Dirty Dough, Sweetberry, CKE Restaurants share automation tips for success

During this year’s RFIS summit in Miami, Florida, a session of industry experts and operators convened to discuss automation and how to leverage it for success in the changing restaurant and franchising space.

Panelists L-R: Jason Valentine, CSO, Botrista; Desi Saran, Founder and CEO, Sweetberry; Bennett Maxwell, Founder, Dirty Dough; Phil Crawford, CTO, CKE Restaurants.

This is part one of a two-part series.

A session of industry experts and operators convened to discuss automation and how to leverage it for success in the changing restaurant and franchising space during this year’s Restaurant Franchising and Innovation summit in Miami, Florida. Moderator Jason Valentine, chief strategy officer at Botrista guided the discussion with a series of questions for the panel, starting with asking about the value of automation as a whole.

Automation for predictability, scalability, consistency

“Automation … to me, it means scale,” answered Bennet Maxwell, owner at Dirty Dough. “Whatever we implement in one store, is it going to work for 1000 stores at scale? And if yes, let’s move towards that direction. If no, then there’s really no point in trying it. It’s all about scalability and predictability for me.”

It’s also about consistency, said Phil Crawford, CTO at CKE Restaurants (which owns Carl’s Jr. And Hardees QSR brands, with about 3000 domestic and 1000 international locations). Crawford said he thinks of automation in two categories, within the four walls and outside of them; both types of automation are important, but the unifying theme is to make the experience consistent for all guests. “Hospitality is kind of our overall mission right now,” he said.

While strategy may differ a bit based on your business size, everyone can start with the low hanging fruit, according to Desi Saran, founder and CEO at Sweetberry. “How do you use automation on a day-to-day basis in your operations?” Saran said. “I think the low hanging fruit — there are capabilities such as like reporting and finances right your POS system where your reporting system should kind of automate and predict what your sales will be tomorrow the next day compared to last year, right? It should take into account any type of deviances or variances such as weather.”

Making good decisions early is key here, Saran added. “I think in the beginning, it’s picking the right tech stack. And I think this applies to any size chain. Because once you get past five, 10, 15, 20 stores, it gets harder and harder to change your tech stack, as many of you guys probably know. So, I think in the beginning, really understanding the tech stack and picking the right tech vendors is super important.”

Maxwell added that even after growing large, automation and innovation go hand in hand; for instance, Dirty Dough has automated pre-sized cookie dough pucks to make it easy for teams at all locations to bake them and maintain a consistent experience for all guests, while also innovating to make worker lives easier.

Crawford spoke of the need, at scale, to make sure any automation works across the portfolio, citing marketing automation as a major area his two brands concentrate on. For success, try to build a tech stack that works consistently, but which is agile enough to adapt to changing times and emerging technologies, according to Crawford.

“It’s all about scalability and predictability for me.” — Bennett Maxwell, Founder at Dirty Dough. Image credit: Willie Lawless/Networld Media Group.

Tales from the Script: true stories of automation process, success, failure

With 90%+ franchisees, Crawford said his company starts by cultivating good relationships with franchisees, working closely with them to find out what makes the brand different from competition — including times when competitors are the first ones doing something sensible. Any new idea goes through rigorous testing at a laboratory location, and lots of ideas never make it past this multi-step process; successful innovations must be consistent with the overall brand experience.

“We cannot deviate and be the brand that we are,” Crawford explained. “I can throw in the gnarliest technology out there, but if it breaks the hospitality, if it breaks the ethos of the brand, then the technologies become a hindrance … to the overall system.”

Saran emphasized that any automation should free up employees to do other, more human-shaped work while doing the heavy lifting of automated components. “Does it replace human labor? I don’t think we’re there yet. I don’t think that should ever be the case,” he said.

“For example, marketing: I think any good restaurant chain out there should have a great marketing stack and your software should do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of placing customers in segments automatically emailing, or texting them, or sending out push messaging,” Saran added. “The software that we use does a great job of that. But that being said … we’re checking it, we’re tweaking it, we’re making it better. You need a human behind it to make sure that it’s doing its job right.”

“You need a human behind it to make sure that it’s doing its job right.” — Desi Saran, Founder and CEO, Sweetberry. Image credit: Willie Lawless/Networld Media Group.

Maxwell told the story of early attempts to make dough portions standard. Dirty Dough even hired a welder to make custom, experimental cookie dough molds and spent about $10,000 across several test iterations, but the system didn’t work well (the molds were too hard to clean). In a space where competitors were still measuring everything by hand, they went ahead and invested a few hundred thousand dollars in a machine that could automate the process entirely — and that was the answer, he said. As employee hiring and retention becomes a growing challenge, this initial investment paid another kind of surprising dividend in worker retention (where replacing and training workers is very expensive.

“The biggest change that we’ve made with labor and employee retention was getting the worst job and automating that,” Maxwell said. “You have a five-hour shift, you show up, and you have bins of cookie dough, and you’re just ever so slightly bent over grabbing the cookie dough, putting on a scale ’til it weighs just right, forming it by hand, rolling it on the table. So, when we took that process completely out, that was 30, 40 percent of the labor. But that was also where the big turnover is, because nobody wants to go do that for five hours. So, once we took that out, our employee retention really went through the roof, because now it’s very easy to put a cookie puck in the oven and serve it to a customer. I guess that’s more fun than sitting in the back and measuring cookie dough all day.”

While perservance can be important in your innovations, Crawford added, you also have to know when to quit. He shared the story of how CKE used its test kitchens to experiment with automated burger flippers — but the logistics and expense didn’t work out, showing a core lesson. “So we have our own failures. We lost a lot of wins, too. But it’s good to know when you fail to stop it. You don’t keep the bleeding continuing.”

It can be hard to pull the plug on an exciting concept, even on an emotional level, he continued. “I don’t think it’s a hard decision when you take your personality and your ego and check into the site and what’s best for the business,” he said. “It becomes an overall leadership discussion. But more importantly, we evaluate the employees’ input.. I can build, one of the greatest things in the world, but unless they can actually use it, and it benefits them from a morale standpoint, and overall, you know, tangibility, then it doesn’t make sense.”

Saran added that you have to get buy-in for any innovation from your franchisees, or it simply won’t work.

Networld Media Group will host several other food-service summits this year, including the Pizza Leadership Virtual Summit July 26, 2023, the Fast Casual Executive Summit Oct. 8-10 and #QSRNext Nov. 9, 2023.

Panel moderator Jason Valentine, Chief Strategy Officer, Botrista Technology. Image credit: Willie Lawless/Networld Media Group.

Daniel Brown is the editor of Digital Signage Today. He is an accomplished technology writer whose experience includes creating knowledge base content for a major university’s computing services department. His previous experience also includes IT project management, technical support and education. He can usually be found in a coffee shop near a large pile of books.

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