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Navigating the Evolution of Restaurant Tech Infrastructure

Tech leaders from Sonny’s, Starbird Chicken and Inspire Brands discussed how restaurant tech priorities, challenges, and strategies are shifting.
Billy Brewer, Tony Lawrence, Marcus Wasdin, MURTEC 2024

In an era where technological advancements are reshaping the restaurant industry, the concept of "table stakes infrastructure" has taken center stage. This term encompasses the fundamental elements required for a restaurant's success, ranging from a robust point-of-sale (POS) system to seamless online ordering and efficient kitchen automation. At MURTEC 2024, a panel moderated by Marcus Wasdin, SVP, Technology Operations, Inspire Brands, and  featuring Billy Brewer, COO, Sonny’s Franchise Company; and Tony Lawrence, Director of Technology, Starbird Chicken delved into the nuances of building and updating this critical foundation. Here's a closer look at their insights on what constitutes table stakes infrastructure, how it benefits franchisees, upcoming tech priorities, rollout strategies, and ongoing challenges post-COVID.

What does table stakes infrastructure mean to you?

Brewer: Restaurant infrastructure used to mean having a great POS with a couple other things added to it. Then during COVID, table stakes was online ordering. But now it’s really about a great end user experience. Our guests expect a certain level of hospitality during their dining experience. So, we’re always trying to balance how we add a new technology that benefits the guest without alienating them. 

Wasdin: Inspire is a collection of brands that have their own rich heritage. So, we’re trying to figure out how to create common core systems that can be centralized and leveraged across all the brands while also allowing each brand to have its own identity. In particular, the POS is one of those things that you must get right because it’s always working, it generates the most data, all of your other systems tap into it, etc.

How does your tech infrastructure benefit your franchisees?

Lawrence: Starbird is a newer brand with a small footprint. I joined nine months ago because it was an opportunity to start small and scale quickly, which I really like doing. I spent my first 90 days listening to what was working and what wasn’t, when it came to the tech stack. After taking a step back and looking at our tech landscape, we decided it wasn’t working as is, so we let go of everything and started from scratch. We prioritized the POS because that’s where our data begins and ends. So, we wanted to make sure that it worked as flawlessly as possible, could scale as well as possible, was hardware agnostic, was secure, etc.

What’s next on your tech infrastructure roadmap?

Brewer: Every restaurant brand is facing the challenges associated with rising labor and food costs. The cost of technology is also rising as well. So, we’re always looking for ways that will help us better service our guests and our team members. For example, handheld devices for servers, pay at the table devices, anything that might translate into line busting in the drive through, etc. On the flip side, since we prepare barbecue meats that take 12 hours or more to cook, we need a best-in-class production platform that will help our operators know exactly how much food to cook so that it’s cooked just in the right amount of time and as close to service time as possible.

Lawrence: Even though our company is relatively young, there’s already a lot of band-aids in place. One of the things I’m prioritizing is simplification. We have a lot of systems that overlap functionality, and we’re paying for both systems and getting 50 percent of the value. So, it’s about doing an application rationalization exercise and figuring out how to make our operators’ lives simpler. 

How do you prioritize tech rollouts?

Lawrence: Every department head meets together to discuss what our strategic priorities are for the year. We map it out on a timeline so there aren’t any conflicts between departments, and we discuss and negotiate what our highest priorities should be for the quarter. It helps keep everyone organized and on the same page.

Brewer:  We spend a lot of time with all our stakeholders: franchisees, frontline members, everyone on the executive team, marketing team, etc. Our job is to balance what everyone wants with what they need. So we really dig deep, especially with our operators. We ask a lot of questions, really get to know and understand what they’re looking for and what problems they’re trying to solve. 

Wasdin: There’s a lot of change happening inside of Inspire right now and it has to do with centralization of product function. With six plus brands and 32,000 restaurants – there is the opportunity for a lot of duplicative work (many groups are trying to solve the same problem). So, we have a group that is focused on looking across the entire organization, and is focused on what the broader challenges are and finding the solutions. This helps simplify the tech stack and eliminate that duplicate work and effort. It also allows you to better leverage your tech vendor partners. We also have a group called technology operations which is the liaison between Inspire Brands, technology and operators. This liaison hears from the operators what the priorities for technology are and what’s happening out there and relays that information so that we can find solutions.

What business challenges are you still dealing with post-COVID?

Brewer: Guest behavior seems to change so rapidly versus pre-COVID, so we're constantly trying to stay out ahead of that by understanding our guests better. That means putting a lot of effort into CRM and how do we just better obtain that guest data, make sure it's clean, usable, and always kind of lean back there with every decision we're making. 

Lawrence: People adopted digital ordering overnight and restaurants are now seeing some of that digital ordering behavior taper off. As we build new restaurants, we’re asking: Will guests dine in? Will it all be off-prem? Do we need a 2,000-square-foot front-of-house if everyone just swings through the drive-thru? We embraced kiosks a long time ago, so now we’re trying to figure out how many kiosks is enough, especially in a location with a smaller footprint. We’re looking to provide a good guest experience while also managing labor costs and being able to redeploy labor to different activities. 

Brewer: Pre-pandemic, 60 percent of our revenue was on-premises and 40 percent was off. Now it’s the reverse with 40 percent on-premises and 60 percent off. We’re now starting construction on a location that is 800-square-feet smaller than our smallest model. The kitchen size is the same. We’ve just reduced the dining space. 


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