By Andy Huang
From the COVID-19 pandemic to staff shortages and supply chain issues, it has been a rough couple of years for the hospitality industry. Restaurateurs looking to expand operations may be hesitant — but with the help of one key ingredient, this dream can become a reality.
At seafood chain The Captain’s Boil, we primarily catered to dine-in customers and large parties before the pandemic. As a build-your-own family-style restaurant, people came for the experience — the gloves, the bibs, the scissors, and the camaraderie. The pandemic changed all that and much more. Dine-in was no longer an option, and we had to pivot our business model to a focus on takeout and delivery.
Fortunately, we’re one of the lucky ones.
We’ve continued to grow, though it hasn’t always been easy. The Captain’s Boil recently expanded operations into the U.S., opening our first operation in Atlanta at the start of the year. Not only that, we have plans to open three more locations in the region. This growth would not have been possible without the help of one essential tool: technology.
When the pandemic first hit, we were forced to pause our expansion plans. Eventually, we saw that we had no choice but to adapt, so we decided to move forward with our plans. Our neighbours down south were returning to restaurants in droves which posed a prime business opportunity, but before setting our sights on a U.S. expansion, we had to assess what was working at home.
There are many different aspects of business that restaurant operators need to consider as part of an expansion strategy, but let’s focus on technology today. Before looking to expand your restaurant, you must evaluate your current technology. Through trial and error, I’ve found that there are a few key pieces you should have in place.
For a multi-site restaurant operator, efficiency is the name of the game.
Once upon a time at The Captain’s Boil, we used multiple POS systems throughout the franchise. We needed a robust platform to keep up with our growth and streamline operations.
But, if you’re planning an expansion, you would be wise to have a cloud-based POS system in place. Why? An integrated system enables you to gather and combine information across all locations into a single online platform, and the benefits can’t be understated. Previously, it took us eight hours to draft a single report using several online spreadsheets. Now, the time it takes to gather and analyze information is dramatically reduced. If your restaurant has multiple locations, having access to centralized data is imperative to its success.
As a bonus, pivoting to an integrated system added strength to our delivery platforms and pick-up and takeout capabilities.
Even though in-person dining has well and truly returned, consumer demand for meal delivery hasn’t wavered. The food delivery app DoorDash recently reported a record number of people ordering from the app in the fourth quarter of 2021. Despite the pandemic’s fading threat, people’s pandemic purchase habits are sticking around. We’ve found this at The Captain’s Boil, too, with orders more skewed towards takeout than dine-in over the last several months.
Restaurant operators looking to grow must ask themselves if they have the right technology in place to support their business model, whether that’s dine-in, takeout, delivery, or a combination of all three. If not, implementing this technology must be the priority.
Having a POS with an extensive inventory management system is critical from a cost perspective. As inflation drives food prices to soaring heights, this is more important than ever before. At The Captain’s Boil, to help control our food costs, we use a platform that provides theoretical and actual costs. The theoretical cost calculates our food cost based on items sold. The actual cost reflects what we actually spent and accounts for circumstances such as imperfect portions, accidental waste, and more.
Inventory reports are also valuable to keep track of stock levels accurately. For instance, if we theoretically used 22 pounds of shrimp, but our inventory report only shows 16 pounds, then that’s six pounds of shrimp that’s unaccounted for. Why is this important? Operators that don’t pay attention to inventory are hemorrhaging money. Having a solid inventory management platform has allowed us to grow by saving us thousands of dollars, which we’ve put into other areas of the business instead.
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Don’t forget about the back of house
Invest in your kitchen technology. Before implementing a new kitchen display system (KDS) at The Captain’s Boil, we occasionally received complaints related to food delivery. Customers would receive their shrimp order, but the lobster that they ordered to go alongside it wasn’t delivered until, well, it was too late.
A good KDS will tell chefs when to cook each item so that the food is ready at the same time. It also helps manage heat levels, so food isn’t left sitting around and getting cold while a server waits for the rest of the order to be prepared. A robust KDS ultimately allows for consistency across the board, and, as the old adage goes — consistency is the key to success (especially when you’re looking to duplicate success across multiple locations).
Trial new tech
We’ve talked about what you should have in place before considering expansion, but what about add-ons that you’d like to implement?
While opening a new restaurant is probably not the time to experiment with an entirely new concept, it’s undoubtedly a great opportunity to add new technology that you don’t yet have in place, such as a loyalty program app. At The Captain’s Boil, we’re currently trialling a loyalty program in the U.S. with the intention of rolling it out in Canada. The preliminary results have been positive, and the loyalty program has been a great way to drive new business and help us gain traction — something to consider if you’re setting up shop in a new market.
Tech is the main ingredient for success
Ultimately, your restaurant technology systems serve as the backbone of your new business and the glue that holds everything together. Whether you’re a franchiser looking for continued growth or a small, independent business owner looking to add a new location, I encourage you to start within. Look at what technology is serving you, get rid of what’s not, and see where there’s room for improvement.
Scalable technology is key to getting the most out of your growth and will help operators of all sizes meet specific needs in each location. When all of the puzzle pieces are in place, success can be duplicated and achieved. The proof is in the pudding.
Andy Huang is the Chief Operating Officer at The Captain’s Boil, Canada’s leading Cajun seafood boil retailer with over 25 locations, many of which are owned and operated by independent franchisees.