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Murtec, the Multi-Unit Restaurant Tech Conference, is typically loaded with sessions, speakers and networking focused on “the hottest solutions disrupting restaurant operations and guest engagement.” When I spoke with Chris de Jong, the director of brand and communications at 7shifts, who just returned from the event, I wanted to know what trends in the restaurant industry jumped out at him the most in this year’s Las Vegas based event.
Ania Osinska-Bulloff: Chris, Murtec’s home page talks about getting “elbows-deep in what’s possible - both today and in the future - as technology infiltrates every aspect of the restaurant industry.” Was the event focused primarily on current trends or futuristic technology?
Chris de Jong: Looking at the agenda, there was a lot of attention spent on the future. The scripted part of the conference focused on on-demand services, Share-of-Stomach vs. Wallet Share, voice bots and voice assistance. The event is attended by extremely savvy restaurant industry people, who are very future focused. However, what I noticed was that the attendees were parcing futurism from reality. For example, they understood the potential of on-demand services, in delivery especially, but most were concerned with the associated cost, which is great for the end user, but with an average of 30% charge from platforms such as Uber Eats, it seems to take a substantial cut from restaurants’ profits. Also, an implemented Alexa voice bot seemed to generate a lot of fun, but no tangible ROI was measured and reported, and attendees mostly thought the system itself was neat but using it in restaurants seemed gimmicky for now.
Ania: Sounds like despite all the talk about automation, empowering employees with tech was more interesting to the Murtec visitors?
Chris: I agree. There was a lot of hype and talk about these futuristic solutions, but attendees themselves were more focused on people and systems.
The overarching trend that jumped at me this year was the increasing importance of employee engagement. Labor becomes harder and harder to come by, with turnover of 73% in the US restaurant industry. This means that out of 4 employees, 3 will be turning in a year. A quick calculation proves a devastating impact on the company’s bottom line with an average cost of $5,800 per every leaving employee. Any restaurant would be furious if 3 out of 4 ingredients were spoiling, yet this is exactly what happens with employees every year in this industry.
Ania: Wow! That is an enormous waste. Was there consensus around solutions for this issue?
Chris: Murtec attracts large enterprise restaurant groups with many smart restaurateurs, some of who deal with hundreds of locations and may struggle with a fairly disengaged workforce, and information dissemination. For them culture and worker experience were the number one answer to this problem. There were examples of how powerful employee engagement is in reducing turnover, decreasing costs, and increasing bottom line. Stronger culture was tied back to employee engagement data that helped restaurateurs systemize the experience and optimize it.
Ania: Turnover is a burning, also financial concern and employee engagement was reported as moving the needle?
Chris: Correct. There was more focus on great employers vs. businesses just providing jobs, and questions such as “How can we be places where people want to stay?” kept resurfacing. The answer lies both in technology and environment. Employees want to work for employers who provide them with modern tech tools, resembling systems they use in their daily life. Employees keep asking, why can’t a tool offered by my restaurant be as good and as intuitive as the tools I use outside of work? Companies who ask these questions and get into their employees’ shoes have been the most successful in reducing turnover.
Ania: What other burning issues did you spot at Murtec?
Chris: A lot of people were talking about labor compliance in the US. Changes in more and more jurisdictions are being introduced, and they get more complex. Attendees were wondering how compliance is going to affect them, especially when operating in multiple states, each with different regulations.
Violations are a big business and legal risk, with enormous bottom line impact. Though, there seemed to be an understanding that these regulations are not trying to restrict profitability, but rather aid a better work-life balance.
Ania: We’re back to being employee-focused again.
Chris: Hourly and shift workers are on the bottom of the labor totem poll. Their jobs don’t offer great wages. Their schedules aren’t secure. A lot of times, their work is a long distance away and employees rely on public transportation to reach their shifts. The work itself isn’t steady. Essentially, we’re looking at gig-workers in the on-demand economy and their jobs don’t help them attain financial stability. Restaurant businesses recognize this and want to help their employees. These regulations make sure restaurant employees don’t have, for example, a closing and an opening shift, that call out fees are applied when employees shifts are canceled, and so on. We’re back to employee engagement, that’s true.
Ania: What about a third significant topic or trend you came across this year?
Chris: That’d be managing and navigating the complexities, and streamlining the data operations within restaurants. Murtec attracts enterprise level restaurants with an impressive tech stack, who are always working on improving it to operate seamlessly and flawlessly. It’s not just an IT problem, but a C-level problem, since data impacts and informs their business decision making. A large focus was on managing integrations and streamlining data, and turning that raw data into actionable insights that increase profitability. This was a takeaway for me: to have an impact, restaurateurs chose platforms that are incredibly easy to use, and easily adoptable by all company operations. That’s because they can be streamlined across organizations and minimize disparities.
Ania: To sum up, employee engagement, labor compliance, and streamlined data ops were the three most discussed topics at Murtec.
Chris: Some discussion were about automation, AI and bots that may one day do some of the work, but the general consensus was: These disruptions... they are too far out. Even though, on average, attendees were more focused on the present, dollars and cents, discussions around becoming an employee of choice, a magnet for talent, as well as beating the alarming turnover rates on both the company culture level and technology level kept coming back like a boomerang.