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Executive Q&A: The Benefits of Restaurant Automation, Information, and Optimization

Sam Gerace headshot
Sam Gerace, CEO,

What should restaurants’ top 2023 priorities be?

In the face of scarce, expensive labor and increasing food costs, restaurant priorities are obvious:  Automation, Information, Optimization.  

Automation: For a long time, the restaurant industry has had the benefit of relatively inexpensive labor, but with the aging of baby boomers, the US working population is shrinking, and the remaining labor is becoming more costly.  Industries that have weathered economic transitions like these in the past have done by leaning in to automation.  It frees people to do the high value activities that require human intellect like serving customers or improving processes.  And it doesn’t require an IT expert anymore.  Apps have become easy to install and use, and mobile phones and tablets have become much less expensive.  Simply put, in 2023, any repetitive restaurant task that can be automated, should be automated.

Information: Restaurants used to rely on things staying largely the same week to week and year over year.  For decades, restaurants have used simple 4-week averages for sales and inventory planning.  But advances in technology are allowing consumers, workers, and suppliers to react in real time to opportunities, meaning things can change quickly and unpredictably.  Restaurants don’t have a history of using digital sources of information that can help inform their labor, inventory, and menu decisions - things like weather, event schedules, foot traffic trends, road construction schedules, and that means they have big blind spots.  Data about things that affect restaurant sales and costs is available at low cost, or even free.  In 2023, restaurants need to start incorporating these information sources into their planning at the location level and in the corporate office.

Optimization: Doing business the way we’ve always done it isn’t enough in the 21st century.  We have to use information to optimize what we do - to continuously improve.  And that’s really the key.  Some of the restaurants who are doing the best after the pandemic are simply looking at one major process each month.  They are gathering team members from every function and level and walking through the process asking the question, “How can we make this better?”

What is the greatest disruptive force on your business?

Restaurants are seeing the biggest shift in consumer behavior since the introduction of the family automobile.  At its core is something that behavioral economists revealed a few years ago - that people now consider time their most valuable asset.  That’s a major change, because for the entire 20th century, most people considered money their most valuable asset.  As a result of the unconscious shift from money to time as the most important asset, consumers are changing their behavior.  They will pay for things that save time, and that make time more enjoyable.  That’s why, for example, we’re seeing the massive shift from dine-in to drive-thru and delivery.  And why consumers are favoring restaurants that give them choices, that maximize convenience, and that give them new experiences.

What technologies should restaurants be looking to embrace?

I know we all imagine a future with food robots, but they are still science fiction for most types of food.  The variables involved in taking fresh ingredients and making something delicious from it involves so many variables that it requires human judgement and skill.  But that doesn’t mean technology isn’t critical. Today, right now, two kinds of technologies can make the difference between restaurant profitability and loss in today’s economy: those that automate repetitive back office processes and those that inform business decisions.  

How can restaurants best leverage the data they collect for predictive analytics and other efficiencies?

Data - information -  is a two-sided coin.  It is critical to managing our businesses competitively and profitably, but it already comes in too fast to process.  As technology continues to advance we’re going to get more types of information and we’re going to get it faster and faster.  So while every person involved in running a restaurant, from the GM to the CEO, wants to leverage information in the best way possible, it can feel like an impossible task.  That’s why AI is becoming so important -  it can be “the GM’s Friend”.  AI is particularly good at sifting through volumes of information and  highlighting the things that will really affect sales, labor productivity, food waste, and other factors that impact profit.  Restaurant executives and GMs alike can define their business objectives, and then AI-powered apps to do the low-level crunching and give them the key information they need to make operating decisions.

Is it difficult for a restaurant to implement AI?

Thankfully, we can get the benefit of AI without needing to know how to build it.  Using them is just like using any other app.  In fact, you use machine learning every day.  Google search, your GPS system, Netflix movie recommendations, and Amazon’s product suggestions are all AI powered, but the AI is invisible behind the app.  Restaurant AI is the same  - you can install an use an app as easily as you do GPS, and get the benefit of machine learning to help you optimize labor and inventory, manage food waste, and hit profitability targets.

What should a restaurant look for in automation software and AI?

Make sure the app you are considering is designed for the restaurant industry! Generic apps require extensive  configuration to make them work for any particular business. And they require a great deal of IT support in the background.  Look for a software supplier who understands the restaurant industry, and who designs their software with the unique processes of our industry.  And ask to try it out before you buy it so you can make sure it is easy to use.

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