FCES 2023 panel summary: “Embracing AI without Killing Your Budget”

Cutting costs, reducing errors, improving customer satisfaction and enhancing the customer experience are just a few benefits of incorporating artificial intelligence into operations, but upgrading systems isn’t always affordable.

October 10, 2023
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FCES 2023 panel summary: “Embracing AI without Killing Your Budget”
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FCES 2023 panel summary: “Embracing AI without Killing Your Budget”

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing restaurants. Operators are using various forms of AI to manage staff scheduling, predict what foods to prepare, tailor marketing campaigns, personalize experiences, and more. The question is how restaurants can embrace AI without paying a high price. 

At this years’ Fast Casual Executive Summit, Upside hosted a panel to discuss that question. Upside VP of Restaurants Ryan Gaylor moderated the conversation that featured industry veterans like:

  • Steve Lieber, VP of Franchise Development at BurgerFi
  • Ray Sears, Director of Local Marketing at PJ Restaurants (Papa John’s) 
  • Ryan Wilkinson, VP of Marketing at Primanti Bros Restaurant
  • MJ Worsham, Director of Restaurant Technology at Five Guys

Below is a summary of the conversation, which has been edited for accessibility and clarity. 

Moderator: “Explain in one word what AI means to your organization today.” 

The panel landed on two keywords: efficiency and productivity. Worsham (Five Guys) said that AI allows restaurants to “spend more time focusing on the guest and the product” rather than things like “managing tech and reports.” Wilkinson (Primanti Bros) and Sears (Papa John’s) agreed, with Sears adding that Papa John’s was experimenting with AI to improve the customer experience. Lieber (BurgerFi) noted that AI made him more efficient at daily tasks, like crafting promotional content for social media. 

Moderator:Primanti is focused on what they call the fan experience. Can you explain to everyone what that means? And then talk about how you're leveraging AI to drive the fan experience for your customers?”

Wilkinson (Primanti Bros) said that Primanti is “radically committed to trying to deliver a great fan experience” for people who visit the restaurant and interact with its website. Primanti’s analysts have embraced that mindset and AI tools to better understand and improve the fan experience. Likewise, Primanti has used AI to evaluate customer satisfaction with how restaurants operate, including how greeters and other staff perform. 

Moderator:Tell me what you think AI means to you and your role, as well as why it's important as you engage with potential franchisees or existing franchisees?”

Lieber (BurgerFi) said that tools like ChatGPT have increased his efficiency, noting, “I can do four hours of work in about 52 minutes.” He described how he used generative AI tools to craft ads for different target audiences, write LinkedIn posts, and develop checklists for members of his team. Lieber also said he had used AI to summarize reports, which helped him read and understand material more quickly than he would have without the technology. 

Moderator: “Five Guys has been very active in the AI space. Can you highlight some of the key initiatives that you've implemented to help your operations?”

Worsham agreed that Five Guys has been “early adopters of things that enhance the guest experience quietly and enhance our employees as well.” He said that AI offers both a quantitative and qualitative return on investment. Quantitatively, a dollar amount can be assigned to the time that AI saves employees. Qualitatively, emerging technology can help improve the customer experience by making inefficient transactions more seamless. 

Moderator: “I'd love to hear what you think about the corporate investments that your brands make in technologies like this, as well as things that you've looked at that you can do yourself as an operator of stores.” 

Sears (Papa John’s) spoke about the potential for AI to help Papa John’s better predict customer behavior and improve customer satisfaction. Emerging technology could help restaurants know what foods to prepare, and it could help ensure that food is as fresh as possible when customers recieve it. Sears discussed his experience with the Upside platform, having used the platform himself to incentivize more frequent purchases.  

Moderator: There's AI, there's automation, and there's different variances of AI. Could you describe how you view these different technologies? 

Worsham (Five Guys) described three levels of automation in the restaurant industry. The first is for forecasting sales trends. The next level is focused on developing sales strategies around market costs. And the most advanced level is technology that can “marry every data source” to provide restaurant owners with insight into external factors that impact a store’s performance. On the third level, Worsham gave the example of a restaurant owner wondering why sales had dropped during a particular time of the day, asking that question to an AI-backed platform, and learning that a walking bridge near the restaurant was temporarily closed. 

Moderator: You've talked about the back office automation and things to keep your personnel working with customers and driving fan experience. You've also leveraged different platforms to engage lapsed customers or new customers. Can you talk about how you've leveraged those solutions?

Wilkinson (Primanti Bros) said that AI helps marketers see things they wouldn’t normally see. It allows him to target customers “at the right moment with the right message.” Wilkinson added that AI enables Primanti to assess a lapsed customer’s behavior and use that analysis to guide the timing and type of promotion that they offer. He also noted that Upside’s AI-enabled platform allows Primanti to reach beyond its loyalty base and attract new customers without added costs. 

Moderator: There are so many personal applications for AI, and you told us this morning about a great use of AI for productivity and for maximizing your return on investment. Could you share that with the group? 

Lieber (BurgerFi) said he uses AI to help manage his restaurants in the United States and abroad. ChatGPT’s translation feature has allowed him to build better relationships with the two restaurants he oversees in Saudi Arabia, since the program allows him to easily translate his communication into Arabic. He has also used the feature to work with teams in South Korea. 

Moderator: The title of the session is “Embracing AI without Killing the Budget.” I would love to hear how you've approached things, how you overcame things like capital costs and investment barriers, or generally how you think about ROI where you have invested in AI.

The panel agreed that one of AI’s advantages was the relatively low barrier to entry. They also noted that it helps with day-to-day management, such as knowing what food to prep based on past sales. And AI has helped craft more targeted and compelling marketing campaigns. Sears (Papa John’s) added that Upside boosts in-house growth efforts by reaching more customers with unique offers and providing insights into the journeys of those customers.

FCES 2023 panel summary: “Embracing AI without Killing Your Budget”

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