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PMA Foodservice: ‘Big Data’ is coming to restaurants

Technology has arrived in virtually all segments of the U.S. experience, and that includes the foodservice sector.  It might have lagged behind several other sectors, but it is starting to catch up rapidly.

At the PMA Foodservice Conference in Monterey, CA, in late July, this topic was explored by two entrepreneurs wearing the young techie moniker.  Justin Mass, founder and president of Food Genius, and Matthew Ward, director of business intelligence and analytics for Advantage Waypoint, had a casual conversation as presenters in a seminar devoted to tech trends in the foodservice business.

Massa said food technology is exploding both in terms of investment and innovation.  He pointed to several new online companies that are attempting to bring the restaurant dining experience to the home through the Internet.  Several companies are delivering all the fixings to prepare a restaurant-quality meal at home, and one New York restaurant (Maple) is attempting to deliver restaurant food to the home within 15 minutes of the order being placed online.  

Technology is also being used in both the front of the house and the back of the house to enhance the dining experience.  Category management, long a staple of the retail food industry, has come to foodservice fueled by “Big Data.”  The concept is apparently foreign to many restaurant operators and suppliers and not being embraced.  Ward urged them to join the revolution by starting small and using data to answer simple questions that can be researchers.  For example, data is available and can be used to find if you are calling on the biggest operators in your market.  The information is there to quantify who’s who.

Data can also be used to inform restaurant operators about potential sales gains.  For example, Ward said data shows that the use of pesto over-index’s in the San Francisco market by a huge margin.  Suppliers can presumably use this information to elevate sales in like markets or to make sure a customer in that market is up to speed on this trend.  He said using data to target usage opportunities is a great way to start utilizing this technology.

Massa said “category management” is becoming the “new normal as more and more operators are using trackable data to drive decisions.  He said one thing the data is showing is that trends or cycles last longer than their exposure in the media.  For example, he said the kale media explosion is pretty much over as food writers look for the next new thing.  But the growth of kale menu items continues on its upward trajectory.  Even after the buzz dies down, restaurant menu writers are still coming up with new recipes.

One downside to the information and data explosion, according to Ward, is that the operator is much more knowledgeable than he once was and he does not rely on the supplier as much as he did.  “Consequently, the conversation gets to price very quickly,” as one of the few points of differentiation.

Both Ward and Massa discussed a technology trend that they aren’t fond of and that is the use of iPads for ordering.  Some restaurants have iPads or other digital tablets at the table to allow ordering without a member of the wait staff being engaged.  Ward said restaurants are about the experience and he does not believe it is a good trend to eliminate interactions between the staff and the customer.  Though Massa said allowing the customer to pay when he is ready to leave rather than having to wait for the check might be a very good idea.

One bit of a data that has come out because of the digital ordering of customers is that they tend to customize their orders to a much higher degree when they have the chance.  This has become a problem for some restaurants as the cook staff can’t prepare these custom meals as quickly as they are being ordered.  However, this data also points to the customer’s desire to go beyond what’s on the menu.