Skift Restaurants Forum Preview: What Collaboration Means Now

The first Skift Restaurants Forum will be held on Monday, September 24 in New York City. Join us, our stellar lineup of speakers, and 250+ industry professionals to discuss the future of the industry. 

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For this first Restaurants Forum, we’ll be using our one-on-one interviews, TED-style talks, and mini-panels to explore many facets of the business of restaurants, but one theme that will dominate the day is “What Collaboration Means Now.” Read below for a sneak peek. 

If you want to understand the state of the modern restaurant, let us cut to the chase and look at the bottom line. The good news: spending at restaurants is up, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. It rose over the summer, setting a new record.

Of course, that’s a general figure that captures big brands and independents from across all price spectrums. And it doesn’t capture the complexity of consumer behaviors that, as we know, all restaurants need to truly understand who is coming through their doors.

The bad news: this is but a small bright spot in industry news this year, where headlines have been dominated by revelations of terrible behavior by once-leading figures at every level of the industry, from local celebs, to star chefs, independent restaurateurs, heads of restaurant groups, pizza delivery pitchmen, and more.

Many of us have behaved like professionals. Some of our heroes, as well as just our basic, everyday players, have definitely not.

As much as factors such as celebrity chefs, private equity investment, and an overall shift to legitimacy at all levels of restaurant work (not just the fancy places), the industry is still stuck in a system here: a mix of low pay, long hours, and stressful conditions. Demand for restaurants is high, but people aren’t exactly lining up around the block to pay higher prices in order to support better working conditions or higher-quality ingredients. The difference between a $10 burger and a $12 burger has never been pronounced commercially, let alone editorially.

But back to the good news. Plenty of restaurants, technology companies, designers, and other industry professionals are working to solve the smaller problems industry wide. By enacting new forward-thinking policies, procedures, and ideas, the future is visible, and it’s positive.

The key to all of this is collaboration. Not solely in the technical sense of partnerships and deals, but also in the all-encompassing, human-centric concepts of listening, idea-sharing, and iterating to move forward together.

This is not a call to get along by ignoring reality. In fact, it’s the opposite: a reminder to be realistic, working within industry constraints like time, money, laws, and regulations. There are real challenges to deal with, more reckoning of bad behavior, more challenging labor conditions.

Embrace Others’ Expertise

Collaboration 101: when you don’t know, ask. Nowhere is this more evident than some of the larger-scale tech partnerships we’ve seen recently. Grubhub’s recent acquisition of LevelUp (page 16) is the prime example. Grubhub noticed its own weaknesses (in this case specifically, loyalty, point of sale integration, and in-store pickup) and chose to acquire a company whose technical capabilities outpaced its own in those areas. The result? A stronger company with wider-reaching capabilities.

“I have been summarizing 2017 as the year of the restaurant technology pilot,” Mike Wior, CEO of restaurant tech company Omnivore told Skift Table in an interview earlier this year. “Looking forward to [this year], we’re starting to see it’s time for restaurants to pull the trigger and make decisions on these technologies.” In this case, it’s the small changes — the ones that can be quickly made and implemented — that start to have the biggest result. Ideas and the promise of what’s possible via restaurant technology are bright, shiny, and exciting. But we’ve moved past the point of simply getting excited about what is possible to the ability to make real changes with what we already have.

Remember Your People

This isn’t a kind time for workers, either. Under the current administration in the U.S., some restaurant employees are under constant threat by a hostile immigration authority. Minimum wages are rising, which is good news for low-wage workers, but tougher to swallow for smaller employers. At the same time, all costs of doing business — from real estate to food costs — are rising, making it tough for everyone.

But, plenty of businesses are doing great work in the space, from Shake Shack and its near-legendary employee retention programs to Union Square Hospitality Group’s “hospitality included” program — a way of eliminating tipping that’s encouraged other restaurants, from bigger groups to one-off independents, to change their own structures. (Of particular and important note, this is not the right solution for everyone, but is a solid example of creative problem-solving.)

Top companies have implemented robust employee training programs, leadership initiatives, and fair wage structures to help retain a happy and engaged workforce. More large restaurant brands, from Applebee’s to Panera Bread have agreed to end so-called “no-poaching” policies that greatly restricted where restaurant workers, often making little more than minimum wage, can work. These harmful policies often trapped workers in low-wage jobs, with little hope for advancement.

And, of course, no topic has been more top-of-mind than fair, non-discriminatory, and legal hiring and employment practices. Stories of harassment and bad behavior dominated headlines leading to lawsuits, high-profile splits, and even official state attorney general investigations. The first tangible results of the #metoo movement in restaurants are starting to come to light: revamped (or perhaps just enforced) policies from human resources departments, greater support for victims who speak out, and a renewed commitment to single out these bad actors.

Here’s where the healthy dose of reality comes in. It is unrealistic to expect a complete change overnight. But small changes, new ideas, creative implications, and, frankly, being a good and responsible human through all of this will affect true change.

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