Takeaways: The 2023 National Restaurant Association Show

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April 28, 2024

Takeaways: The 2023 National Restaurant Association Show Gary Campbell Co-founder/CEO Last year's takeaways from the...

Last year’s takeaways from the 2022 restaurant association seemed to be helpful to those who couldn’t make it or simply had an interest in the industry, so I figured I’d write up this year’s takeaways from the Show that came to a conclusion this past Tuesday. I’ll focus on the main trends I saw while there.

1. Where have all the workers gone?

No surprise here- Workforce, or lack thereof was a major focal point this year (again). By the end of 2023 alone, an additional 500,000 workers are reported to be needed. For every qualified worker, there are 2 spots that need to be filled. An interesting trend here is that there will be more 65+ workers entering the marketplace by 2023 than Gen Z (5 million vs. 1 million respectively). 

  • One thing that stood out this year to me was the attention directed toward training new staff via their own smartphones. Of course, we at WineView were ecstatic to hear about this new trend in training. This is an area we’ve seen a lot of customers focus on in the past 6 months.
  • All in all, finding this workforce, and more importantly training them, is going to be a major point of focus for the foreseeable future based on the data and conversations overheard. I think companies like Croux will have an opportunity to try and alleviate this significant workforce shortage.

2. Army of Robots

  • Given all of the recent buzz around AI (some merited, some not) I had expected a bigger presence or at least discussion around the matter. There were certainly a few interesting takes, from AI cocktail makers like Cecilia.ai to drive-thru ordering that The Wendy’s Company will be testing using Google’s AI. I do anticipate a bigger AI presence at next year’s show as there are quite a few applications (voice ai like SoundHound and Slang.ai, recommendations of places to eat like OpenTable just launched with Chat-GPT, etc.) 
  • What was certainly prevalent was the number of robots running the floor. We saw several concepts rolled out, from tableside bots like Andrew Simmons is using at Mamma Ramona’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria. There were enough of these robots running around to potentially pose a problem if Chaos-GPT pulled a Skynet.
  • Other than the cocktail robot I saw only a few new models on the floor (including a small dog robot which I’m still trying to figure out) with primarily only an increase in quantity. I do think more casual and QSR concepts will be implementing automation in the back of house as labor costs for such tasks become higher and more scarce.

3. POS Wars… continued

For those that read last year’s report, a major point of focus for me was the sheer amount of POS providers (upwards of 30) which is apparently nothing new. This year, while there were still plenty represented, I didn’t count more than 15. I think this directly correlates with Toast‘s continuous success in this space and brand recognition as well as fewer new entrants into the market. I was surprised to see there were at least 2 new market entrants in this space (I admire their bravery). My prediction is by 2030 that there will be only 3 at the show (taking wagers).

4. Convenience vs Experience 

A Highlight of the show this year was the keynote in which Danny Meyer and Pinky Cole spoke about a wide range of topics. While others have likely covered their points better, my biggest takeaway was the continued divergence of QSR and FSR restaurants from a dining perspective. Like many things these days, it seems we’re becoming more polarized. On one hand, you’ve got a huge focus on branding, social media, and “tap one button and have it done” restaurants (in other words CONVENIENCE focus). On the other, you’ve got a focus on exclusivity, service, quality, and diverse food (in other words EXPERIENCE focused). It only seems like the distinction between these two will grow as kiosks continue to be placed in QSRs to make ordering faster like Brandon Barton and his company Bite while on the other hand, some restaurants like Gary Vaynerchuk‘s Flyfish Club will require an NFT to even get in the restaurant. This won’t happen overnight of course, but there was a feeling of the industry as a whole struggling to figure out how much is “too much convenience” and vice versa.

5. The Need for a Better Customer Experience

  • According to the NRA, customer satisfaction hasn’t been this low since 2005- yikes! I believe this is reflective of an untrained workforce, growing pains from diverging priorities (convenience vs. experience), and having to pay more for the same if not less than what’s expected due to inflationary pressure. My conversations with restaurant owners from across the country all reflect a similar theme- their veteran staff members are phasing out and there’s a massive gap in experienced talent.
  • There’s no “catch-all” to fix this major issue, but many agree that a more personalized dining experience, engagement with guests, and more of an emphasis on hospitality are keys to success. This all sounds nice, but what does that actually look like? While not completely clear, I think at the core of the guest’s expectations lies a simple desire to feel catered to. For example, like I’ve preached for over 2 years now at WineView, imagine each time you went to order food, your server said something like “You know what would pair really well with that seared tuna is a glass of one of our white burgundy’s or a nice chardonnay perhaps”. While such a small change in the standard script of taking an order and placing an order, this simple change in approach could have a profound impact on that guest’s experience. Why? I’ll leave it to Danny Meyer to say it best.

“To go through the motions in a perfunctory or self-absorbed manner, no matter how expertly rendered, diminishes the beauty. It’s about soul—and service without soul, no matter how elegant, is quickly forgotten by the guest.”

Our Final Thoughts

This industry, like many in the past decade, has undergone and will continue to undergo many changes. We’ll see a lot of tests, from plant-based food to AI cooks with some going well and some not so well. The most exciting thing to me was the continued openness many operators have to adding a “tech stack” as a line item to operations. As it goes for a potential robot uprising, just make sure you tip your staff, human or robot, well.

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