Differing opinions and strategies were on display as four leaders in the restaurant tech space came together to talk shop during Nicholas Upton’s Connecting the Dots on Digital Operations panel on the second day of FODC.
Comprised by ItsaCheckmate founder and CEO Vishal Agarwal, Square Head of Restaurants Bryan Solar, Tillster Chief Marketing Officer Hope Neiman and Omnivore Chief Revenue Officer Shane Whitlatch, the conversation delved into diverging ways of measuring digital adoption, how technology firms should price their products, and how restaurants should define success when a sizable chunk of the hospitality experience is now happening outside of a restaurant’s walls.
“Asking the right questions is a huge part of this transformation,” Upton said during the panel’s opening remarks. “How can restaurant operators develop that muscle and ask the right questions and figure out the right goals to plug in the right technologies?”
ItsaCheckmate’s Agarwal said it’s important to realize that COVID has loosened operator purse strings when it comes to technology, but truly driving the adoption of more technology at a higher level will require rethinking the business model and allowing restaurants to pay on a month-to-month basis for new software and services, rather than locking them into longer-term contracts.
“If you compare technology being used in restaurants right now compared to other industries, it’s really bad, but one of the questions we should be asking is, ‘Why is it bad?’” he said. “I think it’s bad because of tech companies like us. We make it really hard for the smaller restaurants to adopt technology, because you go in with a lengthy contract, long-term commitments and very high fees. How are they going to afford it?”
Neiman, of Tillster, said she didn’t “entirely disagree” with the sentiment, but said tech players in the industry need to do a better job of communicating the real value their services provide rather than just focusing on pricing models. She emphasized that a higher priority should be “being able to take the data that happens and show that there’s real value that came from it.”
Neiman recommended that restaurant operators of all sizes look to other tech-enabled parts of their life for inspiration on asking the right questions of vendors, and on how to make a restaurant experience more personalized, regardless of the venue or format. That introspective reflection, she said, could include looking at your own experience as an Amazon customer, as just one low-hanging example.
Square’s Solar agreed that restaurant operators should avoid locking themselves into multi-year contracts, and suggested they find more rigorous ways of vetting potential new technology partners—even if that means reaching out to a “nerdy nephew” with an inherently better understanding of technology and what’s being done in other industries. The key, Solar suggested, is avoiding making a critical mistake that could be difficult to reverse due to contractual obligations or technology that’s not open to outside applications.
“You should vet the customer service” as well,” he added. “When it does break, are you going to be able to get someone on the phone? All of those things connect when technology is central to the success of your business.”
Stressing the long-term value of its API and ability to connect to outside technology partners, Omnivore’s Whitlatch said these decisions are especially challenging for restaurant operators who aren’t well versed in the technology side of the business compared to larger enterprises with dedicated technology teams.
“We try to make it easy by providing solutions that are going to be supported by the points of sales we support to take some of that risk out, so they don’t have to toy with it too much,” he said. “The test is … does it ultimately solve the problem that I’m coming to you for.”
Upton asked the panelists to provide examples of connecting disparate operational tools together, especially as partnerships and M&A have become so prevalent in the restaurant tech space in recent months.
“I’ve always thought of the POS as a central hub for every restaurant, so just make sure your POS system is open enough so you have a marketing campaign that you can connect to it,” Agarwal said. “At some level, I think we need to do a better job of explaining … but in my mind, why did we need a nerdy nephew or did we make it too difficult?”
Equating making tech stack decisions to online dating, Solar said many restaurant operators are in a relationship with technology providers “where that person is a 7 out of 10. They’re not bad enough that you’d break up with them, but they’re holding you back … what ends up happening, people don’t know how much better it could be and, honestly, should be. In a competitive industry like the restaurant business, they don’t even see the advantages they’re missing, so step one is acknowledging whether what you have will do that, will give you the ability to connect those dots. If the answer is no, stop putting it off.”
I’m looking around this room, and there are new companies that are popping up all the time that are creating unbelievable value … Cartwheel over there, Chownow over there,” Solar added. “All of those companies are working on solutions, honestly, sometimes before you even know there’s a problem, so one of the things that’s helpful for all restaurateurs to think about [is] the likelihood we’ll sit down with any of these folks building great solutions is really high.”