Predicting the future at The Caterer's Technology Summit

12 July 2022 by

Technology can transform the way a business operates, but a poorly considered investment can quickly turn into a white elephant. At The Caterer's Technology Summit, panelists had advice on how to innovate successfully and not get taken in by the hype

Data, says Ruth Carpenter, head of marketing at Pizza Pilgrims, is pretty much the driving force of a business. "Whether it's sales, [insights into] customers' behaviour or even scouting out a potential new site – it should all be driven by the facts. And the best way to do that is to deep-dive and look at your data."

In the process of opening its new restaurant in Brighton, Pizza Pilgrims is leaning heavily on demographic data to gain insight into that particular market. It's a lesson the operator has learned the hard way, says Carpenter.

"Pizza Pilgrims opened in Oxford a couple of years ago and didn't look into what the footfall was like in the site they took on within a shopping centre that is predominantly very busy," she explains. "Now it's looking at how we'd use that data to really be able to tap into the property developer's data as well to make sure we're foolproofing our strategies."

Experimenting with digital tools doesn't have to be expensive. "If you're scared of tech and not sure how to adapt it, just start by talking to the people that are in your community," Carpenter says. "And then use those free reporting tools at your disposal such as Instagram Insights, Google My Business and Google Analytics. "I think that, as a small restaurant brand, start small, don't be scared of it. Test slowly, fail, learn faster – and tech will soon become your best friend."

The bottom line

Clare Stead, business development director for UK and Ireland at nutrition management software supplier Nutritics, agrees that data can help businesses unlock hidden value. For example, its technology has a menu-filtering function, which customers can use to screen food options for calories and allergies. This feature threw up an important insight for one of the company's largest clients. Stead says: "They found that customers were going to view the menus online and filtering by ‘gluten-free'. But this particular restaurant chain didn't have any gluten-free options on the menu." When they discovered potential customers were regularly searching for this dietary option, they were able to quickly adjust menus and add gluten-free dishes – leading to more inclusive menus and higher margins.

Maxwell Harding, founder and chief executive of Dynamify, whose digital ordering tool is aimed at contract caterers, echoes the point that data insights can help boost revenue for its customers. The company provides an all-in-one platform for operators, using data and AI.

"We're driving great results for our clients," Harding says. "They're happy when they see increased average transaction values because customers are purchasing more frequently as it's much more convenient, or are able to drive higher transaction values through upsells, etc, using data."

Driver of change

Analytics also have the power to help change the way businesses operate for the better. Carolyn Ball, director for net-zero delivery at caterer Compass Group UK & Ireland, says that data is crucial to helping operators meet their sustainability goals. The company processes around 500,000 transactions through its e-ordering platform across 4,000 locations.

"We have a huge job to do not just in terms of the volume of data, but also ensuring the quality allows us to deliver some really good insights and analysis and intelligence – and not just for us, but also to help inform customers," she explains.

It's got to be efficient, it's got to be cost-saving, and it's got to give guests choices if it's customer-facing

She adds that Compass is on a mission to use data to "engage and empower chefs, with the ability to swap out ingredients and look at the menu as a really amazing creative opportunity to be able to produce a sustainable plate that people want to go and eat. We are not expecting all of those decisions to be the ones that are made by the customer. "For example, we've done some work recently where we've swapped out the beef Wellington with the mushroom Wellington and looked at the reduction from a footprinting perspective. It's been really exciting to be able to communicate the degree of small change that – if made across 4,000 locations, and indeed many more across the global group – can have an enormous impact."

A tool, not a goal

The transformative potential of technology is not something that's lost on Darren Sweetland, managing director at Mollie's Motel & Diner. The operator has done a huge amount of work enhancing the experience for guests, including introducing QR code access for doors, phone-enabled TV remotes and integrated electrical vehicle charging.

"I think the pandemic really did put light on how we can be more efficient, and also probably challenged a lot of us on the status quo," Sweetland says. However, he believes digital channels should always be presented to guests as an option rather than something they have to use. "When we were looking to invest money in our technology, we were really focused on what is going to improve the guest experience."

Mollie's is also investing heavily in its back-office systems – including an integrated system of platforms to help create a frictionless experience. But behind all the tech investment, there has also been a careful emphasis on choosing the right tools for the right business need.

"We live in a world of network data, and you can feel digitally waterboarded with the amount of data we have," Sweetland says. "It's about finding the right data and having systems that can provide you with something robust so you can make the right decisions."

Hit or miss

Simon Stenning, strategic adviser and futurist at FutureFoodservice, says the difficulty comes when operators try to implement a technology and do it in a "half-arsed" way.

He says: "An example recently was a two-Michelin-starred gastropub that's done away with menus and introduced a QR code. The problem is they haven't done it with style or panache, which is what makes the customer journey not very good and leaves a sour taste in the mouth of people who haven't got smartphones and aren't able to just scan a menu.

We talk to our teams and ask: is the technology doing what it is meant to be doing, is it making their lives easier or it harder?

"With things like that you can do it, but you've got to do it so well. And a brilliant example of that establishment was when the maître d' told us about the special of the day, but it was in a couple of throwaway words, not brought to life through a digital menu, which is where you could bring in the imagery that you wouldn't be able to incorporate in a written menu. We are moving dramatically towards more tech being used in hospitality, but it does have to be done properly."

Key issues

Jane Pendlebury, chief operating officer of the Hospitality Professionals Association (HOSPA), says the bottom line needs to be a return on investment. She lists some of the key questions operators should ask about a tech introduction. "Is it going to free up your staff to talk to your guests? Is it going to take away some boring back-office tasks? Again that's a good thing – if something can be automated, brilliant. Or is it going to help you generate more revenue?

"There are lots of different ways to look at it depending on what you're trying to achieve, But it's got to be efficient, it's got to be cost-saving somewhere along the line, and it's got to give guests choices if it's customer-facing.

"It's brilliant if you can't speak the language of the country you're in and you're trying to order room service and you can do that digitally. But there'll be other people who will just want to phone up and have a discussion and explain their allergies."

Not just digital

Rob Brown, head of information technology at foodservice provider BaxterStorey, has introduced a number of apps for customers to use. BaxterStorey uses feedback platforms, but it also has a more old-fashioned way of measuring their success.

"We talk to our teams and ask: is the technology doing what it is meant to be doing, is it making their lives easier or it harder?"

Many have pointed out that the pandemic has forced the notoriously analogue hospitality sector to be more tech-savvy. But Brown says some things have been put on hold because of the huge upheaval Covid has caused.

"While we've been scrambling around and trying to keep things running, big projects such as reporting and looking for development for the future have had to take a back seat," he says. "We've got a fair amount of work to do for the rest of the year, and next year, to try and put ourselves in a good position so that in the long term we're where we need to be with technology."

Certainly, thinking carefully about choosing the right digital tools for your business and implementing them in the right way appears to be one of the key takeaways for anyone looking to get the most out of tech.

From handset to headset

Applied futurist Tom Cheesewright believes operators are increasingly having to confront the tension between the physical and the digital when it comes to positioning their offering.

"We've got these really sort of opposite experiences, where at one end you've got more digital interaction, and then the complete other end is this real craving for higher-end experiences, for aspirational experiences, for ones that are fully human – for service."

That leaves operators with an enormous amount of choice when deciding where to invest in technology. Do they chase the highly efficient experience and invest in automation at the front-end, or focus on the back-end and look at things such as robotic kitchens?

Cheesewright believes we will see a shift to the metaverse – an immersive virtual world where people use headsets to augment physical spaces.

"Translate this into an F&B space and you get into really interesting places. Because if you can create a hyper-realistic, photorealistic environment in a virtual way through someone's glasses – if you can personalise that for the people in front of you, then does the balance between a physical interface and a digital interface start to disappear?"

Every brand, he says, is going to have to find its own place on that spectrum. "I do expect the middle to be the hardest place to be, and it's only going to get more challenging as we go through this transition over the next decade from handset to headset.

About Dynamify

Dynamify is the leading digital ordering platform white-labelled by the world's largest contract caterers (including giants like Sodexo, Atalian, Elior, WSH, and CH&Co) or directly by Fortune Global 500 companies. Both groups of clients deploy Dynamify's omnichannel technology, in their own brand.

Dynamify is live in over 1,000 catering sites across the world. Dynamify's mobile-first solution transforms restaurants to 100% digital ordering (ie cashless, cashierless ordering via app-, kiosk-, and web-based ordering) to provide the most convenient and personalised customer experience, while freeing up cashiers to become customer hosts.

For more information:

About Nutritics

Nutritics' software helps businesses unlock the hidden value of food data, to manage recipes, create labels, plan meals, take orders, publish menus and calculate their carbon footprints. We're focused on making food data more reliable, more accessible and more valuable for food businesses and their customers. Nutritics recently launched Foodprint, a fully automated carbon footprint scoring system for foodservice and hospitality businesses. This provides businesses with an innovative solution to understand, manage and report on the carbon footprints of their food purchases.

We were delighted to be involved with The Caterer's Technology Summit, which highlighted how data can be utilised across all areas of hospitality businesses to achieve financial and non-financial goals.

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