The September 2022 TrendTalk live webinar, sponsored by Rational, focused on ‘Visionaries of The Foodservice Industry’. Proceedings were overseen by Michael Jones, editorial director of Progressive Content and Foodservice Consultant magazine. It featured four excellent interviews with foodservice professionals who shared their different perspectives and ideas, but all four were forward-looking and future-facing.
Watch the entire Webinar here:
Visionaries of the hospiatlity future
First up was Shawn P Walchef, owner of Cali BBQ and Cali BBQ Media. He was followed by Kristian Tazbazian, co-founder and COO of GASTROnomous, a company that is blazing a trail for robotics and automation in foodservice. Third to the plate was Rational’s Stephan Leuschner. The final speaker was Haitham Al-Beik founder and CEO of Wings, who explained how his desire to improve service in the foodservice sector led to the setting up of his cutting-edge company.
Cali BBQ Media – The Amazon of BBQ
Walchef studied sociology at university. He was raised by his immigrant grandfather to stay curious, get involved and ask for help. “Those three things have enabled me to explore parts of our business that typically you wouldn’t be able to explore,” he explained.
This base has enabled him to make a success of a business opened in 2008 in the teeth of a recession and financial crisis. Then, when the pandemic came in 2020 it enabled him to keep his business going and growing. How did he embrace the challenges? “One of the biggest challenges as restaurant owners is that we think if we can do it, we should do it,” he said. “Getting down to what you do best, and your unique selling proposition is what makes everything else fall into place.”
With a stated aim of getting more BBQ to more people “on their terms” Walchef has declared Cali BBQ Media to be ‘The Amazon of BBQ’. He doesn’t advertise the business he tells stories about it and communicates with potential customers using what he refers to as the “digital playground” at his fingertips; videos, podcasts, social media.
Walchef is candid that the company is still figuring out how to use technology in 2022. “Our thesis is digital hospitality. Every business has to be digital first and every business has to be in the hospitality business, he said. “Also, we’re just starting to understand what ghost kitchens are. We’ve opened up two locations and we’re learning so much by building out these locations. We’re starting to think the hybrid approach is the way to go, for example we’ve just opened two locations at Snapdragon Stadium [a college football stadium at San Diego State University], we’re also looking into brewery locations and non-traditional locations such as naval bases or hospitals. These are all strategies to get more BBQ to more people. Ultimately that’s the goal – the best BBQ possible to more people, on their terms.”
GASTROnomous: Making the impossible possible
Following Walchef was Kristian Tazbazian, co-founder and COO of GASTROnomous Technologies. So, with the tagline: Food robotics making the impossible possible how is GASTROnomous moving forward? “My co-founders came from automotive business. Starting in the 1990s they grew their company to become one of North America’s largest tier two suppliers of safety restraint components. The bedrock of the company lies in automation, finding innovative ways to create smart technology,” he said.
“In 2019 we saw a great opportunity to apply that expertise and knowledge and bring it to foodservice, which is in dire need of new solutions. Even pre-Covid, restaurants were struggling. A lot of work has been done front-of-house, with POS systems and ordering kiosks, but back-of-house nothing’s changed since World War II. Everything around it has changed – the market, consumer taste – so restaurants need these types of solutions. We work closely with our customers. We are here to make their life easier and more efficient.”
When asked how the equipment is meeting real market needs Tazbazian replied: “We provide brands with real ROI. We have heard from the customer that the biggest benefit of our equipment is the consistency factor – that’s the selling factor and real value proposition of smart automation. Add to that lower food waste, better inventory management, better HACCP logging and tracking.”
For GASTROnomous the first year was spent in market research, which meant going out and meeting potential customers and listening to their needs, understanding their bottlenecks, where do they need help, what types of solutions are they looking for. “Although we know automation, having done it for 20+ years, we were green to the foodservice space,” Tazbazian admitted.
A huge concern for operators is downtime and to allay concerns on this new technology all GASTROnomous products can, should the automatic function fail, be switched to manual operation. “Disruption doesn’t happen unless it’s needed and people don’t know what they don’t know,” Tazbazian said. “It is our job to understand their concerns and present them with a beautiful solution.”
“We’re proud to be a Canadian-owned and operated company. We have a huge powerful neighbor to the south, so we have to find innovative ways to shine,” he said. “The Canadian federal government sees food innovation as a new opportunity and sector where Canada can become a leader. Earlier this year it created a fund called Canadian Food Innovation Network (CFIN). CFIN invested in five food technology companies in Canada. We were honored to be one of those companies and received CAN $2m.”
In conclusion Tazbazian summed up the company’ journey: “2020 was market research, a year of learning and understanding. 2021 was starting to get the ball rolling, build the team and understand where we wanted to go from here. 2022 has been a year of heavy product development and 2023 will be getting products out into the field and making GASTROnomous a well-known brand in the commercial kitchen space.”
With sustainability, seriousness and employee’s welfare against energy crisis and economic downturn
Jones then introduced Stephan Leuschner, Director Ghost Kitchens, Culinary Concepts & Broadcast at Rational. He discussed the challenges facing ghost kitchens currently, due to volatility caused by the energy crisis and economic downturn. Leuschner doesn’t see this as anything like the end of the ghost kitchen phenomenon, however.
“The way successful models will grow in future will be different and the concepts will need to be more thought through to succeed,” he said. “We’ve seen fast growth in the past few years, based mainly on third-party investment. It was all about being the first and scaling at the speed of light but there was less competition and less reference to compare with.
“Food delivery has just started to become popular in some countries and we are just starting to scratch the surface in most markets,” he continued. “But the problems affecting traditional restaurants are back; food costs, labor shortages, delivery costs, energy costs, maintenance and food quality. These all create a threat for the entire industry. Some players will hit the wall soon and some investors will pull the plug.”
Although Leuschner admits that reports in the media may well exaggerate both the success and failure of ghost kitchens. To make ghost kitchens successful in the future he said: “They need to develop a mindset of seriousness and sustainability. Keeping everything in shape, attending to issues as they arise, is important in the long run.”
He also said that looking after employees is important. “Keeping people motivated and investing in the work environment will always pay out.”
Leuschner reiterated his opinion, stated in previous TrendTalks, that a single brand ghost kitchen will not succeed. “It takes a multi-brand approach to get the necessary utilization and flexibility to adapt to the markets,” he stated. He recommended anyone starting a new business to look again through the previous TrendTalk discussions to glean a wealth of knowledge and expertise.
He then presented the Rational ghost kitchen Type-4 satellite for cooking and delivery, box expansion. This is a concept for multi-brand shared kitchens, where there are separate areas, or boxes. Equipment to suit the concept can be switched in. They allow for easy scalability.
People first, not technology – it is an add-on
Finally, Haitham Al-Beik, founder and CEO of Wings, took to the screen. His passion for robotics and AI as a teenager in the UAE has led him to establish his company looking at service in foodservice.
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What is the reason why technology has not been an easy bedfellow to foodservice, so far? “Experience is what matters most. Technology is a consequence of the experience you want to bring about,” said Al-Beik. “These days restaurants have to offer many different experiences in the same business model, walk in, grab and go, drive thru. It’s very hard for the restaurant to become versatile. I think the foodservice tech has been come from other industries. It’s not fundamental it’s an add-on, he said.
“Our approach has been from a people-first perspective rather than technology first. We take a step back and think what we want and then build it from the ground up.” Al-Beik established Wings to establish what retail might look like in the future. “What would be the check boxes and what would people look for,” he explained. “Focusing on restaurants, in the past you would go to one place, wait in line, order your food, get out of line, pick up your food and leave. It was highly logistically driven. Now people want to be more versatile now I can order from anywhere and I want to be able to pick it up from anywhere, but really I want things to come to me.”
He pointed out that the problem arises when the digital ordering meets the undigitized logistics in the restaurant. No amount of software is going to move and item from A to B, so automation needs to be employed. “Without automation, costs need to be cut, hence the growth of ghost kitchens,” he said. “Operators went for the cutting rather than the enhancement. We want to digitize the logistics and increase the bandwidth in the restaurant.”
“Operators’ feedback was at first, ‘Wow this is way in the future. Let us know when it is ready.’ But we are hoping to have a first live system between the end of the year and next year in the Middle east,” he says.
“Our background is building automated systems,” says Al-Beik. “We were eager to get out there and say, ‘This is the future of restaurants.’ To be met by silence. Our goal was to elevate the whole industry. We came up with the term autonomous sustainable retail (ASR) is the future and tried to push it. It was really hard as any start-up would understand. Instead, we focused on the fundamentals of the logistics we want to work with and stepped back on the customer experience. That helped us a lot.”
“We took out one portion of what an ASR was. That way we can start adding other components in the future. We learned don’t go to big, too quickly. Start by helping out, collaborating. That way we can all be on the same page.”
Al-Beik sees the whole restaurant of the future as one big robot, which can be opened and close with a button, the logistics are digitized and transparent, the workflow is out of the way. “There are people involved focusing on their creative work, while experiences are separate. Also, there are no lines, no checkout, there’s no need to talk because we want to increase the accessibility for customers and staff. language can be a big barrier. The industry is about people and we want to level the playing field,” he said.
These things will change the foodservice sector
Jones then posed a number of questions to the whole panel including where the most change in the foodservice sector will come from in the next few years.
Calli BBQ’s Walchef’s reply was voice automation, understanding how we interact with the internet.
Tazbazian of GASTROnomous sees change coming from restaurants wanting to be involved with new processes: “It starts with the customer. We have to keep that momentum.” Rational’s Leuschner sees the ghost kitchen market evolving sees different stages in different markets: “There will be more and more players. Some big players have reconsidered plans to expand so it will be more local.”
Comments and questions from the audience followed with observations on ghost kitchens going forward and the difference in food delivery culture between Europe, the Middle east and US.
This is why the foodservice has to face disruption
Finally, the panel was asked why the foodservice sector must embrace disruption. Al-Beik explained that it all comes down to experiences. “It may have to start with big corporations and ghost kitchens to bring costs down. A virtual brand needs more versatility.”
A successful company “Is one that changes more quickly than the world around it. An unsuccessful company doesn’t,” said Tazbazian. “Everyone in the restaurant space needs to be adapting and trying to do better.”
As demands are changing, brands need to change, Leuschner said. “The ghost kitchen space is made for this, to go with the flow.”
It all comes down “to memorable moments and hospitality,” replied Walchef. “If we can make people happy using food then we can teach all the other industries to make those memorable moments as well.”
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