Author and Principal at Deliver the Dish Carl Orsbourn describes a digital restaurant as being wherever the customer is.

During a panel Thursday at the 2024 Food on Demand Conference, Orsbourn expanded on his statement, adding that it’s not just incorporating off-premises sales, but entirely digitizing a restaurant’s offering. On hand to discuss the topic with Orsbourn was Smalls Sliders CEO Maria Rivera and GoTo Foods Senior VP of Customer Experience and Engagement Urvi Patel, as well as co-moderator Meredith Sandland, CEO of Empower Delivery.

The former brand is the newer of the two, founded in 2019. Since it was established, Smalls Sliders received a major investment from the private equity firm 10 Point Capital in 2022. The mini-burger brand has nine locations open and 250 more in development across 16 states.

Rivera said from the time the brand was established, digitization was part of building the brand.

“We very early made a decision that we would be scaling the brand along with technology to enable our customer journey and overall experience,” Rivera said. “Some of that has been things like having online ordering or purchasing through our app. We’ve also been very specific about food photography, right down to the display of our packaging.”

At GoTo Foods, Patel also discussed having a wide range of digital operations and highlighted the importance of having them work in tandem.

“All of our channels have a role to play,” Patel said. “Whether people are coming directly into the restaurants, ordering on the app or going through a third party, those channels have a role. Instead of trying to throttle them and have one go against the other, we want to strike the right balance, which means figuring out how we can support each one of those. If you’re able to do that, you can have multiple revenue streams in and out of your restaurant.”

GoTo Foods, formerly Focus Brands, has a portfolio of brands including Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s, Jamba and McAlister’s Deli. In 2023, McAlister’s Deli became the first brand in the portfolio to surpass $1 billion in system-wide sales and in 2023.

To continue driving sales, Patel said GoTo Foods is also focusing on exploring data and utilizing it to attract more customers.

“We have a lot of data, tons of it,” Patel said. “But it’s how we mine and extract the insight that can help us make the right decisions. Having volumes of data is meaningless if you can’t extract the right insight. For us, we’ve set up teams that focus on that for the analytics.”

Rivera also highlighted the importance of data, citing how it helps to better understand the customer.

“We spend a lot of time data-mining who’s behind the transactions,” Rivera said. “When we know who’s behind the transaction, then we can tailor the investments to attract people to our website or to our loyalty programs. It allows us to be a lot more creative in our investments to attract people to come back and do so through the first-party.”

To better position it’s customer loyalty, Patel highlighted how GoTo Foods partnered with the technology development firm Qu.

“What we ask internally is ‘what does loyalty look like?’” Patel said. “How do we get customers to think loyalty first? We know the relationship is built through personalization. So, let’s start meeting our customers where they are and think about innovation. I think with our partners at Qu, we have an awesome journey ahead on that front. They’re going to help where we are today, but it’s not just about today, it’s about where we’re going to be in two years and where our customer is going to be in two years.”