HT's senior editor- restaurants Anna Wolfe recently caught up with Randy Barnett, VP of Technology for Melting Pot. The fondue restaurant is known as an experiential dining destination. After installing a new POS chainwide, the Tampa-based chain plans to expand from 90 locations to 125 locations over the next five years. Plus, Barnett shares the brand's ongoing tech project.
HT: When I think of Melting Pot, I think of a sit-down fondue restaurant. Is that still an accurate perception of what the Melting Pot is today?
Barnett: For sure. We are very much an experiential dining destination, if you will. And we really embrace that. We've got a lot of really loyal guests, and we've also embraced the new generation of guests that are looking for that experience in dining and not just going out to eat. They want to have an experience of something other than just somebody putting food on their plate. We feel like this is something that has helped us not only in the past, but will in the present and will continue to help us in the future.
HT: A lot restaurant brands that have added virtual brands to their kitchens to help keep everyone busy and to keep revenue going strong or strong as possible. Is that something that Melting Pot has embraced?
Barnett: We haven't ruled out virtual kitchens at all, but at this time that's not something that we're actively pursuing.
HT: What about contactless payments?
Barnett: … Pay at the table is something that we've that we've started using. And again, that was that was something that Toast allowed us to do not only a physical pay-at-the-table, but a contactless pay-at-the-table too. We were one of the first brands that Toast allowed the pilot that back in mid- 2020.
HT: Explain how that works. Is there a QR code on the receipt that the guest scans to pay from their phone?
Barnett: Exactly. … The whole no-touch became really important for good reason… We turned it on in many locations during that time, it worked great, and we're still using it. As things get back to normal, it's not as much of a focus as it was, but there's still plenty of applications for it.
HT: In your restaurants do you see generational differences? Younger consumers, millennials, if you will, who might be more inclined to be using those contactless technologies versus Boomers? Or have you seen more universal usage across the age groups?
Barnett: It's hard to say. Obviously the younger crowd leans more towards anything with technology. It comes much more natural to them, but I think as dining experiences are changing throughout our industry, we're seeing more and more of all generations embracing technology. If you just look around you at any point in time, you can see half a dozen people with their faces on their phones. Clearly, this is not something that's going away. We're embracing (contactless payment) as a brand, and we want to make sure while still keeping that personal touch when it's needed and want to allow the technology to blend itself in there. We don't want technology to step all over the experience, but we certainly want the option to exist if someone chooses to do use it.
HT: No one wants to sit around waiting for the check, then waiting for the server to grab your credit card and wait some more and then wait some more for her to bring it back.
Barnett: Yeah, I think you make a good point there. Now that we're kind of past that initial shock of using that technology for a specific reason of touchless, now it becomes more of how do you make the guest experience better? Because as you said, they don't have to sit around and wait and they're gone when they feel like it. At the end of the day, it's all about putting more people inside of our four walls. So if we can cut down on the table time that helps as well.
HT:What technology projects or initiatives are on your near term to-do list, whether customer facing or employee-facing or operations? Barnett: All of the above. We just finished up our Toast rollout, which got a little bit derailed in 2020, but we just finished it up. We now have all our locations on Toast. So, the foundation is built and, and I think that's important to have everybody on one system because we want to have technology at scale and be able to provide all the things that go along with that. So we can leverage the power of the brand, so to speak. So that was a big step for us. And as a result of that we've been able to add more and more data to our data warehouse. We started building a data warehouse about three years ago which always has had POS data, but it's been from different POS systems
So now we're on one system. Back-of-house software data goes in their reservation. Data goes into our data warehouse. Customer data goes into there. It's really nice to have a solution like that we can lean on. Data warehouse is a big project for us right now. And not to mention now we can pull in some social media data into there. And so that will in turn, allow us to do the things that you just talked about, have better marketing programs, allow us to have better operations efficiencies, because now we can see through that single pane of glass all of the data that these that these departments need to operate their business units.
HT: That's exciting to have a single source of truth, if you will, and be able to leverage those insights as you move ahead.
Barnett: It's really exciting. In fact we're starting to put together the types of visualization and reporting that are actionable not only at the organizational level, but at the unit level as well. So the franchisees can see the benefit of all this work as well.
HT: How are the restaurants leveraging technology when it comes to training and maintaining their workforce, especially in this day and age with such a labor shortage?
Barnett: The scheduling pieces is handled at the location level. So many of our franchisees have scheduling software that is integrated with Toast, by the way. So that's a bonus. Toast has wonderful integrations for almost everything that you would want. So we're leveraging that capability at the at the support center level ...We're looking at texting platforms for internal communication to teammates at the support center level and even beyond out to the to the franchise level. So yeah, we've got a lot of interesting things going on there.
HT: That's awesome. I talked to Cunningham Restaurant Group recently that is using BirdEye to leverage to maintain their listings on Google and also to manage their guests’ feedback. how Cunningham Restaurant Group is leveraging customer feedback.It was pretty interesting to hear how they are using that. Is that something that's on your radar?
Barnett: Oh yeah, definitely on our radar and now you're reading my mind! So we absolutely are looking at those social media aggregation tools in order to be able to leverage technology, because not everybody can afford to have a social media person that's totally dedicated to that at the restaurant level. We're looking at platforms that will allow some efficiencies there. So be able to aggregate all these reviews that come in, all this feedback that comes in. We've got a couple of things up our sleeve there something within maybe reservation systems that can also leverage the feedback that you get when people make a reservation as well.
HT: Do most of your locations offer free Wi-Fi in the restaurant to guests? 51% of guests say free Wi-Fi is an important factor when selecting a restaurant, according to HT's 2021 Customer Engagement Technology Study.
Barnett: Yes, they do. In fact Wi-Fi is a part of our technology infrastructure. It has to be because the Toast platform; while it does have stationary terminals, one of the benefits of using Toast is the handhelds for speed of service and other obvious reasons.
HT:Cihan Cobanoglu, CHTP, McKibbon Endowed Chair & Director of M3 Center, University of South Florida, and HT editorial advisory board member, said restaurants should be leveraging that free Wi-Fi to enable their guests to do their social media for them by using hashtags and whatnot.
Barnett: Yeah, it's a necessity these days. It's kind of expected, right? You, you go into a restaurant or anywhere that you're going to be spending money. The expectation is typically there’s some sort of Wi-Fi connectivity that you can use. … Anytime you're going to be somewhere for more than an hour or two, you got to stay connected. Right?
HT: Absolutely. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with HT. It's been great to connect.