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Four FSTEC Takeaways on Tech and the Restaurant Workforce

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The restaurant industry's most comprehensive technology conference, FSTEC took place in Grapevine, Texas in September. Seeing foodservice executives in person once again, the Hughes team tuned in to hear firsthand about consumer demands, market changes, challenges and successes. Common themes emerged as businesses struggle with labor shortages, consider new technologies and automation initiatives, and respond to shifting customer wants and expectations.

Here are four takeaways from FSTEC related to technology and the workforce:

  1. Align employee roles to the new guest experience. Over the last two years, most organizations have altered operations to varying degrees. But Wingstop Restaurants’ Kevin Fish, senior vice president of digital, stressed that businesses should also evolve their team members’ roles accordingly. If your host or hostess now takes phone orders and delivers meals curbside as arriving on-site diners are made to wait, it’s time to redefine who does what when it comes to creating the guest experience.

  2. Deploy technology to free up staff. Most of us understand the importance of deploying technology to meet customer needs, but another strategy is to use tech to free up team members so they can better serve customers. Massimo Noja De Marco, CEO and co-founder of Piestro Pizza, said restaurant work is tough and it’s only become tougher with the labor shortage. Yet automation can solve some of the challenges. One example is using natural language processing in the voice response system to assist customers who call the restaurant. That enables the best staff to engage customers who choose to dine in person. As he explained, “You will always need humans to make people feel welcome.”

  3. Consider the message you’re sending. As restaurants deploy technology, especially when it’s in response to market changes, it can be easy to forget that team members may worry about losing their jobs. According to John Peyton, CEO of Dine Brands Global, parent company of Applebee's Neighborhood Grill + Bar and IHOP restaurants, businesses must think about the message being sent to staff and offer up explanations or context. When rolling out handheld devices or tablets that improve order accuracy and service efficiency, for example, the message might be: “You can make more money with handhelds.”

  4. Empower employees with the right information. Delivering a great dining experience requires engaged and knowledgeable employees. They need to be aware of ingredients, specials, prices, and more. As Mr. Fish explained, customers will generally accept waiting even 30-40 minutes for their food. What they won’t tolerate is being given wrong information. Here too, technology can empower employees by delivering the type of accurate, real-time updates they need to shape customer expectations, like when the catch of the day is sold out or if the kitchen is backed up.

Ken Jennings, the greatest Jeopardy player of all time, shared an insightful perspective during one of the keynotes about machines versus people. He stressed that what is hard for humans (remembering details) is easy for computers; and what is hard for computers (understanding the question) is easy for humans. For restaurants tackling labor shortages and market changes, addressing both technology and the workforce together yields the best recipe for serving up a positive customer experience.