How the Internet of Things can help your restaurant leap forward
Restaurant technology that makes an operation run more efficiently brings together pieces of information from multiple sources at the front and back of house to help improve the way we work. That’s where the Internet of Things (IoT), the range of interconnected devices that share information, stands to help operators manage through change and rely on data instead of guesswork to make decisions. The benefits can help restaurants take a major step forward now (though eventually, the information IoT technology provides may be required by health departments). According to Upserve, a connected restaurant can help operators remotely manage all equipment, troubleshoot problems and potentially avoid equipment failure. That means it can uphold your food safety standards by monitoring refrigeration (even shelf-by-shelf) round-the-clock and alerting you when a process or piece of equipment is out of compliance or when pathogens may be present. It can improve communication between your front- and back-of-house staff, manage orders more efficiently and make informed decisions about what dishes are and are not working on your menu. A smart oven with IoT technology can allow you to use one oven for different types of cooking and to monitor its operation remotely. Of course, not every operation is ready to make the best use of this kind of connectivity – Upserve suggests you ask yourself if you will act on the data provided, if you have the space for new kitchen equipment as needed, and if you understand the ways in which IoT can help increase your revenue. That said, you don’t need to make a substantial investment to take steps toward better connectivity – even a smartphone app that connects to sensors in an operation (Swift Sensors is one option) can help your restaurant save money, manage inventory better, minimize waste, monitor and improve energy usage and serve a consistent menu.
Boosting employee engagement through sustainability (but that’s not all)
It's no secret that consumers are demanding greater transparency and quality when it comes to the food they eat, its impact on their health and the environment, and the conditions in which it was produced. But a focus on sustainability could also make your restaurant a more appealing place to work at a time when staff retention is a significant challenge for many operators. That's according to the National Restaurant Association Sustainability Executive Study Group, which held its second annual meeting recently. At the session, business leaders focusing on sustainability efforts at Chick-fil-A, Darden Restaurants and other businesses made the connection between sustainability programs at work and employee engagement. A panel during the session reported that at companies with sustainability programs, 76 percent of employees agreed that their company was making a positive impact on the world (compared to 62 percent of employees at companies without sustainability programs). Further, 86 percent of employees from companies with sustainability programs said they are somewhat or very excited about their work, compared to 79 percent of employees at companies that don't take part in sustainability programs. (Of course, these operators aren’t only building sustainable operations to break the cycle of short-term employment in the restaurant industry – they are approaching employee engagement from different angles. Chick-fil-A, for one, has made headlines recently for its decision to give its hourly employees a $5 wage increase to between $17 and $18 an hour, as well as paid sick leave for all employees and paid time off for supervisors.)
Build a better beverage business
There are big profits in beverages right now -- from exotic new takes on coffee and tea to alcoholic drinks -- but do you give your beverage menu the same treatment you give your food menu? Typsy offered some suggestions to boost sales and customer engagement. For one, simplify your selection to avoid overwhelming guests (aim to limit your menu to 12 options per category) and use brief descriptive words, like "tangy" or "smooth," to paint a picture of each option and give each drink a creative title. Harness your POS data to determine your best-selling and most profitable drinks. In the category of beverages where you generate the most profits, increase your premium ingredients to help expand your margins. Finally, don't forget price psychology: place drink prices next to item descriptions (not off on their own) and price drinks so they end in $.95 or $.97 -- consumers perceive them as better deals than those priced on the dollar.
Safe summertime cookouts
The season for barbecues is upon us. If you’re cooking and serving outdoors, Foodsafety.gov advises you take extra precautions when it comes to preventing the spread of pathogens. For one, use your food thermometer to determine when meats are fully cooked. Beef, pork, lamb and veal must reach an internal temperature of 145˚F with a three-minute rest time. Ground meats need to reach 160˚F and poultry must reach 165˚F. Hot dogs are cooked when steaming hot. While food can be left out at room temperature for two hours, food sitting out in the sun should not be left for more than an hour.
Fashioned for food safety
Are your standards for staff dress threatening food safety at your restaurant? Insisting on having servers and kitchen staff keep uniforms clean, eliminating elements like neckties or vests that can accidentally brush up against food and cross-contaminate ingredients, having your staff wear shoes with a tread that prevent slips, trips and falls, and keeping their hair tied up and away from food can all help prevent food safety problems.
Instagram update brings guests a step closer to the dishes they view
Instagram has become the go-to social media platform for restaurants looking to showcase their latest dishes, offer promotions and build their audience. Now, the platform is making it easier for consumers to make plans to consume the mouth-watering dishes they see on the platform. Instagram, through its partnerships with OpenTable, GrubHub and Resy, is letting consumers order food for delivery or make reservations directly from the platform – they no longer have to call the restaurant or toggle over to its site to order delivery or book a table.
It’s the new drive-thru
Could this be the reinvention of the drive-thru? Chipotle has begun adding drive-thru lanes to some of its new locations – but guests can’t use them to place food orders. (Dunkin’ Donuts did the same at one of its locations this year.) CNBC reports that at Chipotle, the lanes are to serve guests who have placed orders via the chain’s mobile app and want the option of staying in their car when picking up their food. Those who place an order via mobile app can do so hours in advance and choose the time they’d like to pick up their order. Guests will receive a text when their order is ready and can park in dedicated spots outside if they arrive prior to that time. The challenge will be to monitor data to be able to anticipate when ordering rushes occur – and to schedule staff accordingly.
Turn around your turnover rate
The cost of employee turnover is about $5,800 per person for the average front-line employee, according to Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research. That turnover is especially damaging if you lose a strong general manager, who is “the one person you have to hold accountable for everything about the brand standard,” according to Roz Mallet, CEO of PhaseNext Hospitality who spoke in a session at the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. But you can limit the damage. A report in Foodservice Director recommends some strategies in use at various foodservice operations around the country. Towson University’s foodservice operation, for example, uses an online application designed to help match applicants with job openings and also identify candidates who may already be planning their exit from the job. Hiring managers there must connect with at least two references before making a hire, and new hires must take part in safety and company policy training and orientation before their first day on the job. The goal is to provide a transparent process and avoid surprises later—so Foodservice Director suggests operators not hold back about the challenges of a position (and about how the candidate’s skills and talents are needed). Also, make an effort to consider new demographics. For example, a school district in Lee’s Summit, Mo. makes a special effort to promote job openings to retirees and caregivers who are less likely to jump from job to job than younger workers may be. They advertise job openings during school events that are likely to draw people committed to the community. Finally, go fishing. TJ Schier of SMART Restaurant Group said he passes out business cards to any people he meets who give him top-notch customer service and invites them to apply for a job at his restaurants.
Look to the future with practical, on-brand technology
What does the restaurant of the future look like? While kitchen robots, autonomous delivery vehicles and facial recognition software are certainly on the rise, operators considering new technology don’t need the latest bells and whistles to benefit from technology. Industry experts weighed in on the topic at the National Restaurant Association Show—and their comments served as a reminder to put new technology in perspective. When considering whether to implement new technology, Restaurant Business reports that Sarah Lockyer of Winsight suggested operators ask whether or not their guests are demanding that technology and if it meshes with their restaurant’s brand. While voice recognition may be a helpful addition for some restaurant kitchens, for example, there are other technology applications that may be more practical across the board. Restaurant payments, Lockyer said, are in this category. Do you know to what extent technology can help streamline your guest payments? Do you offer mobile payments? Does your restaurant have a clientele that would accept a cashless payment option? Lockyer also sees opportunity for restaurants to use dynamic pricing to their benefit. For instance, during a slow day part, a stormy weekend, or a day when your supply of a popular menu item is running low, your spur-of-the-moment pricing adjustments can help increase traffic and boost sales of certain items. Dynamic pricing can also help you make special offers to your most loyal guests.
Take back your bookings
At a time when data is king, think twice before surrendering your customer information to third parties. For example, while using a third-party service to manage your bookings can be a helpful part of your marketing strategy, it shouldn’t be your only strategy. You’re likely losing not just money but also weakening your connection to your guests because their data is going to the third-party provider instead of you—and if you have no tables available at a requested time, you’re also losing out on an opportunity to suggest a table at another restaurant in your portfolio. Modern Restaurant Management suggests offering benefits to guests to incentivize them to book directly from you: Create memorable experiences by offering kitchen tours, special classes or preferred seating times and locations. Consider offering rewards such as custom wine pairings or a complimentary appetizer. Finally, make the third-party sites worth your while by having them enforce cancellation fees and a require credit card to hold a reservation.
Plant-based foods take off
If the National Restaurant Association Show is any indication, plant-based foods aren’t just for vegans and vegetarians anymore—and they’re becoming much more than burger replacements. Restaurant Business reports that attendees of the recent event crowded the show floor for a taste of products such as “bleeding” meatless burgers, dairy-free cheese, soy-based gyros, plant-based scrambled egg replacements, and burgers and sausages made from pea protein. How innovative is your kitchen when it comes to creating plant-based menu options? More guests may be clamoring for them in the coming months.
Check cleanliness of non-food-contact surfaces
When cleaning your kitchen, don’t forget easily overlooked places like refrigerator, microwave and oven handles, beverage dispenser heads, overhead lighting and vents, and walls adjacent to your food preparation areas that are likely to get splashed during cooking. StateFoodSafety.com advises keeping these non-food-contact surfaces clean to ensure food debris can’t contaminate menu items you’re preparing.
Fine-tune your back-of-house setup
Even with a well-thought-out training program in place and front-of-house staff committed to delivering quality service, the experience you provide your guests won’t be the best it can be if your back-of-house setup isn’t working. Assess your back-of-house procedures to identify bottlenecks. Are inadequate tools compromising food or employee safety or consuming too much time? Fast Casual suggests you consider using equipment such as high-efficiency dishwashers, disposals, automated oil management systems and trash compactors, which can help streamline complicated or unsafe tasks — and make your team’s work a bit easier. Also, as open kitchens continue to appeal to guests, keeping that part of your operation in order and ready for display is just as important as the presentation of the dish you serve a guest.
Virtual and augmented reality raise the game for restaurants
Looking to improve your guest and employee experience? For some operators, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are boosting engagement. A report in QSR magazine said the founder of the fast-casual chain Honeygrow has implemented a VR orientation and training tool whereby employees wear a pair of VR glasses and walk through a five-part training session that covers everything from protecting food safety to providing good customer service. There is even a gaming component where employees must place vegetables and raw meat on the proper refrigerator shelves. Other brands are using similar technology to create digital apps that allow guests to scan against features at the restaurant, prompting information, animations and games to pop up on their phone screen to educate and engage them in the brand. Starbucks has introduced such an AR concept in its new Shanghai Reserve Roastery.
Navigate food delivery – and come out ahead
Offering food delivery is becoming more of a need-to-have option than a nice-to-have option, as restaurants struggle to bring in new customers and find ways to manage decreased foot traffic. In fact, NPD Group found that food delivery sales have climbed 20 percent in the past five years. If GrubHub, Uber Eats or other large food delivery operators have started up in your vicinity, don’t forget about the smaller, independent operators who might give your restaurant a boost. A recent report in Skift Table says business for these operators has been strong overall, despite some early concerns that the larger operators could eat up their market share. The report found that in some cases, the larger operators were slow to make requested menu updates and that a restaurant might not appear as an available option during periods when the updates need to be made. While a smaller operator may not have the advantage of scale, it may be able to provide personalized service to its restaurant partners and their customers. If your take-away menu includes items that require special care or if your delivery business has a loyal customer following, using a smaller player might help you customize your service to that base. They may also be more willing to negotiate with you to earn your business — an important benefit at a time when delivery slims down profit margins for many restaurants.
E. coli inspires technology that prevents it
The E.coli outbreak at Chipotle a few years ago inspired two engineers to start working on a device that would help prevent the spread of foodborne illness. Now, Business Insider reports that they have developed a product called PathSpot that uses light to determine whether or not there is bacteria present on a person’s hands (which, when not properly washed, can cause 89 percent of foodborne illnesses). PathSpot is a small black box attached to an iPad with a connected sensor. When the iPad scans the light reflected by a person’s hand, it runs an algorithm to show how it fluoresces — wavelengths of light fluoresce differently in contaminated versus clean hands. PathSpot will flash red if it detects bacteria on a person’s hands and blue if the person’s hands are clean. It also maintains extensive employee records and can alert a manager if an employee doesn’t rescan within a few minutes of getting a red light, or if an employee is skipping scans altogether. The technology is in the early stages of a rollout — it is already being used in 20 farms, packaging facilities and restaurants in the U.S. The engineers behind the technology have their sights set on making PathSpot the go-to device for sanitation regulation in restaurants, hospitals, schools and airports — and to eventually make PathSpot a portable device that could attach to a smartphone and be used by individuals.
Food inspection schedules impact likelihood of foodborne illness
The time of day when a food safety inspection takes place can have a big impact on foodborne illness rates. That’s according to a new Harvard Business School study, which found that 19 million foodborne illnesses, 51,000 hospitalizations and billions of dollars in medical costs could be avoided every year if food safety inspections are scheduled at the beginning of the day instead of at the end. Food Safety Magazine reports that according to the research, inspectors cited fewer violations at each establishment inspected throughout the course of a day. This is likely due to workday fatigue and an eagerness to complete work toward the end of a day — and it likely provides some operations with better scores than they deserve.
Technology to help you manage labor challenges
Managing swings in the labor market, as well as the costs, are top challenges for restaurant operators. At the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, many technology companies were on hand with offerings designed to help operators manage those challenges. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that a number of companies, including HotSchedules, Harri and Snag, are looking to help operators with labor forecasting to help them avoid the high costs of turnover. Consider them if you’re looking to monitor shifting consumer demands, adapt to the rise of off-premise business, fill staff vacancies quickly and manage other factors that can help you navigate the labor landscape.
Restaurant technology: Experts weigh in
How is your restaurant preparing for technology? If you struggle to use technology effectively, several technology executives from Papa John’s, KFC and Long John Silver’s made recommendations at the recent Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Louisville, Ky. The primary takeaways: When you’re considering new technology, approach it from a holistic perspective. Your app or digital signage won’t be as effective if you’re not coordinating it with changes to your full operation — and ensuring the technology you have works as an ensemble. They also addressed a popular myth: that embracing digital ordering will help operators reduce labor costs. In reality, they said, your head count may increase because as you become more efficient at accepting orders more quickly, you’ll need people helping to prepare them. Finally, as you incorporate technology to improve customer experience, remember your employees’ experience by providing digital training tools and other resources that can improve their work, such as online shift-trading tools.
Fine-tune your online marketing
There is so much information available about restaurants online that most of your guests have likely researched you on Yelp, Google Business, TripAdvisor or all three before stepping through your door. To reap the most benefit from your online marketing budget, Cake recommends you optimize your listings with specific, relevant service categories and keywords. Ensure you have a brief write-up that uses these keywords to describe your restaurant and menu. Use professional photos and ensure your restaurant’s menu and contact information is updated across platforms. Put your menu online and link it to your listings on review sites. Update your website so it’s optimized for mobile, can accept reservations online and incorporates local SEO to improve your online rankings. Have a complete social media profile and allow guests to book a table through your page. Any email you send should be personalized with names, locations or other information — and easily read on a mobile device.
A tabletop tablet for independent restaurants
Did you think tabletop tablets were out of reach for independent restaurants or small chains? Ziosk, a top player that has in recent years focused on the larger chains, including Chili’s, Red Robin and about two dozen others, is now looking to expand its tablet technology into small chains and some independent restaurants. Skift Table reports that in addition to payments, the Ziosk tablets offer games and also prompt guests with post-meal surveys that can only be taken immediately after making payment (helping operators avoid having servers take surveys and inflate their ratings artificially). Pricing for Ziosk’s offering for independent restaurant starts at $260 per month for 24 devices.
Get ahead with Facebook’s new algorithm
In the wake of Facebook’s recent algorithm change, which prioritizes newsfeed content from a user’s family, friends and social groups over content from brands, restaurant operators with a large following on Facebook have been concerned that their content will now be more difficult for followers to see on the platform. That said, brands that are developing original, creative content shouldn’t have much reason to worry. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said pages that people comment on, or which “prompt conversations between friends,” will be less impacted than those that rely on content that does not generate discussion or engagement in the form of shares with friends. According to Hootsuite, your post will get a boost in the Facebook newsfeed if it generates replies to comments, a “love” instead of a “like,” or if a user shares your link via Facebook Messenger with one or more friends. Hootsuite suggests that to maximize your Facebook performance, create content that sparks some discussion among your followers. Focus on live videos – like a chef demo, for example – that will generate a response from your guests. Try to focus on local events and community building instead of broad messages that could come from a restaurant across the country. Invest in Facebook ads to ensure you’re targeting the right potential customers. Finally, connect with influencers who have a built-in following and are willing to promote your message on your behalf – just make sure it’s something that will generate discussion.
Work effectively with influencers
Your ability to attract new guests by personal referral is a strong testament to your business. Since many personal recommendations happen via social media, social media influencers have gained power through their ability to help brands get the word out. Influencers have built large followings – typically of around 10,000 people – by posting content that their followers trust and find engaging. To help incorporate the right influencers in your marketing strategy, the business consultancy Deputy suggests you improve your social media presence by having a complete online profile and by posting content that’s more engaging than promotional. When considering different influencers who might help you build business, check out their followers’ level of engagement to make sure they are responding well to it. Align with influencers who are passionate about food and restaurants. Opt for influencers who have a strong, local presence on a single platform versus those with a diluted, broad-based presence on many platforms. Start a relationship by responding to their content. Once you have established a rapport, you can contact them directly to propose they come to your restaurant for a free meal. Deputy says influencers may expect compensation beyond a free meal and in that case may mention the conditions of a business relationship at the outset. Make sure those conditions work for your business, or contact an agency that works with influencers and can recommend guidelines to follow, as well as other influencers who could be potential partners. Once your relationship is established, you can take care of it by offering discounts to the influencer’s followers, involving the influencer in events and branding decisions, or making them an ambassador by offering a monthly fee or free meals in exchange for promotional content.
Be aware of Gluten sensitivity
Approximately three million people in the United States have celiac disease and just five percent are aware of it, according to the National Restaurant Association. To accommodate those guests, as well as many others with gluten sensitivity, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) reminds operators to ensure you communicate about guest allergies across the entire team. Your wait staff should be able to discuss ingredients and cooking techniques with a gluten-intolerant guest if needed. Check the cleanliness of tables and chairs, where cross-contamination can happen, as well as the placement of tongs, ladles and other implements that might be used with the wrong foods inadvertently. Finally, having your manager or chef deliver the plate to the guest with a gluten allergy ensures the plate won’t be contaminated with items from other plates and also sends the message that you care about guest safety.
Avoid foodborne pathogens in produce
The E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce has become more extensive than the deadly spinach outbreak of 2006, according to Food Safety News. As of May 9, it had impacted 149 victims across 29 states and caused one death. While foodborne illness outbreaks are on the rise due in part to improved surveillance measures, as well as increased year-round consumption of produce grown worldwide, it’s still critical to manage your risk. To help, the public and environmental health consultancy EHA Group suggests operators purchase unbruised/undamaged produce, chill any processed produce that has been cut, peeled, or needs to be transported, avoid cross-contamination with poultry, seafood or meat, and take care to wash hands before handling produce, wash fresh fruits with warm water, and wash and sanitize all surfaces that your produce touches.
Manage the talent challenge
If you’re like most operators around the country, your biggest business struggle relates to finding and keeping strong talent. National Restaurant Association President and CEO Dawn Sweeney, who recently attended the National ProStart Invitational, the country’s premier secondary school competition focusing on restaurant management and culinary arts, said the event gave her reason for optimism. In a recent op-ed piece, she said nearly 400 students competed for more than $200,000 in scholarships from culinary and restaurant management programs. The ProStart program encourages experiential learning and career exploration to help develop new talent in the foodservice industry. Participants earn credit in the association’s restaurant manager apprenticeship program. Sweeney said the National Restaurant Association, along with its educational foundation and state partners, are working to expand the number of students who take part in these programs. For more information about the association’s efforts to build industry talent, visit ChooseRestaurants.org.
The positive side to menu labeling?
After many delays, federal menu labeling requirements are now a reality for grocers and restaurants with 20 or more locations. While many businesses have fought the change, there may be a bright side to it. Food Dive reports that Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said these requirements would give not only consumers a new tool to help them manage what they consume, which has been more of a challenge when eating at restaurants, but a new tool for operators as well: The labels should allow for much stronger data collection. This would enable operators and the foodservice industry overall to monitor to what extent people respond to food labels and calorie counts, giving those businesses ongoing insights into the combinations consumers prefer.
The robot is waiting to speak to you
If your restaurant takes reservations, you may soon be fielding more inquiries from a new kind of caller. Google just unveiled a new AI feature that can phone a restaurant and speak in a lifelike voice to a human reservationist. Eater reports that the feature can make an alarmingly convincing phone call. Expect Google to use the technology for other purposes too – such as updating information for its Google Maps service. And who knows? Perhaps restaurants will soon be able to use this technology themselves to field the AI calls they are receiving.
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