If there was one lament I heard over and over through pandemic lockdowns, it was, “I really miss going to restaurants!” yet technology’s quick pandemic response opened up more access to food and drink for the customer than any other time in the history of the industry. Restaurant-quality home meal replacement, beverage kits, bottle shops, party boxes and the explosion of third-party delivery—beyond burgers and fries—landed the best of offerings right on front doorsteps.
Four months after the first lockdown, with trepidation, we re-opened the doors to MILDRED’S. Surprisingly, our guests were bursting to get back into the dining room, ready to embrace the ritual of breaking bread with families and friends, as well as with the strangers sitting at the tables opposite them. It was evident what everyone really missed was the real driver behind our success, that infinite number of small gestures that adds up to one thing: hospitality. From the heartfelt welcome customers receive when they enter our establishments to the discovery of special moments that require recognition and celebration, we were reminded of who we are and what we do: happy people making people happy, that’s what we do.
As the pandemic unfolded, our story at MILDRED’S was not unlike many others; we explored everything in order to survive. It was like throwing spaghetti at the wall, if it stuck, we grabbed on and that included new technology. Pre-pandemic many technologies and automations in foodservice seemed more novel than mainstream to me. The notion of customers perusing and ordering food and drink offerings off a QR code then paying through their smart phones without having to catch the eye of a busy server seemed like something out of Star Trek. Mini robots scooting down busy sidewalks delivering hot food, robotic arms shaking cocktails and ghost kitchens didn’t feel like a fit for the way we did business. But as the earth shook under our feet, emerging technology and automation continued to advance at rapid speed, bringing innovation and new products and services to markets in all sectors. Our team embraced it all. They signed up for third-party delivery, converted the service line where cooks once called “hands” to docking stations for iPads, they built an e-commerce platform in under 48 hours, uploaded photos taken with new-generation phones and hired drivers with tracking technologies to ensure frozen products and meal kits promptly reached our customers’ doorsteps. Social media platforms were used to expand our brand and engage our customers in new ways, such as live-stream cooking demos and competitions, welcoming followers from around the world into our kitchen. Sous vide circulators, vac pack machines, labeling machines and dry ice took centre stage in the kitchen and our dining room was cleared of tables and chairs, converted into a makeshift processing and production operation. New skills kept emerging as our team continued to adapt. We have developed a new revenue stream that’s outpacing our conventional sales that we never dreamed possible in March of 2020. I’ve witnessed more change and adaptation in our business than any other time in our 35 years of operation.
As the industry emerges from the aftermath of this unprecedented pandemic, we’re left with many challenges—health and safety concerns, financial recovery, inflation and supply chain disruption—afflicting an industry that operates on low margin. From experience, I feel confident saying we will survive and no doubt technology and automation will play significant roles in taking us through to better times. But we must not overlook the greatest challenge that the pandemic has exposed, the workforce that drives our success, our happy people who make people happy. The pandemic was the tipping point for what was already looming on our horizon: a shift in the mindset of our workforce, the exploration of relationships with work and how invested people were prepared to be, be it picking up a knife in the kitchen or tray in the dining room. This leaves us in an industry where customers’ pent-up demand often can’t be met due to labour shortages, and where margin never lets us take out eye off the ball as we constantly look for ways to improve productivity, efficiencies and bottom lines.
Technology and automation will provide those opportunities with enhancements like improved sales forecasting, controlled purchasing, minimal waste and dynamic prep schedules. So, here’s where technology intersects with hospitality: we may be able to serve you faster and more efficiently, but can we use technology to deliver hospitality? Service is a skill, hospitality is a spirit.
At this year’s RC Show, the industry will come together in person to seek new innovations and ideas. Like so many operators, suppliers, distributors and manufacturers, I’ll be looking forward to meeting at the corner of hospitality and technology.