MURTEC surprises and delights as I get a peek into the chain restaurant industry

I had the opportunity to attend one of the larger shows for the restaurant industry, MURTEC 2029 in Las Vegas. Over 500 executives from over 300 brands all across North America were here to take a look and share ideas about some of the latest technology in the restaurant industry. From how to better serve guests in-store to ways that restaurants can capitalize on takeout and delivery options like GrubHub and Uber eats, there was a ton of discussion to be had.

While it’s easy to concede that there is no replacement to providing the best customer service by being face-to-face, the industry is aware that customers are increasingly looking for ways to consume on their own terms.

From the outside looking in

It was great to look at this industry as a total consumer with an outside perspective on the way restaurant operations run. A lot of people, myself included, I’m sure take for granted everything that goes into a great dining experience. We complain when the Wi-Fi is slow, someone messes up our order, the food is cold, or some detail is off. But what we continuously look past is the amount of work that it takes to keep those establishments running, especially at scale and how much time and effort is put into creating the guest experience. It doesn’t always go perfect and I’m not saying that’s an excuse for screwing up my order, but it was definitely fascinating to see the things that are involved in the operational side of large and small chain restaurants.

“I’m not a tech expert, but I’m an avid tech consumer”

In a fantastic address, Laura Rea Dickey, CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue, highlighted some common sense that was used to create new technologies in their organization.

They did not set out to create new technology policies, systems, or an operational backend, they set out to solve problems. Working from the top down and with an “outcome first” model, they were able to build into what their customers were requiring of them in order to stay loyal.

First things first, parity across all locations — corporate or franchise. Standard hardware, standard services, standard back-end and tool sets to empower owners, operators, and staff were paramount in getting their brand where it needed to be. From taking into account barbecue pit masters that lost time by taking off their gloves by enabling their workflow using voice guided services like Alexa, to building complete back-end systems for reporting and operations, this family owned and operated brand was able to get it all done by leveraging existing technology, partnerships, and the drive to be the best that they could be.

It was truly a great “anyone can do it with the right motivation” story.

The elephants in the room

Order delivery services like Grubhub, Uber eats, etc. definitely were mentioned at just about every table that I sat at. Not necessarily in a bad way, but more in a “how the hell do we deal with this” way. When these disruptive services entered the market I can bet that they didn’t realize there would be conference rooms with hundreds of people sitting around discussing how to consolidate 5, 6, 10, or 12 tablets and mobile devices beside the cash register at a restaurant.

But that’s exactly what’s happening.

The more services the restaurant wants to participate in, the more devices are necessary. Luckily there are a number of POS systems that allow direct integration into some of these, but it seems to be an ever-growing problem.

When you couple this with the fact that no one POS system vendor or payment gateway has standardized, published, available APIs, it can create a pretty complex set of issues.

Enter the Restaurant Technology Network

One of the coolest things I got to see launch at this event was the Restaurant Technology Network, or RTN.

The RTN was conceptualized based on a number of different industry organizations similar to multiunit restaurants.

You have scores of companies all trying to do almost the exact same thing where there is a high frequency of repeatability, except everyone is forging their own way. This group aims to change that by putting together thought groups from the industry to determine what the main problems to solve are and find out what similarities exist in affecting change. It’s a really cool effort and has immediate buy in from some of the largest names in the industry.

It’s all about the future of serving customers

From the extremely futuristic keynote talk put on by Jason Silva to the breakout groups to determine where the future of dining is going, the one thing that rang true was that this is an industry focused on creating the best experience and ways to surprise and delight their customers.

Discussions around brand loyalty, catering to individuals and families and creating unique dining experiences were everywhere. Increasing efficiencies, decreasing wait time and offering a better experience through interactivity in the store were key to many of the groups I heard speak.

Predictive analytics to change guest experience

One of the best ways that was talked about to engage with, understand, and help build the customer experience is by using predictive analytics. In some cases it is as simple as leveraging the existing wireless and Wi-Fi infrastructure to determine how many passerbys versus visitors were brought in over certain amounts of time (and how stores compare to each other) and in other more advance cases it is by combining Point of Sale (POS) data with WiFi information to give a much deeper insight.

One of the key highlights to this this was when Kesha Williams from Chick-fil-A won the Top Innovator Award for Women in Restaurant Technology which showcased the use of video analytics for facial recognition for workforce and customer identification and engagement.

In addition to the analytics used to identify visitors and customers a strong emphasis was put on the business intelligence backend, which helps the individual restaurants with things like inventory management, temperature and humidity control and sensors, open and closed doors reporting and other IoT based data. This seems to be a huge need with an easy solution in this industry.

Understanding how to get the data is one thing, and I think that’s pretty mature at this point. However understanding how to get systems to work together and figuring out how to use that data to drive business decisions to increase efficiencies is another area of interest that there was a lot of buzz about.

Dining on Your Own Terms

One of the coolest conversations I got involved in was the idea that some restaurants would no longer be providing in building dining in exchange for location specific dining experiences using commissary style hubs and replacing servers with drones.

Let that soak in for a second.

The idea would be to create a dining experience where instead of saying “I want to have IHOP pancakes for breakfast”, it becomes “I want to have IHOP pancakes for breakfast and watch the sunrise” or the concept of scheduling dinner on the beach where your food is delivered via drone to a pick-up spot or kiosk and your experience is kicked off.

The crazy thing about it was when the discussion turned into how realistic that is.

Here, I will paint the picture:

  • Amazon is and has been talking about drone delivery for products for quite some time.
  • Amazon has an Amazon Restaurants program where companies like IHOP and Applebee’s already participate.
  • Amazon now has Whole Foods locations all across the United States where food is made, prepared, and prepackaged.

See? Not so crazy to think about ordering dinner and watching the sunset over Lake Travis in Austin now is it?

Special mentions to Michael C. and Parrish “Mad Taco” Jackson for going down this rabbit hole!

Check please

So if there is one thing I learned at MURTEC, it’s that this is a group of companies and organizations that are trying to understand where the market is going and how to position themselves to be there to make happy customers out of all of us.

Everyone agrees that restaurants aren’t going anywhere but people are gaining options for dining. Whether they are looking for a better experience in the restaurant itself, exchanging that for sitting in their living room or having the food find them when and where the desire it, it looks to be a pretty exciting time ahead.

Great work with the event Abby and the teams at Hospitality Tech Magazine and EnsembleIQ!

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