Technology is revolutionising the restaurant experience

Technology is revolutionising the restaurant experience

BRIX Holdings is using innovative technology - including automation and robotics - to help improve the restaurant experience for staff and customers

Few sectors were affected more by the COVID-19 pandemic than the restaurant industry. 

As lockdowns, social distancing measures, and safety concerns swept the world, restaurants were faced with the daunting task of keeping their doors open while ensuring the health and well-being of their customers and staff. In these challenging times, technology emerged as a vital lifeline for the restaurant industry, offering innovative solutions to navigate the stormy seas of uncertainty.

Dallas-based multi-brand franchising company Brix Holdings specialises in food service chains with superior products and attractive growth prospects. Its portfolio of restaurants includes Red Mango Café, Smoothie Factory + Kitchen, Souper Salad, Orange Leaf, Humble Donut Co, Greenz, Friendly’s and Pizza Jukebox.

Carissa DeSantis, BRIX Holdings’ Chief Technology Officer, leads the strategy, implementation and execution of technology across the organisation’s portfolio of brands.

“We're strategising and gearing up for some major growth,” she comments. “We've got a lot of interest, and a lot of signed agreements for new builds in place. We have a new brand that we're launching, Pizza Jukebox, and we're also looking to acquire additional brands. So, as a business, we're growing and seeing that scalability and a lot of interest there.”

Becoming technology relevant

With extensive experience in the restaurant industry, since joining BRIX Holdings DeSantis has helped the organisation become what she describes as ‘technology relevant’.

“For example, our Friendly's brand had not touched technology since 1996,” she comments. “We upgraded that entire system, we've taken outdated technology out, we've started strategising, and innovating, and putting new technology in so that we can be part of the cutting edge in the restaurant industry, rather trying to play catch up.”

From contactless ordering and delivery systems to online reservation platforms, when the pandemic hit restaurants worldwide were forced to turn to digital tools to sustain their businesses and meet the evolving needs of their customers. Like the majority of the industry across the globe, businesses needed to adapt quickly.

“Similarly to probably 80% of the restaurant industry, we were very behind the curve,” says DeSantis. “We had to scramble during COVID to provide our customers with online ordering, and to build those relationships with third-party vendors. Every brand was in its own little silo when it came to systems and technology, and all of the things talking, so we didn't have one source of truth, for example.”

Today, those digital solutions adopted during these challenging times will continue to shape the future of dining experiences.

“We started our digital journey when we were catapulted into COVID, adding online ordering, adding all the third-party vendors, and having a mobile app. Now, we've got all of that technology in place, we're refining, we're upgrading, we're looking to the future of what are we going to do next, how are we going to do it differently, and to continue to be relevant and innovative.”

The role of automation

While the impact of the pandemic was far-reaching, one of the most pressing issues facing restaurants today is the severe staffing shortage. As DeSantis describes, the use of innovative technologies like automation and robotics can help restaurants grapple with the challenges associated with finding and retaining qualified staff members.

“The restaurant industry, with COVID, lost over a million workers in the system, and we're never going to get them back,” she comments. “As an industry, we can't find people and we can't keep people. 

“Utilising automation and robotics allows us to fill in those gaps without losing the customer experience or being able to take care of our guests in our restaurants,” DeSantis explains. “This technology is definitely become a more leading role in what we're doing and what we'll continue to do.”

The use of automation and robotics also has a role to play in the guest experience side, DeSantis adds.

“Automation and robotics, on the guest experience side, is allowing us to be consistent across the board as far as making the products and preparing the food, but it is also improving the speed of service. 

“Even our guests are more digital forward now. Using all of that technology allows us to be more efficient, save labour and continue to increase sales, all while filling in the gaps for those workers that we're never going to get back.”

Data enables insights into customer experience

Immensely powerful, the role of data is revolutionising the way restaurants operate, enabling them to gain a deeper understanding of their customers and make data-driven decisions to drive success.

“I love data so much,” says DeSantis. “In the restaurant industry, operators are extraordinarily passionate about their business. We have this gut feeling, and so a lot of times – right or wrong – we make decisions based on emotion. 

“Using data allows us to make informed, data driven decisions; what we think might be happening might not actually be what is happening and data takes the emotion out of it. One of the things that we're employing across our brands is a new guest feedback tool.”

As DeSantis describes, gone are the days of asking customers to fill in long surveys to receive something for free. “It's two quick initial questions with a scan of a QR code on your mobile phone. The next day we ping them again and ask if they would be willing to answer just a few more questions. This new approach is providing us great insights on the customer journey.”

Technology is also enabling better business intelligence, and improving decision-making. “We’re adding technology where cameras can see where our customers come into a location, where they're dwelling, the traffic flow, and tell if they are looking at and ordering our promotional items.

“Those are all the things that we're putting into our brands to be able to gain insights on that customer journey, improve that experience, and then make informed decisions.”

Partners helping growth

As a small and mighty team, BRIX Holdings works with a number of partners to develop and deploy solutions.

“We rely on our partners to be able to help us do our business, and grow, and support our needs,” DeSantis explains. 

One partner, Lab2Fab, is BRIX Holdings' robotic partner with its upcoming Pizza Jukebox brand. The company’s robotic arms are capable of not only making pizzas, but also enhancing the customer experience.

“It's not only about efficiencies and labour savings,” comments DeSantis. “We actually have the robot behind a big glass window so the guest gets to watch that robot make their food. There's some engagement and interaction there. So we're partnering with L2F to be able to take that brand and concept out, and scale and grow.”

Another of BRIX Holdings’ partners, Revel Systems, is helping the organisation upgrade technology in-store, particularly around its point-of-sale systems.

“As much as digital is now part of everybody's day-to-day lives, we still go out, we're social individuals, we go into restaurants.

“Revel Systems are one of our big partners. It involves upgrading technology in the store, to help us be relevant to the people that work for us, and also having a point of sale that's as easy to use as their smartphone.

“I've had multiple of our other vendors tell us how easy and seamless integration into our point of sale system has been. And so that was one of the big reasons that I selected Revel Systems. With technology, you don't want to wait a year to get something implemented and live and go. You need it to be nimble, you need it to be quick, otherwise, there is going to be a new technology that replaces it by the time that you get out there.

“Many vendors out there will have an 18 to 24-month life cycle to get something to go from ideation to reality, and Revel moves at light speed compared to that,” DeSantis adds. “Those are some of the big reasons that we've partnered with them and we'll continue to utilise them as we grow our brand.”

Technology will continue to reshape customer experience

When it comes to the future, technology is helping reshape the customer experience, optimise operations, and unlock new avenues for growth.

“We want to grow the brands that we have,” DeSantis explains. “We've got a lot of great interests already and stores coming down the pipeline, we've got new concepts that we're working on.”

The organisation is also looking at improving brand awareness of some of its more regional restaurants. “Friendly's ice cream, if you live in the Northeast, everybody that I run into has a story about, "When I was a kid at Friendly's..." or, "After my softball games, we went there." But if you're not in the Northeast, you might not know about Friendly's.”

By leveraging the power of technology, data, and innovation, restaurants can not only stay relevant in a rapidly changing landscape but also set themselves apart as leaders in the industry. As technologies such as automation and robotics become more common, and therefore cost-effective, their use will continue to increase.

“We are going to continue to see the use and adoption of robotics and automation,” predicts DeSantis. “Four or five years ago, a brand might have had to spend an extraordinary amount of money to adopt those types of solutions. But with the technology having enhanced and increased and grown, the cost has come down a lot. 

“Across the industry, I think we'll start to see a lot more brands adopt those technologies,” she comments. “ We're not getting those million workers we lost back, so brands are going to have to figure that out and really adopt and move into that environment.”

Increasingly popular, the use of AI will also transform how restaurants operate in future, particularly when combined with business intelligence.

“There are a number of learnings that you can get from the BI and the AI to be able to customise and personalise that customer journey or engagement,” she adds. “I've been saying it probably for three or four years now, but AI is no longer ‘big brother’. 

“It's not the creepy technology that knows the things that I like or what I order when I come in, what day that I order for my family and pick that up. That experience is the expectation of our consumers now. And so I think that that's going to be a big thing that restaurants continue to innovate and adopt.”

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