is making strides, and we’re excited to evaluate and implement some of it in our first drive-thru location later this year,” she said. “From AI-chat and text ordering to geofencing that alerts the restaurant when a guest pulls into the lot, technology is improving and this is an innovative time to have a drive-thru concept.”
|Focus Brands has established the Customer Experience Center of Excellence, a remote hub, where multi-lingual brand coaches are conducting virtual Operations Excellence Review visits around the clock. Provided by Focus Brands|
4. Engaging, training and managing workers
Although restaurants are raising pay and offering sign-on bonuses to lure employees, the industry’s labor shortage remains. Between March 2021 and March 2022, an average of 897,000 people each month left their jobs in the restaurants and accommodations sector, according to Bureau of Labor statistics.
Those numbers have forced many brands to turn to automation. Chicago-basedWow Bao and Florida-based BurgerFi, for example, are relying on self-order kiosks to not only help manage labor issues but to expand their footprints and increase the speed of service.
“Self-ordering is back big time with the increased deployment of kiosks and scanning QE codes to order and pay,” Givex’ Smith said. “The labor shortage is driving the adoption of this technology along with the fact that average checks increase through the kiosk with cleverly automated upsell prompts. One Givex POS client is changing their typical store from two POS stations to one POS and a kiosk.”
Big Chicken’s Halpern agreed.
“As staffing will continue to be a hot topic for the industry, AI also gives us the ability to automate some of the labor hours,” he said.
Besides using technology to fill labor needs, Garden Catering is also using it to tackle training, recently rolling out a learning management system focused on employee engagement.
“By leveraging micro-learning architecture, we can design and roll out learning modules that get new hires onboarded and up to speed so much faster,” Carr said in an email to FastCasual. “More importantly, we can train in a way that really drives home our culture and core values as a company. Rather than sticking someone in front of a computer for an hour, they instead have all of the training in their pocket, and we can have them shadow a trainer all the while. In this industry, we really can’t do too much in trying to bring on systems and tools to develop our future leaders.
“As a bonus, having auto-translation capabilities ensures that we are able to communicate our training and systems in the language they prefer to learn in, which is game-changing.”
The restaurant is also leveraging AI to perform tasks that usually burden managers.
“Scheduling is the low-hanging fruit here — asking a GM to put together an ideal schedule, on budget, each week when there are so many moving parts is not the best use of their time…which should be spent with our guests and developing our future leaders,” Carr said. “AI tools create accurate sales forecasts using a near-infinite set of criteria, then pair that with our labor spend target, employee availability, employee position-based skill assessments, weather, special events and promotions and numerous other factors to create an ideal schedule within seconds. This can save hours each week for the GM who can now spend that time coaching their team, interacting with their guests, and looking for sales opportunities in the community.”
Scherer said Jersey Mike’s Franchise Systems also relies on labor-scheduling tools to not only ease manager stress but to also keep employees happy.
“At Jersey Mike’s, an app allows employees to see their schedules and easily make changes,” he said. “This provides team members with desired — and appreciated — flexibility. The latest technology uses artificial intelligence to create models for efficiency, taking into account historical data, crew training and more, ensuring proper staffing so that customers have the best experience possible.”
Johnny Tellez, VP of international operations support and training for Focus Brands, relies on technology to help him train and mentor the franchisees that lead the chain’s 6,400 global restaurants. His team established the Customer Experience Center of Excellence, a remote hub where multi-lingual brand coaches are conducting virtual Operations Excellence Review visits around the clock.
“Behind the scenes, we are utilizing quality management software with customizations designed to provide heightened efficiency in virtual execution,” he told FastCasual. “This is in addition to a software suite including video, scheduling, translation and advanced data analysis functionality. This year we will be launching a service management solution that will help us address franchisee needs with the expedited resolution, tracking, and a proactive solution-sharing knowledge base.”
Tellez said the industry will continue to rely on virtual applications.
“Over the past couple of years with the significant shift to remote work, there have been a number of technologies designed to drive virtual efficiency,” he said. “Labor is always a concern for the restaurant industry and people are looking for ways to be more accessible while managing costs. I’m seeing virtual reality training execution, remote-based drive-thru attendants, cameras used to track accuracy and speed-of-service, and of course remote review execution. If a change in approach can yield great results with flexibility and a reduction in expenses, then I’d say that’s worth looking at.”
Cherryh Cansler is VP of Editorial for Networld Media Group and senior editor of FastCasual.com. She has been covering the restaurant industry since 2012. Her byline has appeared in Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine, among many others.