NEW YORK — Technology is an important part of the fabric of any business today, and it's increasingly clear that it can play a pivotal role in food retailing.
Taking the stage in the Food Service Tech Pavilion at NRF 2023: Retail's Big Show, International Food and Beverage Technology Association (IFBTA) founder and CEO Rob Grimes said he thinks "it's amazing that food technology is an important part of retail" these days.
However, the foodservice industry has some catching up to do.
IFBTA partnered with the National Retail Federation (NRF) on the Food Service Tech Pavilion at the organization's annual show held at the Javits Center in New York from Jan. 15-17.
Joining Grimes for a session on "The State of Food Tech," Vikram Badhwar, director of restaurant technology and portfolio management for KFC UK & Ireland, acknowledged that the restaurant business has "a long way to go" when it comes to technology. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated what needs to happen, he said, because technology was previously an afterthought in food retailing circles.
Working with the franchise business model doesn’t make it easier, they agreed. Franchisees do not necessarily move at the same pace and, even if the system is starting to tap into tech opportunities, costs can be a barrier to entry.
"You need to prove the ROI [return on investment]," Badhwar said. "Ultimately, franchisees are businesspeople. If you can prove the ROI, they will invest."
For those foodservice retailers that are embracing innovation and opportunity, integration can be a stumbling block. The restaurant business needs solutions that "are truly open," according to Badhwar.
"It is quite an exciting time for organizations," he added. "It is also exciting to build your own; we want to own some aspects."
There is still a lot of tech debt to go through, however, he pointed out. "We are working toward the time where we can innovate at pace and roll out [those innovations]," he said.
What to Watch for in 2023
Looking back at 2022, Badhwar noted that his business made moves around robotic automation and artificial intelligence. He predicts "we will double down on a lot of those areas" in 2023.
The main obstacle this year may be inflationary pressures, as he expects "2023 will be about stability." This will mean dealing with cost efficiency and labor efficiency.
There are areas of innovation foodservice retailers can focus on to help relieve some of the pressures, according to Badhwar. They include:
- Delivery-only kitchens to take the pressure off existing locations; and
- Automate low-level tasks that are labor intensive.
As for customer-facing technology, he believes restaurants should double down on loyalty and getting smart about how to deliver personal messages. "Retail has been doing that well for years," he said.
And while the customer, and the digital proposition, has been the focal point of many technology changes in the past few years, the focus will shift in 2023 to the operations side of the business, Badhwar predicts.