FCSI The Americas Biennial conference: expert panel focus

At FCSI The Americas Biennial Conference in Nashville a panel session on the consultants’ role in foodservice’s changing technological landscape was particularly enlightening, says Amelia Levin

To consult on technology programs or not to consult? That was the hot question in discussion at a session featuring three top consultants during the FCSI conference in Nashville, held on 14-16 April.

In a panel moderated by Foodservice Equipment & Supplies (FE&S) editor Joe Carbonara, speakers AJ Barker of Think Tank Hospitality Group, and also the conference chair, Karen Malody FCSI, of Culinary Options, and Tom Hilton of Innovative Hospitality Solutions, spoke about the importance of learning about and embracing new technologies as the next step in both MAS and design consulting. The session also drew comments and discussion from the packed room in attendance.

Front and back of the house technology continues to impact all of the elements that go into building a successful brand, the panel agreed. In fact, customer-facing technology can have major impacts on foodservice design, equipment selection and more. As such, consultants need to understand technology to be able to better advise their clients. There is far more value in being able to specify these systems beyond just stainless steel.

“I recently had a fast-casual concept RFO with a line item that said: ‘specify an integrated technology solution for the front and back of house with limited FTE requirements but will still maintain the brand’s mission of superior hospitality,’” Malody said during the session. “I would never have received an RFP like that two or three years ago.”

With rising labor costs and impending minimum wage hikes, restaurants and foodservice operators are looking to technology to become more automated and efficient, and in some cases, take labor out of the equation.

The challenge is, there’s little interaction as of now between the consulting community and many technology companies, the panel and even some session attendees pointed out.

“I think FCSI has a big responsibility [when it comes to determining] how do we help each other figure out how to bridge this gap,” said Malody, and by gap, she meant that between the end-user and the various technology companies out there.

Some companies have an IT department, some don’t, but they all have culinary departments. That’s where consultants have had to come in to research what’s available in the marketplace.

“Maybe don’t know all the odds and ends,” Barker said. “But you can research what’s out there and create some sort of ‘choose your own adventure’ for your client. I think it’s our responsibility.”

Malody agreed. “Even if I recommend a technology company, I won’t turn everything over to them; I will stay in touch to make sure they are not off brand or not what the client wanted,” she said.

So what types of new technologies are out there?

Many revolve around integrated POS and data-collecting systems that can do everything from managing online ordering to tracking sales and customer preferences so operators can learn more about their diners. Add to that cloud-based capabilities and operators, managers and others can now access that information from anywhere, at any time.

Remote ordering

Remote ordering impacts design, space planning and more. This technology is here to stay and part of the foodservice value equation.

Especially when it comes to ordering online or via kiosks, “If the consumer was not ready before, they’re much more ready for it now,” Hilton said.

At the same time, design has to go in conjunction with whatever remote ordering platform is chosen. As an example, Hilton discussed his experience the day prior at Hattie B’s, a popular fried chicken restaurant in Nashville. After ordering online, “I had to walk through a long line of customers waiting to place their order just to pick up the food – many people were looking at me wondering, ‘who was this person cutting them in line?’” Hilton said. “It would have been easier if there was an outdoor window or at least a separate pick-up line for online orders.”

Still, it’s not as easy as putting in four kiosks and calling it a day. Malody brought up the example of an operator that had to remove one of the kiosks because they were crashing the kitchen. As consultants, therefore, it’s our job to determine the kitchen capacity, multi-use equipment needs and peak hour throughput aside from just where the pick-up line will be, she noted.

Todays’ POS

According to research gathered by FE&S magazine, 55 percent of operator readers are using some type of purchasing software for inventory or management purchases. Many newer POS models integrate these data management capabilities, along with other customer tracking, sales monitoring and analysis functions.

In some cases, the POS has become the “Holy Grail” for operators, who can run multiple programs off one dashboard, but with more robust systems come considerably higher expectations to use these systems to the fullest.

“To me, POS really stands for ‘Point of Strategy,’” Malody said. These days, POS systems can be used for everything from onboarding new associates, to scheduling, tracking customer sales habits and preferences, monitoring peak times, noting poor-selling menu items, and more.

Bottom line: the POS has become the central network running an entire business, so it’s up to MAS consultants to at least stay on top of the latest models available for operators, the panel said.

Campus cards

In the non-commercial sector, many colleges and universities have switched to all-encompassing campus cards that can be used for all purchases, including foodservice, laundry, sundries and other non-foodservice needs. This is largely the result of more integration between the host software system and the foodservice operator’s system, Hilton pointed out.

Many service plans have gone from number of meals per week to declining points balances to campus cards. There are now smart phone apps that can connect to these systems to display balances, online order history and more.

The benefits of these systems are that students can use them to customize their orders, and this order accuracy translates into a more efficient experience.

Amelia Levin