On September 6-7, InterWorks sponsored and attended the first-ever QSR Evolution conference in Atlanta, GA. For those who aren’t aware, QSR stands for “Quick-Service Restaurant,” and also is the same name of the magazine that put the show on. QSR’s have been commonly known as “Fast Food” in American culture for decades. You might be thinking, “Why was InterWorks, ‘where people meet Technology,’ at an industry conference about restaurants?” Well, the reasons are many, and I’ll talk about them briefly. My main reason may surprise you.
Above: Our booth from QSR Evolution
First: We attended this conference because we work with many clients in this space. The restaurant industry, especially QSR, is unique from other industries we work with mainly because technology is generally not a central focus for competitive advantage. After all, a successful restaurant delivers great food with great service and at a price customers are happy to pay. Very little of that process requires technology. However, even that is changing, and I’ll talk about that in the trends section.
By attending this conference, we were able to visit with existing clients face-to-face and meet future partners and customers. The restaurant industry is a dynamic, quick-paced industry (especially QSR’s with all the Drive-Thru operations), but it is also a very close-knit industry with so many leaders knowing each other from previous roles and meet-ups.
This conference was also intriguing to us because of the speakers. The CEO of Chick-fil-A, Andrew Cathy was the opening keynote speaker. Rob Lynch, the CEO who has navigated the incredible turnaround story at Papa John’s, spoke as well. Scott Deviney, CEO of the fast-growing Fast Casual chain Chicken Salad Chick, told their story beautifully. Smaller Restaurant chains attended like Richard French from “The Works Café” and Rich Matherne, CEO of “Handel’s Ice Cream,” as well as larger brands like Inspire, Focus Brands, Bojangles, Zaxby’s, Newk’s, CAVA, and McDonald’s. It really was an incredible line-up of leading voices in the industry. Because of that, we learned a good bit about some current trends.
First Trend: Data, Not Just Dough, on the Rise
Rob Lynch, who was formerly the President of Arby’s, went to Papa John’s in 2019 and successfully turned around the Pizza chain during the pandemic. Rob cited double-digit growth during the pandemic for Papa John’s! Focusing on what they were good at, “better ingredients, better pizza,” as well as innovation and inclusivity. He also mentioned something that I noticed as a trend during this show and here’s where it comes full circle: DATA!
Papa John’s leveraged massive amounts of customer data to help drive necessary changes in their menu line-up, operations and delivery, leveraging third-party delivery (a huge shift for a pizza chain), pricing changes and customer loyalty. Pizza has a 92% customization rate on their orders, so it’s critical to get orders right through technology. Customer loyalty is also critical for a pizza chain to grow, and Papa John’s went from 10 million participating in customer loyalty to 30 million in three years! That’s an incredible growth in customers, and especially in data!
More than ever, restaurant companies are realizing that technology (something they usually lag behind in compared to other industries) can not only accelerate their competitive edge but also serve an increasingly younger and diverse customer base, who are tech-first people (think Gen Z). The restaurants that understand, leverage and make sense of their data will have an edge on their competition. Even moreso, they will gain customers in our new digital-first world.
Second Trend: Get the Food Out the Door Fast!
Not only were there QSR brands there, but some Fast Casual brands came to the show too. In a breakout where Zaxby’s CTO, Newk’s COO, Donato’s CIO and Focus Brands CIO spoke in a panel, the topic was not what you might think with brands that traditionally rely on high-quality and higher price points, but with an enhanced customer experience. The topic? DRIVE-THRU. “Meet the customers where they are at” was one of the opening notes.
Normally, brands like this focus their efforts on a higher-end store environment—nicer tables, chairs and modern décor. But in this post-covid era, they are finding their customers are dining in way less, but still want to dine with them. Orders are coming in from mobile apps, customers driving up, ordering on a website or walking in. Third-Party Delivery proliferation also has changed how these brands interact with customers. The trend in this space is that customers are coming into the restaurant for different reasons post-COVID. It may be the business lunch or to eat during a Zoom meeting. These brands are trying to figure out how to do drive-thru well like their QSR peers, or to even do drive-thru without a drive-thru lane (curbside or parking lot pickup). In all of these examples, data from customer feedback and understanding how they want to interact with the brand is critical for their growth. But in all of this, pressure is higher than ever to deliver quality, quickly and with inflation pressures to boot.
I spent 10 years on a cross-functional drive-thru team at Chick-fil-A when I worked there. We developed a lot of the processes and tech you see in a Chick-fil-A Drive-Thru today. One of the things that drove results initially was creating some friendly competition with a simple comparison report. Operators became innovative in order to beat their buddy down the street! At their core, Drive-thrus are pretty simple operations, but in this digital-first world, can become complex and chaotic quickly. Leveraging technology, process improvement and the right data (like a competitive scorecard), you can create a winning Drive-Thru strategy that can help grow your restaurant.
Third Trend: Story-Telling
This conference made me personally miss the 18 years I spent in the industry prior to InterWorks. One thing unique about the restaurant industry is story-telling. People tell stories about their favorite meals or their restaurant horror stories. Brands tell stories of great customer service experiences or how they went from a single restaurant to 500. Chicken Salad Chick’s CEO, Scott Deviney, told an incredible story of how their founder went from serving Chicken Salad out of her house, to opening her first restaurant, to it now growing to hundreds of locations across 18 states. I admit, I got emotional when I heard about the founders’ late husband losing his battle to cancer (a story that hits close to home for me—but that’s another blog for another day).
Excellent branding starts with good story-telling. We have some great creative minds at InterWorks (just look at our Curator demo sites, for instance). We can help you come up with a new user experience or a fresh look on your website or app. Let us know if you’d like to tell a better story of your brand.
Think about your favorite restaurant experience ever. It’s your favorite probably because there is a story behind it. Think about your favorite restaurant brand. I bet you tell stories about why you love it so much. We love food. We really love food. We need it to stay alive, but we also leverage a meal for so much more. Which brings me to my last point.
Final Trend, and My Biggest Takeaway: Connection
I mentioned before that this industry is really a close-knit industry. I was able to hug and shake hands with people I knew. It was great, especially removed a couple of years from the height of the pandemic. Even more so than knowing people there, was being able to connect with new faces. We are starting to do this more now, but think about prior to the pandemic, where did you meet a new business connection for the first time? Over coffee or over lunch. Where did you have your first date? Probably over dinner. Where did go to celebrate your last promotion? Probably to a restaurant. Where did you go to share some news with someone (good or bad)? Maybe at a coffee shop. We connect over food. We connect over meals. It’s a very special thing we do as fellow humans. Pause right now and think about the last good meal you had with someone special.
Go ahead. Think for a minute.
I bet you didn’t think about the food much. It was the conversation, the person(s), how you felt and what changed during that occasion. Andrew Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, talked about that in the keynote. He said that in the restaurant industry that, “We have a unique opportunity for influence in our communities.” He is exactly right. Think about the exercise we just went through. Think about the restaurant industry. You can’t execute a restaurant virtually. Someone has to make the food, and someone has to deliver it to the customer, either in the restaurant, to their driver’s window, or to their home or business. It is impossible to do restaurants well without a connection.
In a post-COVID, chaotic world that is fractionalized and disconnected, we need connection right now. We need each other right now. Businesses that do this well will thrive in this new era.
That’s what InterWorks is about, too. Yes, we are “where people meet tech,” but we are also where people meet people. We love to work face-to-face solving problems with our best clients. We love to have a meal with each other and with clients. We love to shake hands, hug necks, high five, fist bump, etc. We want to connect with each other. We want to connect with you.
When you partner with us, we love it because we get to connect with you!
Let us know how we can get in touch with you so we can create a great story of success together!
Stay tuned for my next blog on “Work Today: Remote, Hybrid or Back in Person”