Restoration technology aims for the bottom line

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A view of the showroom on Saturday. / Photography: Oscar & Associates

If the National Restaurant Association Show is the Disney World of the industry, then the Tech Pavilion is its Tommorowland — a preview of what’s to come, but it’s still far enough away to marvel before we continue.

This year it’s different. In the three years since the industry last gathered for its biggest annual gathering, restaurants have been going back and forth through hell. They arrived in Chicago with a whole new set of problems, characterized by rising costs, supply chain issues and staffing shortages. This has translated into a new sense of urgency in the tech aisles.

The change in mood (if I may say so) hasn’t been lost on Bryan Solar, restaurant manager at e-commerce provider Square. In previous years, the Tech Pavilion “almost felt like a place people would go to visit,” he said — a menagerie of futuristic gadgets and gadgets. This year, “they come here with real pain”.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, restaurants turned to technology as a means of survival. Products supporting online ordering, delivery and pickup have taken off. This makes sense, as they were in some cases the only way for operators to get sales. Today, sales are back, but margins are hurting due to the rising cost of labor and food. Once again, restaurants are turning to technology for help.

Show attendees scouring the floor will always find a seemingly bottomless sea of ​​point-of-sale vendors and digital menu solutions. But there’s also been a noticeable increase in technology aimed at easing restaurants’ most pressing challenges. The most visible are the robots, whose presence at the Show no longer looks like a novelty.

Bear Robotics, a maker of food robots, is stepping up partnerships with big chains like Denny’s and Chili’s. Another partner, Hwy 55, plans its new restaurants with Bear’s robots in mind, a sales representative told me. Demand over the past year has been “chaotic,” he said, noting the workhorse nature of bots and their minimal impact on bottom lines: Tireless bots cost around $2 an hour .

(Another benefit of bots, as a technology manager recently pointed out to me: they can be categorized under capex, eliminating the cost of public companies’ all-important EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. .)

A tour of the Show’s Startup Alley, home to businesses 3 years old or younger, only reinforced the sense that restaurant technology is shifting its focus to the bottom line.

A company called Sauce, for example, offers a dynamic pricing tool that automatically adjusts menu prices throughout the day based on demand and other factors. The objective is to increase both sales and profits on those expensive third-party delivery orders.

Another startup, ClearCOGs, aims to help restaurants control costs by letting them know how much of a given product to prepare based on past demand. Its software ingests point-of-sale data and spits out a daily email with instructions such as “Here’s how many tomatoes you need to slice,” said co-founder Osayanmo Osarenkhoe.

Launched in January, it is now used in two chains comprising 65 locations. “Demand hasn’t been the problem,” Osarenkhoe said.

Participants in Nandos Peri Peri’s activities in the UK were a good example of the changing priorities of restaurants. During the pandemic, the popular fast-casual chicken chain in the UK has built its own online ordering system to meet increased demand for takeaway food, which now accounts for 30% of its sales. But at this year’s show, technology solutions manager Reg Meyer scoured the tech pavilion looking for products that will help enhance Nando’s restaurant backdrop. Automated forecasting software was on his shopping list.

As for Square, it is also responding to restaurant requests for help with the bottom line. It deploys mobile ordering and payment devices for servers that are designed to increase the size of checks and speed up table turns.

“Technology continues to be placed in those places where we need to move quickly,” Solar said. The mobile devices are part of what he called a “down quadrupling” of the company’s restaurant business.

“We’re being asked to grow with our restaurants,” Solar said. “They need more stuff.”

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