Restaurateurs: Chef Robert Irvine Wants to Change Your Outlook on Tech

A Celebrity Chef Walks Into an IT Conference... 

Photo Credit: Food Network

Photo Credit: Food Network

Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine, best known for Restaurant Impossible, the No. 1 television show on Food Network, makes several appearances. In fact, he's admitted to being on the road 345 days out of the year. But this morning's appearance at FSTEC NexGen in Phoenix was certainly a first. The event, co-located with the First Annual Foodservice Digital Marketing Summit, is a conference for tech professionals in the foodservice space. You may be wondering, What could a famous chef possibly have to say on the subject of technology?

Well, a lot. And we were there to witness it all.

“Social media is here, whether we like it or not... If you’re not thinking about technology as part of a business strategy, you’re already late to the game,” said Irvine. "It's about making it convenient for your customers to find you."

These days, people find out about restaurants through the Internet, bringing word-of-mouth to a whole new level. And whether you're active or not on social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube or sites like Yelp or OpenTable, your customers are. They're going to be talking about you - or worse, not talking about you - whether you're on those sites or not, so you might as well stay on their radar by being present, transparent, and willing to strengthen those relationships.

Irvine brings a sense of urgency to everything he says on stage, and it's not to be taken lightly. After all, he has an 82% success rate with taking the restaurants he consults with on Restaurant Impossible out of bankruptcy. The guy knows his stuff. And if that's not enough to sway you, his bulky 5'10" stature and blunt demeanor will.

 Stop Being Afraid [of Moving Forward] 

There are a few factors that prevent restaurateurs from embracing technology, Irvine says. The most common? A combination of a 'we don't need to changementality (1) and fear (2). Technology requires us to change old habits, and change is scary for a lot of people. "Technology moves fast, and so does life in the restaurant business."

 To that, Irvine confirms what some of us early adopters already know, but many in the restaurant industry do not: "Complacency can and will kill profitability." 

How He Stays on Top

Irvine's Hilton Head, S.C. concept, Robert Irvine's eat!, thrives on technology. The chef gave us a taste of the five tech tips + tools he implements in his restaurant in order to stay ahead of the curve, and they're resources any restaurant concept can adopt:

1. Tablets as menus: "Menus need to change frequently to make sure guests come back," says Irvine. (He changes his menu out every five weeks.) Plus, he says, they are quicker and cheaper to update with the latest specials. Of the 100+ FSTEC attendees, only one operator was currently implementing paperless menus.

2. Inventory Management Systems: Having the ability to instantly track inventory and ingredient availability has allowed Irvine to nix any overcooking or over-ordering, and allows him to track food cost, prep time and delivery time of each meal to ensure customers aren't waiting too long.

3. Using your smartphone smartly: Chef Irvine gets a daily snapshot of inventory/what's sold in the restaurant daily on his smartphone while on the road to make sure he stays in the loop of business logistics. No matter how busy his schedule gets, he always knows what's going on in the restaurant.

4. Staff Training: By training staff how to use technology properly, everyone can get the most out of it, maximizing efficiency.

5. Go paperless: "If you're not on the path to a paperless environment, you soon will be. Because if you don't you'll be history." Irvine believes in paperless everything because it's instant, secure and can all be done through a wireless connection. He also mandates staff to bring a 5-6 question survey (via tablet) to each table at the end of the guest's experience, which provides instantaneous feedback to Irvine's personal cell phone. This cuts out the middleman for damage control, and Robert can ensure the problem is taken care of or at least addressed before the guest even leaves the restaurant. Plus, he says, when employees know they're being monitored, they make better choices and are nicer, so they end up making better tips. It's a win-win.

 Tying it All Together

At the end of the session, FSTEC and FDMS attendees were allowed to ask Irvine questions. When asked what Irvine's threshold was for keeping new technology in the restaurant, Irvine responded like a true man of the people: there is no threshold. Because it will undoubtedly benefit someone's experience, turning them into a repeat customer. And that's what it's all about for him. Trusting that, in the end, technology will better the guest experience and it will pay for itself in the long run. You just have to take a leap of faith and not be afraid.

This is the mantra Irvine seems to live by, and if his career is any indication, we'd say he's doing okay.