May 18, 2021

How 5 fast casual restaurants used tech to adapt to the pandemic

Written By
Ryan Wuerch

Digital technology and the use of the internet have been impacting and changing personal and professional lives for decades, but some businesses and industries have evolved into the digital era more slowly than others. In the face of a global pandemic, though, it became clear: businesses ahead of the technology curve, across any industry, were able to pivot more quickly and adapt more readily than businesses that put off technology integrations and upgrades. Whether it was updating digital systems for stronger security, learning to video call via Zoom, or launching a new website or app, everyone had to increase their use and skills around tech in some way. The most obvious was the impact to restaurants — especially fast casual restaurants.

About 9 months into the pandemic, I moderated a Fast Casual panel with several leaders in the Quick Service Restaurant industry including Christine Specht of Cousins Subs, Tom Gordon of Slim Chickens, Michael Lastoria of &pizza, Mandy Shaw of Blaze Pizza, and G.J. Hart of Torchy’s Tacos. Throughout our hour-long conversation, we discussed the impact of the pandemic, the value of new technologies, and the importance of people in our businesses. 

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Tom Gordon, G.J. Hart, Michael Lastoria, Mandy Shaw and Christine Specht

Michael Lastoria, Co-Founder and CEO of &pizza, spoke on how important it is for a brand to evolve rapidly to meet the needs of the customer, especially during a crisis like a global pandemic: “We have to be incredibly dynamic. We have to all be significantly faster or [we] have to have digital in the DNA of the company… The digital shop is now as important, if not more important, than the physical shop.” In the same way, other QSR brands are leaning heavily on their new or updated technology to reach and serve their customers. Mandy Shaw, CEO of Blaze Pizza, also highlighted the importance of fast casual restaurants and other businesses adapting quickly: “You have to have the agility… you have to have highly cross-functional teams to make fast decisions and rapidly adopt new technologies… we call it 360-degree availability.” 

“The digital shop is now as important, if not more important, than the physical shop.” – Michael Lastoria, &pizza

Changes had to be made quickly for restaurants in March and April of 2020. With a virtually overnight shutdown of all dine-in experience, brands had to fast-track plans for digital customer engagement. Blaze Pizza, which saw 80% of their business come from dine-in customers before the pandemic has seen a 108% increase in their digital business over last year driven primarily by their ability to quickly shift operational and marketing efforts toward delivery, carry-out, and online ordering options to their customers. 

Other brands leaned on data they had been gathering and used technology systems already in place to push their digital strategy into hyperdrive. Christine Specht, CEO of Cousins Subs, explains that the POS system they had integrated across all stores several years ago enabled them to pivot within an incredibly short period of time. “Little did we know what a help [the POS system] would be during the pandemic… it allowed us to do things and move very quickly… in about a 48-hour timeframe, my team got together and launched curbside pickup.” 

The questions on the minds of consumers and business owners now are: How much of this innovation in serving the customer will continue once we go back to “normal?” Will the convenience of online ordering and curbside pickup still exist when dine-in is an option again? How many businesses will go back to the way things were before the pandemic and what growth will be “lost” as a result? For G.J. Hart, CEO of Torchy’s Tacos, the pandemic meant fast tracking some long-term goals he had set when he first took the job. “We had made a strategic decision here at Torchy’s where I felt the business was going to change dramatically over time to where it would be 50% off premise and 50% on premise. I thought it would be five years, but we didn’t know a pandemic was going to be what got us there today. The new normal is people want what they want when they want it – high quality. And we have to figure out a way to do that.” 

For others, the change sparked ideas for the future of the service industry overall. Slim Chickens already had an app to place online orders, but they also added other avenues to make pickup and ordering frictionless for customers. Tom Gordon Co-founder and CEO of Slim Chicken elaborated, “We put spots in our restaurant parking lots where you could just pull up and make an order with an order taker wearing a mask. They would come out, take your order, and bring the food out to you. I don’t think any of that goes away… I told my entire team that I don’t expect to go back to just drive-in and eat-in for probably the rest of our careers.” 

Fast casual restaurants and other dining needed to make changes to serve customers who were no longer willing or able to come in person and eat or get takeout. They also had to adapt the way they interacted with the employees who take orders and make the food. Creating a strategy that will be successful for people on both sides of the counter is vital to their success. A final grounded quote on the importance of adapting with a perspective beyond the bottom line or the customer from G.J Hart of Torchy’s Tacos: “At the end of the day, we serve food. We are in the restaurant business. We need to do that at the highest level that we can. And the only way to do that is through people.” I couldn’t agree more. 

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