In a conversation on day two of the Food On Demand Conference, executives from Panera Bread, Aramark, Foodservice Results and IFBTA discussed properly utilizing customer data, marketing and how to prepare for the future of the foodservice industry.

For Chris Incorvati, director of operations and support at Panera, making the experience for customers accessible and not confusing was the No. 1 priority during the pandemic. When first introducing its curbside pickup option, Panera heard some constructive criticism from consumers.

“We did do some things that were pretty confusing within the app, based on curbside and rapid pickup,” Incorvati said. “What’s the difference between the two? If I’m waiting for my order, why isn’t it coming out to my car? Did I pick the right thing? We’re trying to make that a little more accessible and easier to use.”

Ideas the brand visited in the past and were shut down have been recycled and explored more in-depth since the start of COVID-19, Incorvati said. He added that Panera will be spending significantly more on digital next year than in the past, in addition to reducing the amount of equipment within cafes. If most orders are coming in through its digital channels, reducing the number of kiosks might make sense, for example. Panera also sought to diversify its offers to include grocery, which at one point totaled close to 2 percent of its gross sales.

“That’s dissipated since things have reopened, but it was certainly eye-opening,” Incorvati said. “We’ve seen a trend now more than ever, that people have different opinions on how to interact with our business. So whether that’s to order on a kiosk, mobile app or delivery, we’ve tried to enable as many platforms as possible.”

Robert Grimes, CEO of the International Food and Beverage Technology Association (IFBTA), moderated the panel discussion. For Grimes, the more the customer uses their own device, the more info and data is available, which can end up meaning lower costs because you’re spending less on kiosks as Incorvati mentioned.

“How we thought about data before and how we’re able to leverage data to do marketing may not exactly be the same as we do it now, and in the future,” Grimes said. “In the future, what is the impact of the changes of our industry? Does it create new challenges and/or opportunities for us?”

Everything is out of whack

Darren Tristano, CEO of Foodservice Results, has been doing industry analysis and research for 30 years and has extensive experience in tracking consumer behavior and attitudes, as well as the performance of the foodservice industry as a whole. While Tristano advises looking at what happened in the years following the ’09 recession, he also acknowledges data is difficult to predict at the moment.

“You have to recognize that data has changed. We’ve seen good consistency over the last five years in upward trends, but everything is out of whack with COVID-19,” Tristano said. “Because a lot of the movement of your sales as an operator have shifted from on- to off-premises, data is no longer at your fingertips through your POS, so data becomes harder to access and figure out.”

While Tristano sees declines in both QSR and casual dining, he added that check averages have been increasing due to larger orders for family meals at home.

“In our lifetimes, we’ve never gone through a pandemic,” Tristano said. “Because of that, we’re starting to see new consumer behaviors that are a lot harder to judge and as operators, trying to adapt to what consumers want is going to be very difficult.”

One encouraging aspect throughout the pandemic, Tristano added, is the willingness of larger operators to share best practices because they want to improve the overall industry. He advises looking at Domino’s and how it’s led in technology with its pizza tracking from oven to door.

“If you look at what (Domino’s) has done from an investment standpoint, they’ve been successful,” Tristano said. “I also use Panera quite a bit and it’s wonderful. They’ve been a leader and someone to look to and see how they invested in their ordering system and pivoted to building drive-thrus and doing curbside. If you’re an operator, you don’t have to do all these strategies, but one should work and help.”

Foodservice’s future is more tech-savvy

Peter Czimback has served at Aramark for 21 years and describes his job—VP of global digital incubation—as rethinking and reinventing how businesses put digital at the forefront. For Czimback, now is the time to invest and take big bold risks.

“There is no greater time to try something different or experiment,” Czimback said. “But watch out—the one thing this has created is a massive influx of companies that will say, ‘I can solve your problem, you just need my widget and your world will be better.’ But look, solutions don’t define your problems, and you gotta start first with your data, listening to operators, talking to clients and front-liners and consumers.”

While avoiding getting “solution-happy,” Czimback advises connecting with stakeholders and taking giant steps to improve. “Those that don’t are gonna have a problem, because people in your space will leap right over you.” And because data is so accessible, you learn quickly what works and what doesn’t, so fear of failure isn’t as big of a factor. “You can quickly pivot and adjust and still be successful. I think that’s the neat and exciting part about now,” Czimback said.

Czimback also predicts a massive acceleration in ideas around voice and conversational artificial intelligence (AI).

“I won’t say the names of those two big companies (Amazon and Google) because they’ll go off in my house and ask me what I want, but what they do and how they can capture data is like you’ve never seen before,” Czimback said. “It’s intense.”

So if your company doesn’t have a strategy in place already for implanting AI, start now, Czimback warned, because it’s the way of the future.

“We have to be more willing to move faster and see what happens and learn from it quickly,” Incorvati said. “I think if we can do that, then the restaurant industry has a chance, and I’m hopeful that our industry peers and Panera itself bounce back in a big way to be able to have a successful rest of the year and beyond.”

If you missed the Food On Demand Conference, you can watch replays of the all-virtual presentations, including breakout sessions.

— Callie Evergreen