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Brita Rosenheim named by Business Insider as tech power player for restaurant industry

Nov 2021

Restaurants can be slow to adapt to new technologies, as transitioning is expensive and can be complex. The tech might also seem impersonal — like the antithesis of hospitality. But those trends are changing quickly, in part because of the pandemic, which proved that the most agile and digital-ready brands will survive.

With our inaugural list of restaurant-tech power players, Insider is giving the nod to the innovative industry leaders who are helping restaurants evolve and compete in the on-demand economy.

These power players are innovating in hiring, automation, online ordering, ghost kitchens, personalized marketing, and virtual brands. Most important, they are not running from change but facing it head-on.

"Those who understand this digital disruption will be better positioned to embrace the innovation that consumers are demanding. Those who resist will surely be left behind," the industry veterans Meredith Sandland and Carl Orsbourn — among the power players on the list — wrote in their new book, "Delivering the Digital Restaurant."

Insider's Retail team selected the recipients based on nominations and our deep reporting on players in food and restaurant tech.

Noah Glass, CEO of Olo Since launching Olo in 2005, Noah Glass has been preparing for "digital entirety," or the moment when every restaurant transaction is digital. When that day comes, Olo is poised to be the engine powering a large chunk of those digital orders.

Glass is a food-tech veteran who saw a need to solve major pain points for restaurant owners years ago amid a fast-growing e-commerce economy. The company's open platform marries restaurants with more than 100 of Olo's technology partners, including point-of-sale systems and delivery apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash.

Olo's digital ordering tools cover all types of transactions, including delivery, drive-thru, table service, and takeout. The direct-to-consumer ordering services also help restaurants keep consumer data and reduce third-party delivery fees. Glass has been strategic by pursuing partnerships with well-capitalized brands including Shake Shack, Wingstop, and Cheesecake Factory.

Success over the years allowed Glass to take Olo public this year. In October, Olo bought a missing piece of its platform when it acquired Wisely, a customer-engagement platform. Glass said Olo's services helped forward-looking restaurants "stay afloat" and "compete in the on-demand world." Krystle Mobayeni, CEO of BentoBox Knowing that restaurateurs are not technologists, Krystle Mobayeni founded BentoBox in 2013 to help restaurants develop a digital storefront that matched their in-store hospitality standards. Mobayeni often describes BentoBox as the "digital front door for restaurants," as its services include website design and online-ordering and marketing tools. BentoBox works with more than 7,500 restaurant concepts across 14,000 locations.

Mobayeni's prime objective is ensuring that restaurants keep profits and retain valuable customer data. BentoBox's clients include restaurants run by the king of hospitality himself, Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer. BentoBox added a zero-commission online-ordering platform in five days in March 2020. Mobayeni also added a "COVID Relief Fund" option to the online-ordering system that allowed diners to add $2 to their orders to raise money to support restaurants across the country. The fund raised more than $733,000.

Perhaps the most significant sign of Mobayeni's success is the payments company Fiserv's acquisition of BentoBox in October. The combination should elevate BentoBox's profile and restaurant customers.

Brita Rosenheim, partner at Culterra Capital If you're a restaurant-tech geek, no one delivers a more mouth-watering pie chart than Brita Rosenheim. The food-tech expert is a partner at the advisory firm Culterra Capital and a lead partner at Portfolia Food & Agtech Fund, which invests in food and agriculture technologies.

Since 2012, Rosenheim has been tracking the key players in food tech. With her so-called Restaurant Tech Ecosystem map — part pie chart, part heat map — she tracks dozens of tech companies along the food supply chain, from startups like the conversational voice-ordering system Valyant AI to the restaurant-review site Yelp.

Rosenheim's chart grows each year as she adds emerging companies disrupting the food industry, like ghost-kitchen operators and robotics firms. Categories include inventory management, food waste, point-of-sale systems, third-party delivery, online ordering, and ​​customer-relationship-management solutions.

Rosenheim's insight makes her a go-to resource for anyone trying to understand the food-tech landscape.

"I believe some of the most impactful tech solutions for the future will be those that help move restaurant concepts beyond their traditional four walls and closer to the real digitization necessary to sustain financial viability in our new shared reality," she told Insider. Alex Canter, CEO of Ordermark/Nextbite Alex Canter's family founded the iconic Canter's Deli in Los Angeles in 1931. But his contemporaries don't know him for hawking pastrami sandwiches and matzo-ball soup. The 28-year-old is a rising star known for saving restaurants from a tangled web of third-party delivery tablets through the tech platform Ordermark.

He founded Ordermark in 2017 to streamline delivery and online orders for Canter's Deli using a single tablet and printer. Ordermark now aggregates digital orders for thousands of restaurants in the US, including some Papa John's, Denny's, and Popeyes restaurants. But Canter didn't stop innovating with Ordermark. In 2019, the fourth-generation restaurateur founded Nextbite, which helps restaurants optimize their kitchens and increase sales by licensing one or more of Nextbite's 17 delivery-only brands, including HotBox by Wiz Khalifa and George Lopez Tacos. "We provide a turnkey way to participate in this growing off-premise market by delivering a variety of menus, marketing and data, and even celeb brands to help make restaurants successful," Canter said. "This is especially valuable for mom-and-pop restaurants because they don't have the resources to be able to do this on their own."

Nicole West, vice president of digital strategy and product management at Chipotle In 2018, Chipotle devised a plan to give consumers a frictionless ordering experience under new CEO Brian Niccol. He assembled a team to make Chipotle digitally visible that included Nicole West, a vice president of digital strategy and product management.

West has helped turn Chipotle into a digital powerhouse. While many chains were caught flat-footed when the pandemic forced them to focus on delivery and takeout orders, Chipotle was prepared. Under West, Chipotle has introduced AI-powered voice assistants for phone orders, concierge bots on Facebook Messenger, and an app designed to replicate the in-restaurant experience. The app allows for group orders and provides a flexible rewards-exchange program and customization like splitting protein choices and tailoring the amount of an ingredient you want.

In Chipotle's latest quarter, digital sales represented 42.8% of total sales, up from 11.2% for the same period in 2018. Chipotle has more than doubled its rewards members, to 24.5 million, since the start of the pandemic. "Chipotle is a digital innovator with a people-first mentality," West said. "We'll continue to utilize technology to increase speed and delight our guests and team members at every turn." Ilir Sela, CEO of Slice Ilir Sela, a longtime champion of mom-and-pop pizzerias around the US, founded Slice more than a decade ago to give operators the digital tools to run their e-commerce business and better compete with tech-supported giants like Domino's.

Slice handles everything from online orders to digital marketing for pizzerias. The pandemic shed light on Slice's value to independent pizzerias, many of which still rely on phone orders. "The pandemic took the value of and need for Slice's mission and business model to a completely different level. Digitization and automation have become critical. We added over 5,000 independent pizzerias to our network since the pandemic hit," Sela said, adding that Slice now works with 17,000 pizzeria partners.

Slice also introduced services to help restaurants build digital relationships with customers. This year it rolled out a point-of-sale system and a loyalty program to help restaurants capture data so they can personalize their marketing to a customer's buying habits. "Restaurants can no longer skate by in the analog world," Sela said. "The pandemic has shifted consumer behavior, making digital ordering the go-to. It's not just millennials that expect smarter, faster service anymore — it's everyone. And if restaurants don't adapt, they won't survive." Zach Goldstein, CEO of Thanx Data might not an exciting topic for most people, but it is for Zach Goldstein, the founder and CEO of Thanx, which provides data-driven marketing tools for restaurants to build lasting digital relationships with guests.

He was touting the advantages of "first-party" digital ordering long before the pandemic shed light on the risks of working with third-party delivery companies that charge hefty commission fees and don't share consumer data.Thanx goes beyond modern loyalty programs, which capture data through QR codes or restaurant apps, and integrates with online-ordering and point-of-sale food-tech giants like Olo and Toast to capture in-store purchasing behaviors through credit-card transactions. Thanx's artificial-intelligence-powered software ingests the data to create a holistic view of customers, allowing clients such as Pincho, Tocaya Organica, Velvet Taco, and Hopdoddy to create personalized marketing campaigns.

"Digital ordering is becoming table stakes, and the next wave of winners will be defined by their capture and use of data," Goldstein said. "A sound digital strategy used to be a 'nice to have' for restaurants; now it's mission-critical." Carl Orsbourn and Meredith Sandland, authors of "Delivering the Digital Restaurant"

Meredith and Carl wrote and published "Delivering the Digital Restaurant," a survival guide for restaurant owners looking to thrive in a digital economy. Orsbourn, a consultant and former head of retail for the convenience-store chain AmPm, and Sandland, a former chief development officer at Taco Bell, previously worked together at the ghost-kitchen startup Kitchen United. The retail and restaurant veterans brought their decades of experience in dealing with evolving consumer demands to the book.

The restaurant industry was forced to adopt new technologies quickly during the pandemic. Now that the crash course is over, the book aims to give restaurant owners the deep insights they need to make sound choices in the future. Each chapter contains a rich history and authoritative analysis of pertinent topics like ghost kitchens, delivery apps, virtual brands, customer retention, and loyalty programs. "As life returns to normal, it's a great time for restaurants to step back, consider the trends, and develop holistic strategies to support the modern consumer," the authors told Insider. Vivian Wang, CEO of Landed In the battle to find and hire quality workers, restaurants began relying on digital tools like Landed to get a leg up. Led by CEO Vivian Wang, Landed automates the recruiting process for restaurants. "All managers need to do is the actual interview and make the hiring decision," Wang told Insider earlier this year. To shorten the application-review process, Landed sets up custom screening questions for job candidates. Job seekers can also upload video profiles. Landed says it evaluates applicants on more than 50 data points, such as communication skills, body language, and work experience, to determine the best fit for restaurant jobs.

Landed works with Chick-fil-A, Taco Bell, Applebee's, and Red Robin franchise owners. The Landed app recently helped Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group hire new workers every week for each of its 20 Red Robin restaurants, including managers. "Landed has given Red Robin an edge by enabling us to identify the best-fit candidates, engage with them very quickly, and be the first restaurant to get them in for an interview. We are thrilled with the results," said Zach Bodnarchuk, the talent-acquisition manager for the restaurant company.

Wang said that on average managers spent about 25% less time on hiring. But Landed said the tool is not just for managers, as the pandemic had highlighted the importance of giving workers better job-discovery tools and educational resources. "We built our platform for the 2.7 billion hourly workers worldwide: for work, financial health, and educational growth," she said. Sam Nazarian, CEO of C3 The nightclub and hotel mogul Sam Nazarian founded the lifestyle company SBE in 2002 to launch award-winning hotels, residences, restaurants, and nightclubs. Over the past year, Nazarian has been disrupting the restaurant sector with his hybrid ghost-kitchen/virtual-brand company C3, which stands for Creating Culinary Communities.

A division of SBE, C3 brings chef-driven concepts to life through ghost kitchens and other shared-kitchen spaces like apartment buildings. C3's portfolio includes more than 40 virtual homespun brands and brick-and-mortar concepts such as Sam's Crispy Chicken, Krispy Rice, Umami Burger, and Plant Nation. Nazarian's innovation doesn't stop there. Earlier this year he partnered with the online-ordering company Lunchbox to create an anti-Grubhub marketplace to promote C3's brands. The app, dubbed Citizens Go, is designed for restaurants that want to coexist in a community with fewer competitors and avoid paying third-party commission rates. Last month, C3 opened its first virtual food hall, Citizens New York. It's another example of Nazarian's goal of democratizing the dining experience for people looking to access meals from world-class chefs. Nabeel Alamgir, CEO of Lunchbox Nabeel Alamgir doesn't mince words discussing the disruption of third-party delivery apps. He doesn't like their business practices — including charging restaurants high commission fees — and their unwillingness to share consumer data. That's why in 2019 Alamgir cofounded Lunchbox, designed to help restaurants meet consumer demand for frictionless ordering options. Lunchbox also helps restaurants have direct digital relationships with consumers that can result in more loyalty, more frequent visits, and higher sales.

"Lunchbox was built by restaurateurs for restaurateurs," said Alamgir, a former casual-dining marketer. To help restaurants reduce their dependence on delivery apps, Alamgir created an anti-Grubhub marketplace for clients to promote their brands. And this summer he bought the commission-free marketplace Spread, which he called an "absolute game-changer" in his quest to keep restaurant profits in-house.

In the past year, restaurants using Lunchbox saw a 30% increase in sales, he said. Restaurants using its anti-Grubhub marketplace saw 78% higher checks on average, he added. "Guests really want to order directly and support their favorite restaurants — but the technology has to be in place to incentivize them to place that first order and stick around," he said. Adam Brotman, CEO of Brightloom Adam Brotman calls consumer data "digital gold" for chains. He's been a leader in such a digital gold rush for years, dating back to when he was Starbucks' chief digital officer. Brotman helped build Starbucks' "digital flywheel," pioneering technology that made the chain's app one of the most envied in the industry by integrating loyalty, ordering, and payment platforms.

Brightloom uses transaction data to create personalized consumer-marketing campaigns for restaurants. Brightloom says its predictive modeling technology can help a restaurant client like Jamba make a normal customer a regular visitor while convincing a lapsed customer to come back. Communication is typically done through email. "We help brands analyze past customer behavior to glean insights into their digital-customer base and predict what their customers will do next," Brotman said.

As restaurants face more unexpected disruptions in the next 10 years, like the pandemic, attracting loyal customers will be more critical than ever, Brotman said. "The challenge now is to understand what data is most valuable and how to make it actionable," he said. Brightloom's Customer Growth Platform debuted in early 2021 and is already making a difference at brands like Jamba and El Pollo Loco, it said. Brightloom-powered campaigns have on average increased brands' revenue per customer by 5.5%, the company said. Juan Higueros, Fangwei Li, John Ha, cofounders of Bear Robotics They cofounded Bear Robotics in 2017 after seeing a need for automated solutions for repetitive tasks of staff members in restaurants.

Ha witnessed the need firsthand when he owned a Korean full-service restaurant. In 2018, the trio debuted Penny, an autonomous food runner designed to navigate dining rooms and help servers deliver meals and clear tables.

In the early days, most of the robot adoption was abroad. More than 3,000 Penny robots have been deployed in about 1,000 locations in Japan and Korea. But recent labor challenges in the US have spurred the adoption of the technology. Higueros said its robots, rebranded in 2020 as Servi, would be in more than 200 locations in the US before the end of the year, with some sites using up to three robots.

One of its biggest clients to date is Chili's, which plans to launch Servi in 10 locations in California, Texas, and Florida. Other hospitality companies and chains adopting Servi robots include Denny's, Curry Up Now, Sergio's Cuban Restaurants, and the Toyota Center, the home of the Houston Rockets. "At Bear Robotics, we're constantly striving to evolve with the industry, but in the last couple years, it seems more like the industry is looking to us," Higueros said. Stacy Peterson, executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer of Wingstop

Since joining Wingstop in September 2013, Stacy Peterson has elevated the brand's digital game through various strategic initiatives. She's added ordering via Twitter, Facebook Messenger, and SMS texting, and she led the relaunch of Wingstop's website and app.

By investing in native delivery through Wingstop's branded channels, Wingstop retains consumer data and saves money because it pays only for last-mile delivery. These digital initiatives helped Wingstop transition when it had to close restaurants for in-person dining during the pandemic. Over the next five years, Wingstop plans to invest $40 million to $50 million in its tech stack, as Peterson's end game is to digitize every Wingstop order. So far, she's on track: In Wingstop's latest quarter, digital sales accounted for 61.6% of total sales, up from 33.5% in 2019. "The longer the pandemic continues, the more deeply encoded these preferences will become," she told Insider. "It will be a slow return, and for that reason, being able to meet the consumer where they are is more important than ever before." Alex Beltrani, CEO of Tattle Alex Beltrani's parents used paper comment cards for customer feedback when they ran a continental-style full-service restaurant in the 1980s. Years later, after college, Beltrani noticed the brewery he was working at used the same antiquated system during the age of Yelp. Seeing an opportunity to automate the old-fashioned feedback system, he founded Tattle in 2015. Tattle's open platform integrates with online-ordering and loyalty programs such as Olo and Punchh, allowing it to collect guest feedback after any type of purchase. Customers can respond to up to 50 survey questions covering everything from order accuracy to food quality.

Surveys are tailored to each restaurant. For example, the build-your-own-pizza chain Blaze Pizza looks for accuracy in categories including toppings, finishes, and adherence to dietary or allergy requests. Tattle uses artificial intelligence to tally detailed feedback scores, helping general managers address operational or customer-service issues in real time. Besides Blaze, Tattle works with MOD Pizza and restaurants owned by the celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who's also an early investor in the platform.

Beltrani likened Tattle's acute customer insights to "Moneyball" for restaurant operators. "Ultimately, our data has created a strategy by which operators can now make deeply informed decisions with the understanding of how these operational decisions will ultimately impact both guest satisfaction and their bottom-line revenue," he told Insider. Jonathan Grimm, Aman Narang, Steve Fredette, cofounders of Toast Steve Fredette, Aman Narang, and Jonathan Grimm founded the payments provider Toast in 2012 to help restaurants grow their business.

It says its easy-to-use tablets and handheld ordering devices are found in 43,000 restaurants across the US, up from 19,891 locations in June 2019. During the pandemic, the company expanded its services to include affordable delivery solutions and contactless payment options. Toast says that nearly 25,000 restaurants adopted its new contactless technologies in 2020 and that from March to December of that year it processed about 50 million guest orders through its digital ordering platform.

Toast has projected that its addressable market opportunity in the US is $15 billion. Like many others on this list, the cofounders of Toast want to save restaurants from fees that delivery aggregators charge. Toast estimates that a restaurant processing $5,000 in delivery orders through its delivery program could save about $600 a month. It says all guest data is captured and given to restaurant owners. "We will continue to support our customers as they transition to a more technology-focused dining experience to meet new guest expectations," Narang said. Toast went public on the New York Stock Exchange on September 22. Steve Bigari, CEO of Synq3 The use of automated voice assistants in the restaurant industry was building momentum before the pandemic. Synq3, cofounded by Steve Bigari, a former McDonald's innovation executive, is a key player in the emerging voice-bot space.

The company uses speech-recognition technology to automate phone orders for restaurants such as Chipotle, MOD Pizza, Noodles & Company, and Applebee's. Led by Bigari, the AI-powered platform processed more than 23 million restaurant transactions as the COVID-19 pandemic forced restaurants to move to takeout services.

Synq3 says its tech can handle every aspect of the ordering process. "By rerouting orders to the SYNQ Voice system, our restaurant partners capture every order, increase upsells and empower their current employees to focus on delivering safe, convenient food for guests," the CEO said in a previous statement to Insider.

Bigari said Synq3 also became a solution to the hiring challenges that some restaurants experienced this year. "When you consider the post-pandemic labor crunch and the increased demand for takeout, restaurants simply can't keep up," Bigari said. "Conversational AI unlocks unlimited capacity." Next up for Synq3? "In 2022 we are returning to our roots and will be bringing conversational voice automation in drive-thru to the masses," Bigari told Insider. Mingming Zhang, head of data science at Wisely Mingming Zhang, the head of data science at Wisely, said her company supercharged restaurants' digital-transformation efforts. Wisely says it uses customer data to create a unified view of guests, helping restaurants tailor marketing to frequent customers. Noah Glass, Olo's founder and CEO, said it was important for his company to offer tools that help brands harness customer data. That's why Olo announced plans in late October to buy the customer-engagement platform Wisely in a deal valued at $187 million.

"Tailoring business decisions to your most valuable customers can lead to improved overall service and certainly helps brands deepen relationships with guests," she told Insider. "This ultimately can lead to enhanced top- and bottom-line performance." Olo, which went public earlier this year, said Wisely added a solution for restaurants that it never had before: strategic and tailored marketing tools. Zhang described sophisticated data-based marketing as the first step in truly knowing your customer. "We will see data and machine learning playing a bigger role" in the restaurant industry, she said. "The insights these solutions surface will help brands make smarter decisions by recommending the next best actions based on customer behaviors and interactions." Jordan Boesch, CEO of 7shifts This year, the labor shortage has forced restaurants to reduce operating hours, pay referral bonuses, and even increase wages to attract workers. At 7shifts, Jordan Boesch is taking a different approach to solving labor challenges by creating technology aimed at retention. The company helps workers directly communicate with management and rate shifts using their phones. Using machine learning, 7shifts makes suggestions to management on which front-of-house teams work best together to bolster sales. Boesch said the 7shifts engagement tool "keeps a pulse on a restaurant team to help predict and prevent turnover" and could alert managers to take action like sending "kudos" to workers. This approach impressed the hospitality guru Danny Meyer, whose growth fund, Enlightened Hospitality Investments, led a $21.5 million raise for 7shifts earlier this year. Boesch said 7shifts fully integrated with point-of-sale and payroll systems.

"We believe that open and deeply integrated platforms are going to be table stakes, and we want restaurants to see 7shifts as the HR system of record," he said.

Since May, 7shifts has added more than 900 restaurants a month to its clientele, it says. Of the 23,000 restaurants using 7shifts' technology, 75% are full-service restaurants, and the rest are quick-service establishments. Less than 1% of 7shifts' customers have closed since the onset of the pandemic, it says. Vladik Rikhter, CEO of Zenput ZenputRestaurants are turning to QR codes, self-serve kiosks, and robots to assist with ordering and bussing tables during the labor shortage. But Zenput's CEO and cofounder, Vladik Rikhter, believes that technology can help restaurants with labor challenges in other ways. The San Francisco company says its cloud-based software is used by 60,000 restaurant locations, including Domino's Pizza, Chipotle, Five Guys, Taco Bell, Popeyes, P.F. Chang's, and Sweetgreen, to audit operations remotely. Field managers can track compliance at multiple stores and use data to identify opportunities for improvement. Zenput helps ensure that stores are meeting a chain's standards for food safety or executing consistently on the rollout of a new menu item. A virtual checklist helps managers view operations at stores in real time. This kind of automation boosts "productivity of field and store employees so more can be accomplished even with fewer people on a shift," Rikhter said. "We've made some great strides but are just beginning to unlock the potential of applying technology in creative ways to automate how work gets done so operators can scale their businesses with leaner teams." Corey Manicone, senior vice president of strategy for Kitchen United and cofounder of Zuul The ghost-kitchen space is becoming increasingly crowded. But Corey Manicone, the founder of Zuul, gets a nod for being behind one of the first ghost kitchens to conquer the complex New York City market.

Zuul's first-mover status in New York along with its innovative tech stack prompted the ghost-kitchen pioneer Kitchen United to buy the company in early October. The deal is the first major consolidation move in a fast-growing sector, with rivals such as CloudKitchens, Reef Technology, Ghost Kitchen Brands, and All Day Kitchens offering plenty to compete against.

What sets Zuul apart is its software enabling operators to create their own virtual food halls so customers can bundle orders from multiple brands. Zuul's software also powers native online ordering and batched food deliveries. Manicone's leadership and the addition of Zuul's "cutting-edge" technology "made strategic sense," Kitchen United CEO Michael Montagano said at the time of the deal.

Zuul is building a business for an industry that will look "significantly different" in 10 years. "Off-premise will make up the majority of operators' revenue, and chances are it will be prepared in a facility designed and optimized specifically for delivery and pick-up, likely a Kitchen United," he told Insider. Allison Page, chief product officer of SevenRooms Allison Page is one of the founders of SevenRooms, a 10-year-old hospitality-management platform developed to give restaurant operators the tools needed to own their guest data. As chief product officer, Page is the visionary behind the platform's key tools for reservations, waitlist and table management, online ordering, review aggregation, and marketing automation. The Amazon-backed company wants to give restaurant managers insights including who their biggest spenders, best tippers, and brand advocates are.

"Restaurants that continue to rely solely on third-party platforms will be unable to compete in this new landscape," Page told Insider. Under her direction, SevenRooms also directly integrates with more than 50 point-of-sale systems, helping restaurants connect consumer profiles to spend data. During the pandemic, SevenRooms launched direct online ordering for delivery and pick-up orders. The e-commerce addition makes SevenRooms "the most complete platform available on the market today," the company said.

"We're at the early stages of a data revolution in the restaurant industry, and over the next 10 years we'll watch it shape every facet of hospitality," Page told Insider. "In the future, we expect that data will play a critical role in personalizing every touchpoint for every diner — both on-premise and off-premise — in real time." Chris Webb, CEO of ChowNow Chris Webb cofounded the online-ordering tool ChowNow in 2011, years before the delivery wars between Grubhub, DoorDash, and Uber Eats.

ChowNow's mission has always been clear: help local restaurants sustainably grow their delivery and takeout business without charging them profit-crippling fees. ChowNow, based in Los Angeles, powers direct online ordering for restaurants and provides the industry a commission-free marketplace for digital orders. During the pandemic, Webb created an annual membership program that offers discounts for diners and "up-front cash flow" for restaurants.

In October, ChowNow debuted the Order Better Network, a one-stop solution for restaurants seeking orders through high-profile sites like Google, Yelp, OpenTable, and Snapchat. Instead of creating online-ordering relationships with each platform, ChowNow handles all the integration, Webb said. Restaurants are charged 12% per transaction received via the Order Better Network, which is separate from ChowNow's online-ordering platform.

ChowNow charges restaurants a monthly fee for its base commission-free ChowNow Direct online-ordering product that ranges from $129 to $199 per month per location. ChowNow says it has increased its client roster to 20,000 restaurants from 13,000 since the start of the pandemic. Andy Rebhun, vice president and digital officer of El Pollo Loco The pandemic forced restaurants to quickly address the need for contactless ordering. But El Pollo Loco went beyond adapting and innovated under Andy Rebhun, the chain's digital officer and vice president.

The fast-food chicken chain implemented GPS-enabled curbside pickup, revamped its loyalty program, and became the first major fast-food chain in the US to test drone delivery at stores in its base of Southern California.

Location technology for curbside pickup means that calling the store when you park isn't unnecessary. The tech is designed to notify the store when you've arrived, making for a speedy hand-off.

In 2020, El Pollo Loco's delivery sales increased by 250%, but third-party delivery fees cut into profits — so Rebhun looked to the skies and partnered this year with the drone operator Flytrex. El Pollo Loco said that the pilot drone program had reduced delivery costs at test stores by nearly 30% and that food was delivered 25 to 30 minutes faster than the traditional delivery apps. Expect drones to hit Texas next, he said. Rebhun said the industry is ripe for innovation, especially when it comes to mobile ordering, virtual restaurants, and ghost kitchens. "Artificial intelligence will also play a much larger role in customer, digital, and pricing decision-making," he said. Morgan Flatley, global chief marketing officer of McDonald's Since coming to McDonald's in 2017, Morgan Flatley, who was promoted to global chief marketing officer on November 1, has helped it find its "brand voice" again by putting digital, data, and insights at the heart of all marketing programs. One of her most significant contributions happened last year when she launched the Travis Scott meal promotion, the first under McDonald's Famous Orders program. Scott's meal — a $6 combo of a Quarter Pounder, medium fries, barbecue sauce for dipping, and a Sprite — was so popular that many restaurants ran out of ingredients.

Flatley, then McDonald's US chief marketing officer, kept the momentum going. Other Famous Orders followed, including the J Balvin meal, the BTS meal, and the Saweetie meal. (The latter had an in-app promotion where those ordering from the revamped McDonald's app would be eligible to win two limited-edition handbags from one of Saweetie's favorite designers.) In July, CEO Chris Kempczinski said the BTS meal had led to record-breaking levels of social engagement at McDonald's.

"Restaurants that provide the most anticipated, easy, and frictionless experiences that are also the most friendly, will win visits," Flatley said. Raj Anbalagan, senior vice president of consumer systems and technology innovation at Panera Bread Restaurant-tech chiefs worked overtime last year to accelerate digital initiatives to accommodate the shift to contactless ordering during lockdowns. At Panera Bread, Raj Anbalagan has been pushing the innovation envelope for years. He helped the brand launch its Panera 2.0 digital-ordering initiative in 2014 that included adding kiosks in the dining room and mobile orders scheduled through the chain's app.

In April 2020, when some Americans were having trouble finding grocery staples as others bought them in bulk, Anbalagan quickly launched Panera Grocery, which let people order milk, bread, and fresh produce from Panera. The chain also introduced curbside pickup with geofencing technology that enabled customers to get their takeout order without leaving their car.

Anbalagan said Panera cultivated a culture of continuous innovation, which often means it acts as an agile startup. "This allows us to anticipate the trends and behavior shifts to best meet our customer needs," he told Insider. "Our openness and fearlessness to regular experimentation, sometimes just to learn, is key to understanding and anticipating shifting behaviors and trends." Shyam Rao, CEO of Punchh Shyam Rao is the cofounder and CEO of the customer-loyalty platform Punchh, named after the old-fashioned restaurant loyalty punch cards. But make no mistake: Rao's Punchh is not antiquated. Like others on this list, Rao created his company because he believes one-on-one customer engagement is the key to long-term success for restaurants.

More than 200 merchants and restaurant chains such as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Denny's, TGI Fridays, and Tropical Smoothie Cafe work with Punchh and rely on its artificial-intelligence-powered software to build lasting digital relationships with customers. Rao said modern loyalty programs like Punchh are crucial to a seamless guest experience and help restaurants retain customers, which is much more cost-effective than acquiring them.

Taco Bell's new Punchh-powered loyalty program, for example, gives additional perks to top spenders, encouraging customers to order through Taco Bell's branded channels more frequently. Punchh also provides data to tailor marketing based on a customer's buying habits, meaning consumers receive relevant offers in real time; Rao described it as "a recipe for continued engagement."

In April, the restaurant-software company PAR Technology announced plans to buy Punchh in a stock-and-cash deal valued at $500 million. Brandon Barton, CEO of Bite Bite's mission is to elevate hospitality by offering solutions geared toward fast-casual and fast-food restaurants such as Chick-fil-A, Taco John's, and Fazoli's. Brandon Barton, a tech entrepreneur who previously worked at Resy and Union Square Hospitality Group, has brought his hospitality experience to Bite. He joined as its chief operating officer in May 2018 and became the CEO in February 2019.

"We're unifying the guest experience through true omnichannel ordering, from drive-thru to kiosks to apps," he told Insider. Bite offers a variety of digital ordering solutions — including self-ordering kiosks and contactless ordering using QR codes — for restaurants, ghost-kitchen operators, and food halls. Bite has found itself helping restaurants "close the significant labor gap in the industry by replacing low-level work with a better guest experience via a device," Barton said. Bite's software also makes personalized suggestions to guests while they're ordering, resulting in higher average checks, it says.

The pandemic forced restaurants to innovate in ways they'd never imagined, and Barton predicted that would continue over the next 10 years. "This means that many of the relationships that restaurants have with guests will be entirely digital," he said.


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