What we talk about when we talk about restaurant tech


Welcome to Expedite, a (mostly) weekly newsletter by Kristen Hawley covering what’s important in restaurant technology.

What we talk about when we talk about restaurant technology

Last week, I attended the fifth TechTable Summit, a day of industry-focused content in New York. It’s always an enjoyable event and a good mix of actionable advice and forward looking ideas. It’s very clearly centered around restaurant technology, but the conversations that emerge from the onstage sessions tend to be bigger statements about the way the industry operates and will evolve going forward.

In the interest of chronicling the ongoing conversation, here are a few themes that came from the day, all worth reflection and building upon to frame the restaurant-tech landscape.*

Forced change won’t work.

You know how not to get people to do something? Force them. This is especially true when introducing new technology at work, said Basu Ratnam, of New York fast-casual Inday. “The minute you start pushing ideas onto people, they start to be resistant,” he said.

Same goes for communicating with guests. Four Seasons Hotels’ Chris Cocca explained how his company implements new technology, first piloting it with a smaller group of hotels. “When you have 115 hotels, you’ll find people who raise their hands,” he said. And when others hear it’s working, he continued, they get competitive and can’t wait to try it out.

The takeaway here: meet people where they are. Consider your employees while implementing changes to workflow, consider guests as you choose how to communicate with them (Cocca said Four Seasons uses a variety of chat apps, like WeChat, for example). And consider your audience as your business grows and evolves. “You can influence a consumer to go one way or another, but you can’t make them do it,” said Meredith Sandland, chief operating officer at Kitchen United.

Control your voice and you control your message.

Former Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin knows a few things about connecting to a consumer audience, and reminded attendees of the importance of creating a high-quality, authentic narrative around any business — and owning the story. This is a good way to get the press to tell the stories you want them to tell, she said.

Restaurateur Bill Chait, managing partner of S/III LA, also had smart thoughts about the importance of a solid message. “Stop being an independent,” he advised, “and start being a brand. That’s what investors are looking for.”

Thinking broadly about voice — in this case, brand voice — means thinking about every single way that a company presents itself. Logically, this extends to workplace and hiring culture, too. Speaking on a panel about the modern workforce, human resources expert Angie Buonpane of Empowered hospitality said, “What you offer employees shows how you care about them.” All of these things are related, and all are decidedly human-centric, even in the age of technology.

Scale is challenging, but it’s critical.

Growth is any company’s metric of success, but chasing growth for growth’s sake won’t get you anywhere. Complicating the situation further, the best hospitality technology does its job behind the scenes. (At no point was this more evident as four restaurant executives sat on stage in front of a list of their respective restaurant’s tech solutions, easily stretching to upwards of 10.)

Business challenges, and, ultimately, success in the restaurant industry parallels this. Good hospitality is seamless and unobtrusive. It’s authentic. And, unlike technology, some of the best parts of a restaurant business are challenging to replicate.

“It’s hard to scale craft,” said Chait, referring to beloved San Francisco bakery Tartine as he helps the business literally scale its craft around the world. (So far, it’s working.)

Growth and scale have caused some casualties along the way, though. The biggest: proprietary technology, which can be exciting for a business (it fills the right holes! It’s better to build your own than outsource the tech!). Now, though, restaurant technology has arrived on a corporate scale. It’s not a handful of smart and scrappy startups driving change, it’s large businesses with years and years of experience hawking well-developed products. Momofuku CEO Marguerite Mariscal said that her company is moving away from an in-house reservations system to Resy — largely due to the group’s growth and expansion.

Think human-centric in a tech-centric world.
“Hi-tech for hi-touch” is the driving force behind TechTable Summit, but as the hospitality industry grapples with a changing workforce and increased choice in technology products, it’s important to remember that humans still power the industry. This year, in particular, felt acutely human. Instead of finding ourselves starry-eyed with the promise of tech, we’re looking at our choices as realists and as people.

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*Speaking of the restaurant tech landscape, here’s a visualization of where we are today, compiled by Brita Rosenheim of Better Food Ventures and TechTable. (Larger image available for download here.) It was unveiled at the conference and is a great resource when thinking about what’s happening in the space.