Plugged in from left Michael Jacobs Nicolas Jammet Maureen Cushing and Tyler Florence

Plugged in: (from left) Michael Jacobs, Nicolas Jammet, Maureen Cushing and Tyler Florence.

Operators discuss how technology has changed hospitality

During the recent Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Restaurant Hospitality Editor Michael Sanson sat in on the American Express Restaurant Trade Program, which featured chefs and restaurant operators discussing the ins and outs of the business, including the role of technology. "Technology’s Impact on the Hospitality Industry," moderated by Tyler Florence, a 17-year veteran of The Food Network, featured Michael Jacobs, Nicolas Jammet and Maureen Cushing. • See more Technology articles

Florence: How can a restaurant be high tech and high touch at the same time?

Jammet (co-founder of 45-unit Sweetgreen, a nutrition-focused fast-casual concept headquartered in Los Angeles): If you go back 10 years, I wanted data but I couldn’t get access to data. And then phase two was that there is so much data we didn’t know what to do with it. Phase three is taking place now, where we have the ability to have data, mine the data but there is so much we’re overburdened. We trying to determine now how to better use that data (transactional data, social media data, reservation data) without me having to plow through reams of. And it’s not just about using historical data that will tell us how we’re doing, but also instantaneous data that will help us make decisions during a shift.

Cushing (v.p. of technology and processes for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City): We get so many reports that it’s easy to get paralyzed by the volume. The key is to determine what you’re trying to solve or what’s going to impact sales and the customer experience. There’s so much opportunity to mine data. For us, as an example, we use Open Table to extract guest notes.

Jacobs (a partner in Corner Table Restaurants and The Smith, a casual American brasserie based in New York City): The most important thing is to start with the question of what behavior you’re trying to change or drive and make sure you’re collecting the date to drive those decisions. Originally we tried to collect every bit of data under the sun and then realized that we’d need an army of 20 people to do it, and it would make our business run slower. Starting with a business objective is the most important thing. And it’s key that you have the right system in place to collect that data efficiently so you’re not getting data that is a year old.

Florence: How do you collect data that you can hand to managers so they can make just-in-time decisions to help save money on a shift basis?

Jammet: For us, it’s about labor. One of the top challenges we face as an industry is how do we give great service while being mindful of the fact that labor is our number one expense. There are systems now available that will tell you when an employee is going to reach overtime, so you can keep that employee from work over 40. Additionally, you need technology that will tell you if your staff is there and ready to work at three o'clock. The last thing you want to do is run around to see if everyone is there for the shift.

Florence: Beyond back of the house, there’s a real opportunity to use technology for customer purposes. You have an opportunity with every customer who walks through the door to recognize them by face and by name. You can celebrate their return to your restaurant by knowing their favorite table, their favorite wine, when their birthday is, what their favorite steak temperature is. If you have 200 covers on your books, how can you create data collection so you know everyone who walks into your restaurant, and not just the people who made the reservation, but also the people they are dining with?

Cushing: A lot of reservation systems are working on that right now. The new platforms allow you to invite your friends after you’ve made a reservation, and it allows us to gather information on others at the table. And we’re working with a company to gather all feedback. Our managers get emails the next morning so they can immediately react to positive and negative feedback from customers.

Florence: Maureen, you work with a company that has everything from a two-Michelin-star restaurant to a barbecue joint to sports facilities. Is there a one-size-fits-all data collection system?

Cushing: From a guest experience, we treat all our guests the same. We use Open Table across all our restaurants for gathering guest information.

Customer relations management

Florence: I want to talk about customer relations management, also known as CRM. Either you have someone in house or you contract with a company’s that analyzes information from a range of channels—the website, telephone, email, reservation system, social media and marketing materials. How big does a company have to be to invest?

Jammet: Even at a small level, collecting information about your customer is important to connect with them, talk to them and understand them. As you grow, that becomes a larger function and investment.

Florence: When a customer is walking through Sweetgreen and hand picking ingredients for a salad, how do you collect data on customers and turn it into a better customer experience?

Jammet: Speed and frequency is everything for us. So it’s about using technology to make the transaction more convenient and quicker. We have an app that allows customers to walk in, order, and with their credit card saved in the app, they can quickly walk out or eat in. Having lines of customers is a good thing, but it can be frustrating for customers who may walk away when they see a line. That’s a problem we need to solve and the app technology has helped with that.

Jacobs: Another key component of CRM is aggregation of the social media channels, whether its Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. There is so much information emanating from a restaurant during real time. We have the opportunity to gather information from guests while they’re in the restaurant from pictures and comments about whether they liked this or don’t liked that. We use a company (Sprinklr) that has a tool that aggregates all the information from all the social media channels. It helps us know what everyone is saying about us.

Florence: What do you get from the company?

Jacobs: We get a report every day. It tells us about everything that was written about us from all these different channels. And they categorize the comments into positive and negative, and it allows us to go back and engage with the people making comments.

Florence: Is customer relations management through social media applications more relevant than Yelp?

Jacobs: The number one source two years ago was Yelp. The number one source today is Instagram by over 50 percent.

Florence: How does a new restaurant with little money start in terms of this type of technology?

Jacobs: The cost of technology has come down significantly in recent years. Many of the services offer pay-as-you-go rather than a large up-front fee. Its opened up doors for everyone.

Florence: What’s your strategy for handling social media? Should a restaurant have a full-time social media manager or have the chef and managers do it?

Cushing: I think so (a restaurant should have a social media manager). It’s a lot to keep up with.

Jammet: I agree social media has become so much more important, I can soon see us having a dedicated person handling it. It’s too much for a chef or managers to deal with.

Contact Michael Sanson: michael.sanson@penton.com

Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSansonRH

TAGS: Operations
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