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Lessons in Restaurant Technology From Benjamin Franklin

Published on October 5, 2021
By Michelle George

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin warned the people of Philadelphia, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Although the line was intended to remind Philadelphians to practice fire prevention, the phrase has grown into a universally applied lesson that holds up almost 300 years later. 

You might be wondering why I’m mentioning a line uttered by a guy who died 233 years ago but stay with me. Similar to how Philadelphia was rebuilding after a catastrophic fire in 1730, the restaurant industry has been dealing with its own inferno in the form of the coronavirus, ongoing labor issues, and changing consumer habits. 

In the immediate aftermath of the shutdown last March, many concepts quickly learned that they weren’t prepared for anything close to what we ended up experiencing. Unfortunately, what was shaping up to be a great 2020 on paper quickly fell apart, along with the neatly laid technology roadmaps associated with them. Five-year plans were discarded as the innovation timeline contracted from years to months and sometimes weeks.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Of all the buzzwords companies put in their job descriptions, this one might be the most enticing. Simply put, an employer of choice pays a salary above the market rate and offers employees a slate of benefits, including paid time off and holidays, health insurance, and work/life balance. But being an employer of choice encompasses more than just a better paycheck. Employers of choice promote positive relationships, transparency, respect, and empowerment, making it easy to retain and recruit new workers. 

Some brands, including Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out, are considered employers of choice because of their commitment to promoting a solid work/life balance alongside higher-than-average pay. Other concepts, including Chipotle, TGI Fridays, and Texas Roadhouse are also considered top employers because of their employee improvement initiatives, profit sharing programs for managers, and staff inclusion in the hiring process. 

When employees are hard to find and even harder to hire, being an employer of choice gives you a leg up on the competition. But becoming a preferred workplace isn’t as easy as offering new employees a $50 bonus and changing nothing else. Those days are over, and with more jobs available than people to fill them, it is easy for prospects to select the right fit for them.

The Resurgence of QR Codes

The QR code has been around since 1994 but saw a resurgence in popularity over the last year. When pressed with finding a contactless way to get menus into guests’ hands, restaurants turned to QR codes. Most phones are equipped to read the matrix style codes, and they can point to any website imaginable, making them a simple go-to for any brand. 

The codes have proven beneficial for guests, too. According to a 2020 survey, nearly 40% of people had scanned a QR code while dining at a restaurant over the previous six months. By containing everything guests need within the QR code, including menus, payments, and receipts, guests don’t have to interact as much with their servers while still receiving excellent service. 

Although the jury still seems to be out on whether paper menus are a thing of the past, there is a contingent of guests who like the simple, tech-driven approach to eating out. It’s also important to keep in mind that while some restaurants have gravitated toward one-time-use menus – which is fine in the short term – the environmental and physical costs associated with printing hundreds of menus add up quickly. And don’t even think about adding or removing items after ordering 1,000 menu copies. 

QR codes are easy to create, simple to use, and most people are tech-savvy enough to understand them within a couple seconds of seeing them. In fact, for the cost of printing out 1,000 disposable menus, you could implement a software solution to help you generate and leverage QR codes for every table in your restaurant. It also makes it faster and more efficient to make changes to one webpage compared to scribbling to items or handwriting new ones. Lastly, they let operators and owners seamlessly create unique QR codes using their brand’s colors, shapes, and other elements. 

These codes can be combined with data from your cloud-based POS system and back-office software to run promotions, track inventory, create limited-time offers (LTOs), and more.

Ghost Kitchens Emerge from the Shadows

In a surprise to no one, brands threw a lot of things at the wall to see what would stick. However, one of the most innovative ideas to come to the forefront is the ghost kitchen. These virtual restaurants usually don’t have storefronts but can operate from the same kitchens as well-known brands. 

For innovative brands that want to experiment with new cuisines, new locations, or twists on already popular items, ghost kitchens fit the bill. Easy to launch, easy to kill, and designed to operate with as little space as possible, ghost kitchens largely rely on delivery and takeout to get food out of the kitchen and into their guests’ hands. They also tend to be very digital-forward, living and dying based on the power of their online presence. 

Large brands through the quick-service and fast-casual segments have used ghost kitchens to branch out and serve demographics that may be open to trying new things. For example, Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings was an offshoot of the famed mouse-themed birthday party destination, Chuck E. Cheese, while Hoots is backed by Hooters, Thigh Stop is supported by Wingstop, and large-scale casual dining chains like Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel, and Bloomin’ Brands have launched their own side projects. 

Entirely new, turnkey style brands have also jumped into the fray, including George Lopez Tacos, a Nextbite concept created by comedian George Lopez, and MrBeast Burger, a 600-location virtual concept launched by YouTube personality MrBeast and backed by Virtual Dining Concepts. There are no physical locations for these businesses. Instead, they piggyback on existing restaurants and operate out of the same kitchen. Orders can only be taken on their brand apps or through third-party delivery platforms and are only available for delivery. 

For most brands, the allure of taking a popular concept and stripping it down to its bare-bones is an easy way to expand into new markets without the risk and cost associated with building a full brick-and-mortar location. It also has a positive impact on smaller concepts, including independent operators scattered across the United States. Wow Bao, which serves Asian street food, has teamed up with hundreds of small businesses to deliver bao to areas it typically wouldn’t reach. With every dark kitchen location, Wow Bao is working with a restaurant operator to generate much-needed revenue and keep the lights on.

Implementation Today, Innovation Tomorrow

Even after being dealt a terrible hand and suffering through a temporarily shuttered industry, brands dove headfirst into the technological revolution. Not because they necessarily wanted to, but out of the simple need to survive. 

However, the sudden increase in tech shouldn’t be seen as a one-time growth spurt that fades. Technology doesn’t stop, and the brands that are at the forefront today may not necessarily be there tomorrow. Those who didn’t see the future and plan accordingly are the same brands that shut their doors and never opened them again. 

The stakes are too high to sit on the sidelines and wait for the future to come to you. Investing in the right technology today gives you the chance to create modern and exciting guest experiences while safeguarding for whatever tomorrow brings. 

Keep an eye on the future. Just like Ben Franklin noted nearly three centuries ago, preparation today beats catastrophe tomorrow. And just because today’s solutions address today’s problems doesn’t mean they will apply forever.

Tiffany Disher, General Manager, MENU North America

Tiffany Disher

General Manager, MENU North America

Tiffany Disher, General Manager, MENU North America, an omni-channel ordering solution to futureproof restaurant’s growing digital sales needs. Before taking on this new role in January 2023, she was an integral part of Punchh’s growth story. She has advised hundreds of customers over the past eight years on their loyalty strategies both from a base program standpoint as well as ongoing marketing strategies. Before Punchh, Tiffany worked for Schlotzsky’s where she supported the brand marketing team by leading loyalty, eClub, R&D, Franchise advisory council and marketing analytics. Tiffany has her Bachelor’s of Science in Economics from University of Oregon and Master’s in Business with a specialty in Marketing from Baylor University. An avid golfer, hiker and mom of two small children, Tiffany spends her limited free time entering into baking competitions.