Six Juicy Tidbits From FARE

"We interrupt this food fight for some education"

Published in CSP Daily News

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine of "Restaurant: Impossible"

GRAPEVINE, Texas -- The competition between foodservice channels is escalating quickly, but that didn't stop restaurateurs from meeting Monday with the enemy. Here's a half-dozen lessons from the truce.

The battle for share of stomach will resume shortly, but the combatants agreed to put down their spatulas this week for a peace summit on what they have in common. Called FARE, the event drew about 700 managers and menu planners from every channel of grab-and-go foodservice, from quick-service restaurants to fast-casual concepts, convenience stores, travel concessions, hospital cafes and college food shops. Not a watermelon seed was spat in anger, with participants calmly considering how peers in other worlds deal with problems and opportunities found in every quadrant of the foodservice universe.

Indeed, the day ended with a culinary competition among four teams, each consisting of representatives from two channels. It was as if the Klingons decided to pull on the same side as the Romulans in the company-picnic tug-of-war.

The mind melding paid a dividend for attendees of the event, which is being presented by CSP Business Media's CSP, Convenience Store Products, Restaurant Business and FoodService Director magazines.

Here are six juicy tidbits from Day One of FARE:

1. Traditional loyalty programs are losing power. "Loyalty feels a lot like bribery," a desperate attempt to buy visits to a concept with no other obvious draws, said Jeff Loeb, CIO of the Famous Dave's casual chain. "Especially when we get to the educated consumer, loyalty programs don't work that well anymore."

2. Recalculating customers' lifetime value. Keynoter Robert Irvine, a.k.a. the celebrity chef and star of the cable hit "Restaurant: Impossible," pegged the value of a lost restaurant customer at $6,800.

Even worse, a restaurant can no longer gauge the worth of customers merely in terms of the dollars they'll spend, suggested Famous Dave's Loeb.

"It might not be the lifetime value [of what they spend] that makes them worth more," he explained. "It may be their social reach. How many followers do they have?" If they convince others to visit, they can contribute far more to the topline than what they spend themselves.

3. An often-overlooked ick. Pagers can be one of the dirtiest things in a restaurant because they're frequently handled and very rarely cleaned, said a participant in a panel presentation on technology. However, he acknowledged that his company is developing a phone-based system that supplants the traditional coaster-type buzzer.

4. Tablets as a buffer against higher wages… With several states hiking their minimum wage, Famous Dave's intends to temper the impact by replacing servers' order pads with handheld tablets. Orders are wirelessly relayed to the kitchen, sparing the waiters and waitresses considerable footsteps. "We're now able to have our servers handle six, eight, 10 tables instead of three or four," said Loeb. And "the tables are turning quicker because we're cutting five or 10 minutes out of the process."

5. …And surprising benefits from a KDS. At the receiving end of that tablet-entered order is the digital display monitor above the cooking line. Once the kitchen display system is fully deployed, the ordering system will be completely paperless. "That's going to save us $200,000 because there are no printers or paper, [and] printers are one of the first things that break," said Loeb.

He also cited the real possibility of being able to contact guests who waited a long time for their orders to be served; the info, he pointed out, will all be collected by the KDS. Before the customer can post a bad review on Yelp, he or she might receive an apology from the manager and a coupon useable on a return visit.

6. Look at the Hispanic market this way. "There are nearly twice as many Hispanics in the U.S. as there are Canadians in Canada," said keynote speaker Pete Filaci, vice president of Univision's Strategy and Insights Group.

FARE runs through Wednesday. Follow the event as it unfolds on Twitter, #FARE14.

Peter Romeo is vice president and editorial director of Restaurant Business magazine.