Artificial intelligence (AI) might still sound a little futuristic — or like technology that mainly large national brands can harness at this stage. But the next decade should be eye-opening: By 2030, almost 70 percent of businesses will use some form of AI in their operation, according to McKinsey research. Restaurants that readily understand how to adopt it and where it can provide the greatest value should be able to gain a competitive advantage. Restaurant Nuts suggests two areas that are ripe for AI adoption in restaurants of any size: improving sourcing and translating reams of data into sales. For example, when you consider your inventory, how accurate are you able to be about the items you will need? Do you rely on last year’s data mixed with some guesswork? AI can use predictive analytics that incorporate historical data from a range of relevant periods, along with weather, holidays and other factors that can impact demand, to help eliminate the trial and error that can waste money. Further, even if you have a POS system that gathers thousands of data points about your guests, that data is only useful to you if you’re able to analyze it quickly and apply it to strategies that will keep guests happy and returning. AI can help operators by collecting a wide range of data about everything from sales to purchasing, then assessing it against current consumer trends. As a result, you’ll be able to make decisions in real time, not weeks or months behind schedule. Forbes reports that the hospitality technology company Fourth, which supports such brands as TGI Friday’s, Eataly, Bar Louie and Dairy Queen, among others, is one that has expanded into AI recently. Other reports indicate that McDonald’s uses AI to find diverse employee candidates. Look for more restaurant technology systems to start to integrate AI functionality into their software.
Blockchain technology has been slow to take off in the restaurant industry. But the launch of a new credit card currently accepted by Palo Alto, Calif. merchants and restaurants could help restaurants see the tangible benefits. Restaurant Dive reports that Yosemite X, a technology company that developed a public blockchain platform, has just launched Yosemite Card, a 0 percent transaction fee credit card that is expected to save businesses 2-3 percent on transaction costs annually. It generates a random PIN every 30 seconds, which could provide protection against data breaches, and it can also integrate with a restaurant’s existing systems to offer a rewards program. The technology could still be a ways off from being widespread in the industry, but applications like this could well provide telling data points about how blockchain can help restaurants improve margins, as well as manage and protect their data.
Cybersecurity incidents have become so widespread and increasingly sophisticated that it may not be a question of if your business is targeted, but when. Smaller businesses tend to be easier targets than larger ones, but even the biggest players can be caught unawares. (Note the breach that recently impacted Marriott and wasn’t announced until 11 weeks after the fact.) But regardless of the size of your business, there are a number of steps you can take to fortify your operation against cybercriminals. Cybersecurity expert Steve Tcherchian told Restaurant Insider that operators should first manage the devices connecting to their wireless network. Make sure your operating system is up-to-date so you’re less vulnerable to security loopholes, your system is accessible via PIN or password only, your staff isn’t using POS devices to access the Internet, and that you use a firewall to separate parts of the business that have different functions. Train your team to identify phishing emails and to avoid clicking on suspicious attachments. Make sure your staff have access to just the information they need to do their job and nothing more — and that you use online password managers (Dashlane is one) to manage and monitor access to files. Any vendors you hire should have security practices at least as strong as yours, so stay aware of how they store and protect data. Finally, hold your staff accountable by conducting employee background checks (Team Four can help you here) and by issuing each person a unique identifier on your POS, which can help you pinpoint where data breaches and staff shifts overlap.
Plant-based menu items have skyrocketed 800 percent in four years, according to research from the taste and nutrition company Kerry. If you’re not making your menu more plant-based to suit your guests’ tastes, do it to help your bottom line. Severin Nunn, the director of food and beverage at The Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va., told FSR Magazine that a restaurant’s food cost for plant-based entrées is about 15 percent compared to 30 percent for meat-based dishes. That differential gives operators more room to shift menu prices while retaining an item’s profitability. To beef up your plant-based offering, so to speak, the FSR report advises you approach these dishes with the same care and creativity you’d apply to meat-based entrées, and weave in nutrient-dense, on-trend protein sources such as quinoa, lentils and spirulina.
If your guests are game to load funds onto a digital wallet or prepaid gift card in exchange for a special offer, you can help cut back on the fees you have to pay to support credit card transactions. While retailers are charged a fee by credit card companies each time a customer pays with a credit card, Skift Table reports that many of those retailers are bypassing the fees by joining the lower-cost Automated Clearing House network, which was set up decades ago by U.S. banks to facilitate the exchange of money between banks. Other companies, like Starbucks, are encouraging customers to load funds onto a prepaid gift card — a setup that means Starbucks only pays a swipe fee when a customer loads funds onto the cards, not each time she buys a latte. Still others are joining networks (LevelUp is one) that help businesses band together and use their combined scale to negotiate more
How well does your menu use vegetables as not just vegetables, but as ingredients that blend into the background — and in the process, make for a healthier dish? Cauliflower, for one, has surged in popularity in recent years, with sales of its products climbing 71 percent last year according to Nielsen data. (Having taken hold as a pizza crust ingredient and rice substitute, it is now moving into the snack category: Fast Company reports that a number of brands are releasing cauliflower-based snacks such as pickled cauliflower and cauliflower-powder based pretzels, crackers and chips.) But since cauliflower is expensive and difficult to mass-produce, there is room for other vegetables to take hold as undercover ingredients. This New Year, as people look to reset their health, where can you incorporate nutrient-dense vegetables in ways that allow them to disappear into the background?
Launching a loyalty app? Walk your talk.
Having a loyalty app is a great way to build a strong following — if you don’t look at it as a “set-it-and-forget-it” kind of tool. As Cake suggests, having a loyalty app can go far in helping you connect with your audience — especially Millennials and Gen Z, who are apt to spread the word about you on social media. But on the flip side, those guests also have high expectations of your transparency. If you’re targeting this population with your app, be willing to share details about how your food is made, where it comes from and how you manage your business (or at least be ready for questions about it). Having an app is a strong upselling tool, helping you to build check totals by suggesting menu items that may not have been front-of-mind for customers. Just be sure to focus on your guests’ preferences and frequency of visits, as visibly focusing on check tallies (and tying rewards to dollars spent) can be a turnoff. Finally, having a loyalty app can be a data goldmine — but you need to have the foundational technology in place to funnel that data into insights that feed your broader marketing strategy.
New year, new restaurant?
Though last year may have been tough for restaurants, Zagat reports many hotly anticipated openings this year. If you’re planning one, RestaurantOwner.com’s poll of 700 owners may help put costs in perspective. The survey found that on average, owners spend $500,000 in start-up costs when not purchasing land, about $4,200 per seat without a land purchase, and overspend from initial estimates by about 33 percent. To curtail spending, Toast recommends you seek out second-hand equipment, comparison shop and forgo items not absolutely needed at first. Be realistic about staffing costs for recruiting, training, wages, meal comps and time off. You’ll also need to spend on marketing, which may include advertising online or via other media, offering promotional discounts, buying a domain name and hiring a pro to optimize the site or launch an app. What about technology? While tech investments may seem excessive early on, they may also help you manage finances, inventory and guest relations better from the start.
Build business in 2017
Restaurant traffic is expected to be stagnant this year but there’s still plenty you can do to draw a bigger share of those dining out. NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs recommends you boost innovation with a menu and overall experience that feels relevant to guests. Play to consumers’ desire for restaurant food whenever and wherever they like it by offering delivery via whatever means you can make it effective and affordable (just keep consumer costs to $5 or less, Riggs says). Taking that a step further, find ways to allow guests to customize their choices – digital menus and touchscreens, as well as mobile ordering, can help with that. Finally, attract less-frequent guests with the opportunity for rewards – expanding your loyalty program to entice all kinds of users can increase traffic.
It’s time to clean up. For many operators, eliminating chemicals has become more important than counting calories, Food & the Menu reports. That means having an ingredient list that looks like what you’d have in your home kitchen pantry and includes items produced sustainably and without antibiotics – think transparent and authentic. Last year, Panera became the first national restaurant company to assemble a “No No List” of ingredients it was removing from its menu, including artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives. It undertook an effort to review 450 ingredients and several levels of its supply chain to identify additives, reformulate 122 ingredients and partner with more than 300 food vendors to replace ingredients and recast recipes. This month, the chain announced its menu was now “100 percent clean.”
Plenty of fish in the sea
According to last week’s Global Seafood Market Conference in San Francisco, there are lots of opportunities in seafood right now. Seafood Source reports that overall, industry analysts at the event said foodservice operators have a great opportunity to entice Millennials with fish, since they value seafood’s health benefits, notice its sourcing and acknowledge that it’s something they may not like to (or know how to) prepare at home. Specific to fish varieties themselves, salmon is expected to continue its rise this year, with a rebound in farmed supply stabilizing or even lowering prices later in the year. Barramundi is also looking good – consider adding it to your menu as a premium option. It happens to be Oprah Winfrey’s favorite, but that’s not all – one chef said it’s a great-tasting fish that freezes well and, because it is a saltwater-raised farmed fish, it often tastes better.
Salads are here to stay
Green salad consumption is growing – as appetizers and entrées, at home and away from home. That’s according to Datassential’s new MenuTrends Keynote Report. That has helped salad-centric concepts grow and premium salad offerings at other restaurants to get attention. What’s helping is the broadening array of ingredients on offer. Far from just greens and raw vegetables, salads are including items like roasted Brussels sprouts and curried cauliflower with increased frequency. Smartbrief reports that Chicago’s Roots Pizza, for example, says its salads “ain’t rabbit food.” Indeed, with 50 ingredients including grilled gyro sausage and pickled fennel, there’s a lot the chain is doing to make salads exciting.
Want to embrace global flavors on your menu? Take a look at the street food scene in your city. Datassential’s Creative Concepts report says street food is finally getting street cred: It found that of the 500 consumers asked about street food, 36 percent love the idea and have visited, and 63 percent would visit if given the opportunity. Make it accessible to your guests by including descriptive language on your menu to encourage guests to try unique items. Make those items (as well as your marketing, signage and décor) as authentic as possible so the experience transports guests to a different place. Offer samples of drinks or dishes that might be a tougher sell, and consider combining two kinds of complementary street food to help you create your own new twist.
Stop a food contamination crisis short
Having a food contamination crisis plan can take some stress out of your business, particularly if you produce food yourself or work closely with local suppliers – a common occurrence in today’s farm-to-table food culture. Food Safety magazine suggests you consider taking these steps to protect yourself: First, acknowledge the risks – one food contamination or adulteration claim is made to the FDA daily and the Food Safety Modernization Act will likely increase that number. Establish a team who can respond quickly and thoughtfully in a food contamination crisis. They should develop a written plan ahead of any crisis that outlines how to handle various scenarios if they occur, such as how and what to communicate in a worst-case scenario, and what procedures can be implemented immediately to prepare for that outcome. Finally, test your plan once a year at a minimum and consider hypothetical scenarios and potential responses.
Where germs lurk in your restaurant
You’re trying to crack down on contamination in your restaurant. Where should you focus your energy first? In Restaurant News, the University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba pointed out the places in a restaurant that harbour the most germs: First, clean that table – he says the sponges or cloths restaurants use typically aren’t soaked long enough in disinfectant to be effective, allowing germs to move from table to table. Silverware is a likely target too, since it picks up bacteria when placed on dirty tables – it’s always best to provide a fresh set when guests arrive and place it on a napkin. Plastic menus and child seats should be wiped down with disinfectant but often aren’t. Lastly, the rind of a lemon is often contaminated, so be aware of how lemons are cleaned and stored for use in drinks and other items.
Tech investment is big in 2017
Last year wasn’t a stellar one for restaurant sales, so what are operators doing to change that? Jonathan Maze of Nation’s Restaurant News says many are making substantial investments in technology. He says at the recent ICR Conference in Orlando, executives spoke about investing in online and mobile ordering and using technology to connect with consumers overall. But by far the biggest technology dollars seem to be going into delivery. Executives from a number of quick-service, fast-casual and polished-casual chains discussed plans to test delivery this year, some through third parties and others by running delivery themselves.
Are you PCI compliant?
If you accept credit cards at your restaurant, you must be PCI compliant – Toast reports that as of January 31, Visa is requiring all businesses (regardless of size) to validate their compliance unless they qualify for an exemption. These are the six categories of PCI compliance: maintaining a secure network, protecting cardholder data, protecting systems against malware, establishing strong access control measures, monitoring and testing your networks, and creating an information security policy. To achieve compliance and maintain it, it’s important that you know the policies and train your employees in order to protect your business and guests from data breaches.
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