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Diners want tech that gives them control

5 things you need to know now

The National Restaurant Association is optimistic about the current state of the industry. Driven by stronger sales and traffic levels and an increasingly optimistic outlook among restaurant operators, the NRA's Performance Index rose to its highest level in more than two years, according to a news release.

The RPI, a monthly composite index that tracks the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry, stood at 102.1 in May, up 0.4 percent over April. It was the third consecutive monthly gain.

"Positive sales results fueled the May increase in the RPI, as nearly two-thirds of restaurant operators said their same-store sales rose above year-ago levels," says Hudson Riehle, senior v.p. of the research and knowledge group for the association. "Restaurant operators are increasingly optimistic about continued sales gains in the months ahead, a sentiment that is also showing up in their capital expenditure plans."

If local minimum wage hikes don't have you worried enough, a movement is underway in the nation’s capital to raise the federal minimum wage for tipped employees.

The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been $2.13 since 1991. Tips are expected to make up the difference in pay, and then some. But according to a White House report, tipped workers are more than twice as likely as other workers to experience poverty. 

Saru Jayaraman, founder of the labor advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, told NPR that enforcing restaurants to make up wages for tipped employees who don’t make minimum wage is difficult. 

"Enforcement is not just difficult, it's practically impossible for employers to have to count hour by hour to make sure that tips make up the difference for every worker for every hour they've worked," Jayaraman says.

Jayaraman's group advocates for eliminating the federal minimum tipped wage, so tipped workers earn the same as workers in other minimum wage industries.

Diners want more information and more control over their dining experience, such as regular updates on their status in the queue, estimated remaining wait times and the ability to peruse menu items and order while waiting, according to a survey commissioned by Long Range Systems.

Of 500 people who reported visiting a casual dining restaurant in the previous 90 days, technology concepts that scored highest as most desirable were: “pre-order,” “wait time queue updates,” “loyalty program access” and “page your server.”

“It’s clear that diners are looking for a guest experience that respects their time and keeps them constantly informed on everything from the length of their wait to the calorie count of menu items,” says Skip Cass, c.e.o. of Long Range Systems.

Related, Restaurant Hospitality recently took a closer look at five consumer-driven technology trends.

New numbers highlight the opportunity for restaurants to stand out among a crowd by diving into the craft beer space.

The increasing consumer desire for high-quality, locally produced beer is no longer just anecdotal. Craft beer production rose 17.2 percent in 2013, according to the Craft Brewers Association.

Many restaurants are leveraging demand for craft brews by producing their own beer, essentially becoming a hybrid brewpub. Brewpubs, a subset of the craft beer marketplace, account for 6 percent of craft beer industry production volume, according to the association.

LeBron James’s latest assist is headed straight into the fast-casual pizza scene.

James is part of an investment group led by Levy Family Partners, created by restaurant entrepreneur Larry Levy, that will help expand Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza, a build-your-own pizza chain.

Blaze plans to enter the Miami area with three locations set to open over the next year—first in Fort Lauderdale, followed by Boca Raton and a third location in the metro Miami area.

In addition to the 10-store franchise development agreement in Florida, the group will develop Blaze Pizza in the Chicago market. The concept uses an interactive ordering format that allows guests to customize one of the menu’s signature pizzas or create one of their own at a cost of around $8.

As the fast-casual pizza craze began building momentum, Restaurant Hospitality took a look at some of the signature pies from the 12 leading players. 

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