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02/14/2022

2022 Restaurant Industry Outlook

From top business priorities to the hottest technologies, our panel of restaurant industry experts assesses effective solutions, trends — including the overhyped and the underrated — and key implementations for the coming year and beyond.
Robert Firpo-Cappiello
Editor-in-Chief
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Family eating with chopsticks at a Chinese restaurant

Each year, Hospitality Technology reaches out to restaurant operators, consultants, academics, and solution providers to take the temperature of the industry. What will the year ahead hold? What are the key priorities? What types of technology should the industry embrace to meet evolving goals and customer expectations? What solutions hold the most promise? What may be lagging? Overrated? And, of course, where are we headed?

We’re pleased to share our 2022 Restaurant Industry Outlook. And, as always, we’d love to hear your answers to these vital questions!

Meet Our Restaurant Industry Experts

  • Chris Antonelli, VP, Customer Experience & Support Services, Solugenix
  • Carl Bachmann, President at Smashburger
  • Daniel Connolly, Ph.D., Professor of Management, Drake University
  • Mehmet Erdem, Ph.D., CHTP, Associate Professor of Hotel Ops. & IT, William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • David Gosman, Global Industry Lead - Hospitality, HP Inc.
  • Lee Holman, Lead Retail Analyst, IHL Services
  • Jungsun (Sunny) Kim, Ph.D., Associate Professor, William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • Corey Kline, EVP - Technology, Noodles & Company
  • Toby W Malbec, Managing Director, ConStrata Technology Consulting
  • Savneet Singh, President & CEO, PAR

What are your top priorities for 2022?

Chris Antonelli, VP, Customer Experience & Support Services, Solugenix: We’re focused on proactively easing the labor burden carried by the frontline QSR & Restaurant personnel.  When you consider locations measured on delivering a positive, quality experience while juggling; impatient customers, understaffed shifts, impacts of inflation on pay and unreliable technology. They have a really tough job.  We’re concentrating on proactively identifying & resolving issues in the background without requiring staff support and expanding support options into as many channels as they need to get the job done quickly.

Savneet Singh, President & CEO, PAR: Our major priority for 2022 is to debut and roll out the first unified commerce platform in the restaurant industry. We want to detangle the tech stack for operators, prevent them from being at the mercy of vendors, and give them all the levers they need to shape their digital futures.

David Gosman, Global Industry Lead - Hospitality, HP Inc.: We just launched two great new platforms to help restaurants transform their service, both of which reflect our priority of delivering beautiful, high quality technology into the hands of operators. The HP Engage Go 10, a lightweight 10” tablet with optional integrated payment and the HP Engage One Essential, a fanless, IP54 certified all-in-one device, are BOTH designed to withstand the rigors of the restaurant environment while featuring a beautiful design.

Daniel Connolly, Ph.D., Professor of Management, Drake University: The top five hospitality industry priorities for 2022 are moving beyond the pandemic, overcoming labor shortages, addressing supply-chain issues, deploying technology in more strategic ways, and winning back customers (especially business travelers and group business).

Corey Kline, EVP - Technology, Noodles & Company: Our top priority in 2022 remains the guest experience and especially the digital guest experience. And this isn’t just limited to the off-premise digital ordering - we’re hyper-focused on the continuity of the digital experience between personal technologies and those digital elements within our restaurants across all combinations of order and handoff methods. If I had to choose one word that is our guiding principle, it’s convenience. Convenience is a highly personal concept. For some guests convenience is about re-ordering, for others it is customization, for some it is ordering and dining in a traditional manner and the list continues. Evolving our entire experience, especially our digital experience, to predict what convenience will mean to each individual and guide them on that journey is our goal. This effort touches almost every area of our technology landscape from our approaches to analytics, digital properties, the POS and our network. Inclusive in this guest experience priority is our focus on digital security. This is no longer a separate priority but truly integrated into and pursued as an indispensable element of the overall guest imperative.

Lee Holman, Lead Retail Analyst, IHL Services: Our studies have shown that hospitality’s top priorities are upgrading CRM / loyalty programs, supporting contactless payments, personalizing the customer experience, optimizing the profitability of digital customer journeys, and adding self-checkout or consumer app checkout.

Toby W Malbec, Managing Director, ConStrata Technology Consulting: Resourcing – the recent epidemic compounded with a general change in behavior around travel and even the hospitality industry has created serous headwinds around recruitment. We see it in our consultancy and our clients have the same challenges. The restaurant industry cannot continue to be a stepping-stone job for talented people who are on their way somewhere else

What is the greatest disruptive force on your business?

Antonelli: We recognize that labor is a major operational disruption for the industry and moving entire work cultures from onsite to remote work has not been without its challenges.  Because we’ve been a decentralized-remote culture for decades, we’ve been able to avoid the learning curves many companies have been forced to work through. For example, identifying the right personality is a critical 1st step.  Most leaders look to hire that high energy, positive, extrovert without considering the impacts a work-a-home environment will have on them. The truth is most people don’t understand what a work-at-home job really is or how to effectively recruit for it.

 

Bachmann: The biggest challenge we faced was pivoting from a primarily dine-in model to adapt to an unprecedented increase in takeout orders. With safety becoming a major concern when it comes to dining out, it became essential for Smashburger to be transparent with how we clean our restaurants and how we keep people safe. We started by changing the perception of cleanliness. We knew in order to show our guests how important safety and cleanliness are to us we needed to change this stigma. We adopted this “clean must be seen” mentality where we sanitize our restaurants every 15 minutes, so our guests can feel confident when dining with Smashburger that their safety is the utmost priority.  As a result of this challenging industry landscape, many restaurants also limited their menus or have been hesitant to release new products. Smashburger, on the other hand, has continued its commitment to culinary innovation. Furthermore, while labor has always been challenging in the restaurant industry, Smashburger worked hard to keep restaurants open so our employees can get paid, even during the worst of the pandemic.

Singh: Every day we look for ways to make our existing products better (and eventually irrelevant) to continue to benefit our operators. Today technology is disrupting the operator. Operators today are overwhelmed with too many products, too many point integrations and endless data flows. We need to find a way to turn the tide so that technology can start serving operators. 

Gosman: The greatest disruptive force within our business is the rapidly emerging demand to power more complex, data-intensive applications within the four walls of the restaurant. This calls for higher powered computing that is secure and scalable – but is bundled with tools  to automate the management of these devices, as brands and operators already have their hands full. Fortunately, HP has been investing heavily in new Edge platforms and is well positioned for this disruption.

Connolly: Generally speaking, technology is a great disruptor for many businesses, and this has been the case in the hospitality industry for the past couple of decades.  While we will see more disruption and change occur as a result of advances in technology, the greatest disruptive force and bigger threat affecting the hospitality industry right now is the labor shortage, which is impacting the industry at all levels (operations, regional, and corporate) and across all sectors.  Consumer demand is increasing, but the industry’s ability to serve this demand is decreasing due to a shortage of workers.  This phenomenon is creating all sorts of challenges leading to customer dissatisfaction, lost business, fewer service options and hours, unpredictable and compromised customer experiences, and closed facilities.  Unfortunately, it is sending the wrong message to consumers—to stay home—especially when businesses are trying to return to pre-pandemic levels. The industry needs to do more to attract people to work in hospitality establishments.  I worry not just for the short term but also for the long term.  Many of today’s hospitality industry leaders got their starts in hospitality operations.  As these jobs become less desirable (or at least perceived as such), how will the industry develop its future talent pipeline?

Kline: The needs of our team members are definitely the most urgent and important challenge that we are addressing as a company. I hesitate to use the word “disruptive” because that word carries a negative connotation that doesn’t reflect the opportunity or humanity that evolving to meet these needs allows us to embrace. These needs are across an incredibly wide spectrum from wages, to safety, to fulfilling work, to health – physical, emotional and mental – and more. The needs of every team member are unique and there are many ways that technology can influence a more positive experience for each individual… but meeting this opportunity at Noodles & Company starts with our conviction that we’re truly in this together, no matter our role, and there are so many ways that we can support one another more.

Holman: Delivery service issues, including lack of profitability, brand presentation, and customer satisfaction.

Malbec: As it relates to our consultancy, it is the near-sighted nature of PE and VC firms who acquire or invest in organizations without understanding the restaurant technology landscape or the investments often necessary to keep their new prize either legally compliant or business competitive. The recent land-grab in the marketplace is not good for the long-term future of the industry as it is artificially maintaining competition that should be reduced through normal competition but is being reincarnated through non-marketplace means. Ultimately it will mean that even those who have “done things right” will continue to face artificially-created competition which will erode their profitability and ultimately further investment in their brand.

What technologies are you looking to embrace to help manage infrastructure and workforce?  

Antonelli: As an elite ServiceNow provider we’re always looking at ways to improve efficiencies through workforce optimization, data insights and automations. By utilizing our own A.I. development team we’re increasing things like speed of resolutions and answers to the right people.

Gosman: Restaurants are historically a high turn-over industry, yet it can take several weeks before a new employee is comfortable and knowledgeable in their role. The current labor challenges further strain this. We are engaged with ISV partners that offer compelling artificial intelligence and computer vision engines to guide employees through their shifts in real-time, helping new hires become engaged and productive faster, with better results. The technology runs on HP Edge Computing devices that are optimized for high data throughput and real-time feedback.

Connolly: Given the labor shortage, we will see more hospitality businesses relying on self-service or guest-enablement platforms (especially mobile and e-commerce) to empower guests to serve themselves.  I prefer the term guest-enablement over self-service since hospitality is all about providing personalized services to guests. We will also likely see greater use of chatbots to automatically communicate with guests and respond to guest inquiries and requests.  Advances in artificial intelligence greatly enhance the capabilities and applications for chatbots and make conversations seem more natural, especially with guest services. Similarly, we should see greater use of technology to assist employees, supervisors, and managers, not only in performing their jobs more efficiently but also in shifting their responsibilities to essential roles and decision-making that can only be performed by humans.  More companies will look to automate routine transactions and processes and streamline activities in order to mitigate the impact of the recent labor shortage.  There will be more reliance on chatbots to communicate with employees and handle routine or frequently asked questions, scheduling apps to fill open shifts, and tools to extend the capabilities, reach, and capacity of front-line employees, supervisors, and managers, thereby allowing them to do more with less.

Kline: Continuing to infuse convenience into our order ahead experiences is a primary lever for positively evolving to the team member experience. Especially given the variety and fresh cooking associated with every Noodles & Company dish, ordering ahead provides the best opportunity for our team members to delight each guest.

Holman: Ghost kitchens, robotics /automation, 5G in the restaurant, SD-WAN, and mobile devices for managers.

Malbec: Automation and technology – when properly leveraged – can have meaningful impact on resource management. The challenge the industry faces is that technology being properly designed, tailored to the operational marketplace, and ultimately used correctly. We often see a need-solution mismatch in the restaurant marketplace because vendors do not invest a great deal in R&D (generally speaking) and operators do not financially reward those that do.

What’s the most overhyped tech?

Gosman: I’m going to say it – Bitcoin, or virtual currency. It’s over-hyped, or rather being hyped up way ahead of its adoption curve. While some tech-savvy consumers think it’s a cooler way to pay, the payment process is still awkward there are few compelling benefits for restaurants and guests. Given time, I think the underlying technology will stabilize and see adoption – but right now, it’s more hype than benefit.

Connolly: I think the emerging world of cryptocurrency is currently overhyped.  While it is intriguing, has great potential, and may become the currency of the future, right now, it seems like it is the wild west and a domain understood only by a small segment.  Until more standards are established, major financial institutions get into the game, and governments support it in visible ways, playing in this space will be risky for most, resulting in slow adoption rates.

Malbec: Drones – the premise sounds sexy and fun but the logistics are challenging, use cases limiting, and the legal aspects (aka FAA regulations) can prove to be significant. Restaurant operators have a hard time keeping tablets and payment devices charged and operating but we’ll be able to fill the skies with drones? I don’t think so. 

What’s the most underrated tech?

Antonelli: Most people think they have a good understanding of what Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence is and how it should be utilized. But the speed of its evolution and abilities of organizations like Solugenix to automate even the evaluation process has had an incredible impact on where and how these tools are implemented.

Singh: Ironically the answer to both is data. The power of data is talked about ad nauseum, but too much data or a proliferation of the wrong data leads to indecision and distraction from the variables that really matter to running a restaurant. On the other hand, basic data services like telemetry are often overlooked and underrated but give the highest quality results when it comes to prep, delivery, and customer satisfaction. Our favorite question to ask is “why”. Data is always a better answer than anecdotes.

Malbec: From an underrated technology, I believe Digital Menu Boards have been grossly underleveraged and that much of this is due to the fact that most operators (and vendors) fail to see the reach and influence this medium can have on their business

Where do you see opportunities for future innovation?

Antonelli: Utilization of sentiment driven technologies to customize every customer experience. Solugenix has technology with the ability to proactively make menu recommendations, upsell and sense the customer’s emotional state.  There is a lot of untapped potential in the non-loyalty member customer base. We need to shift focus to treating every customer experience like a Loyalty member.

Singh: I think in the last two years a lot of money has flowed into adapting and better managing front-of-house operations, and now it’s the back of house’s turn. Back-of-house operations need to be rebuilt to service all the new front-of-house channels – today, much of it involves stitching together point-to-point integrations and it all lacks the real-time awareness and “intelligence” operators should expect.

Gosman: Despite a marked improvement over the past few years, many guest interactions with a restaurant are still full of friction. The restaurant world isn’t always providing guests with a consistent experience across ordering channels, and food does not always arrive as fresh, fast and accurate as expected. The pandemic has ushered in a wave of innovation that guests have benefited from, which is resulting in

Connolly: I see greater opportunities for future innovation in dissecting and reconstructing the customer journey by taking advantage of the latest and greatest technology has to offer.  Take for example, the check-in process.  It is still very front desk centric, but this does not need to be the case given all that technology has to offer in terms of mobile check-in, biometrics, beacon technology, etc.  The entire check-in process and lobby experience can be completely transformed to create an inviting, engaging, and personalized welcoming experience to arriving guests without the need to focus on the transactional elements of collecting or verifying guest information, accepting payment, and issuing room keys—activities which can all be completed via technology and pre arrival.  The convergence of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G technologies will also provide interesting opportunities to innovate within each stage of the customer journey to create unique, personalized, proactive, and memorable guest experiences. Restaurants and hotels have leaned heavily into contactless technology during the past two years. What’s next for contactless technologies, for the short- and long-term? (workforce, payments, sanitation, guest experience, etc.) 

Kline: In-restaurant digital is not new… but it is a platform ripe for innovation and integration as the data to support personalization becomes more readily available and as other components of our digital experiences mature and are more widely accepted by guests. To-date the digital presence within restaurants has been largely digital menu boards with the focus being layout optimization to influence sales. We see significant opportunities to upgrade the overall guest experience throughout the restaurant, not just at the POS, and to do so in a way that compliments the personal technology that a guest has likely already used as part of their transaction or to which they have ready access.

Mehmet Erdem, Ph.D., CHTP, Associate Professor of Hotel Ops. & IT, William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, University of Nevada, Las Vegas: As much as we have witnessed great strides in the adoption of AI in the lodging and restaurant space, its potential to immensely innovate the hospitality industry is nowhere near realized. The use of AI in digital service encounters with the guests has been mostly limited to answering queries (e.g. chatbots, smart-speakers, etc.). There are impressive developments across AI solutions in hospitality in terms of personalization of the interactions with guests. Yet, the predictive capabilities of AI is rarely used when there is a digital service interaction with guests. There are major opportunities for future innovation in the use of AI across the hospitality industry, e.g. predicting where the hotel guest prefers to dine on the day of arrival and tailoring a personalized offer/suggestion along with the reservation details and communicating the information to the guest upon arrival in the room.

Malbec: The restaurant industry continues to suffer from the same major challenge year-after-year: it requires that the operator take responsibility to be the technology systems integrator. Imagine buying a car and needing to select your own engine, brakes, transmission, suspension, and wheels and make it all work? Unless the industry gets serious about standards and operators demand them, we can expect more of the same interoperability challenges for 2022 and beyond.

Restaurants and hotels have leaned heavily into contactless technology during the past two years. What’s next for contactless technologies, for the short- and long-term?

Singh: Contactless was a necessity for the front end as we managed the first waves of the pandemic, but now it has created an enormous opportunity to unify ordering, payments, loyalty and so much more. Unified platforms will give restaurants the ability to meld contactless ordering with the same data layer all their products flow into. 

Gosman: Restaurants and their guests are increasingly interested in the sourcing of their food for a range of reasons including food safety, sustainable farming practices and country of origin. RFID will help enable more robust and transparent track-and-trace systems

Connolly: As I remarked earlier, I think we will see restaurants and hotels turn to guest-enabling technologies to accomplish important functions but in relatively seamless ways.  Consider, for example, Delta Airlines’ use of face recognition technology to identify and check passengers in while cutting down on customer wait times in queues or Carnival Cruise Line’s Medallion to identify passengers, enable services, provide access control, and streamline payments.  Mobile devices will likely provide the dominant interface for guests to access services, communicate with service providers, manage their loyalty program accounts, and initiate transactions, including payments.  We will also likely see more focus on voice commands (similar to the likes of Alexa or Siri) as a primary way to interface with technology, request services, and perform business transactions. An opportunity to create a key differentiator will be the incorporation of CRM (customer relationship management) technology with mobile and voice solutions to create authentic personalized and engaging experiences rather than simply computer-mediated transactions.  Making guests feel special and unique via technology represents a huge and underserved opportunity.

Jungsun (Sunny) Kim, Ph.D., Associate Professor, William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Restaurants are increasingly relying on a variety of emerging technologies. The use of third-party delivery services is one such technology-supported solution for this industry. While many restaurants would not survive without third-party delivery solutions during the pandemic, it is important to understand that using third-party delivery has both advantages and disadvantages (e.g., reducing margins, raising prices for consumers, and losing control over the delivery process). First-party delivery (also known as in-house, owned, or native delivery) can help restaurants solve many of these obstacles. Furthermore, out of 840 consumers who participated in the HT Customer Engagement Technology 2021 Survey, 75% reported that they prefer to order directly from a restaurant. The major reasons for their preference were as follows: fewer mistakes, lower delivery fees, faster delivery, and higher food quality. Taking advantage of affordable technology solutions, more restaurant operators may attempt to use first-party delivery to overcome the obstacles as well as to meet customer expectations. We may see the growth of curbside and drive-thru pickup for customers who pre-ordered via a restaurant’s app.

Malbec: We are keeping a close eye of crypto currency in light of it gaining significant traction in countries where their currency is unstable. As the credit card companies continue to add confusing fees or impose charges that are difficult to understand or reconcile, the market seems ripe for a disruptive payment solution to gain greater acceptance. Block-chain appears to have addressed the biggest challenge that the credit card industry continues to face (fraud and the cost of fraud) so can it really be the silver bullet to simplify retail payments and remove technology bloat in this area?

Where has technology been underserved?

Antonelli: There is considerable room for capturing more insights and ideas from customers based on the public conversations they are having about brands.  The technology is there now to help QSRs and Restaurants analyze in real-time, to be a part of that conversation!

Singh: We’re underserving back-office and frontline workers. We’ve jumped to robots replacing humans, but I think there is a lot of room for technology to enhance the employee experience now, and in turn increase efficiency. Helping team members not just survive the day but getting through the day with a genuine smile. Even the basic concept of reporting-based prompts eliminates a lot of administration for employees to the benefit of the restaurant. Today’s back-office systems are large products, unwieldy and far from real-time. Transitioning these products to real-time data and putting them at frontline employees’ fingertips will empower better day-to-day decisions. There are still more deeper integration options for the back office that can alleviate the stresses of supplier shortages and dynamically suggest solutions. 

Gosman: While kitchens have seen slow advances in processes and cooking appliances, they’ve been largely underserved by technological advancements.

Connolly: Guest history technology has been underserved or perhaps more aptly under used.  Hotels and restaurants collect vast amounts of data about their guests but fail to effectively use these data in subsequent guest visits.  It always amazes me how often I am asked to repeatedly provide information that has already been captured and can be used to streamline and personalize each service encounter.  More attention needs to be given to staff training, systems integration, and system functionality so that pertinent guest information is made readily and appropriately available during each guest interaction.

Erdem: Technology in hospitality have heavily focused on the digital marketing stack and mission critical systems. The employee facing aspects of hospitality operations are relatively underserved when it comes to technology.

In the wake of increased data collection, what technologies are you looking to embrace to help manage and utilize your data?  

Antonelli: We see that technology has impacted everything from ordering to marketing to operations, with strong expansion and competition is now promoting the use of technology. We’re continuing to invest in our Solugenix AI & ML data insights teams and tools. We see an opportunity to better understand and serve changing customer preferences and differences by demographic and the ever-changing variables.

Singh: There will no doubt be a need for data integrity across the restaurant. There is too much data in too many places and none of it standardized. As a result, the POS becomes the source of the truth. What the industry will move to is an open data layer allowing not just operators, but vendors, suppliers and maybe even third parties the opportunity to build value. 

Gosman: Cameras, RFID and environmental sensors and other forms of data capture are creating large amounts of data. Much of this data is useless – it must be mined and parsed to pull out the valuable elements, but many use cases require this be processed rapidly so the output is relevant and actionable. Cloud is a great resource to scale computing power but is constrained by limited bandwidth – and anything mission critical would suffer during internet outages. Edge Computing helps bridge the gap by using local, high-speed processing to pull out the valuable data elements and discard the rest. The reduced dataset can then be sent to the cloud or processed locally based on need and solution architecture.

Connolly: The amount of data collected about customers and employees can be overwhelming without the proper tools to support big data.  Organizations need good discipline, practices, and systems for collecting, cleansing, safeguarding, and using data.

Malbec: Large organizations have for the most part done a relatively good job at collecting data but a relatively underwhelming job at actually using it to better manage the business. That being said, the industry is beginning to see the early adoption of some prescriptive AI applications to take the data and make relevant business recommendations based on it. This is a good start but we have a long way to go to catch up with the retail industry and others who have harnessed this medium and are driving significant revenue as a result.