Top 8 Takeaways From Talk Shop Live Panel On The Future of the Restaurant Industry

Highlights from The Future of Food: The New Economics of Running Foodservice Operations (NRA 2019)


Bret Thorn – Senior F&B Editor, Nation’s Restaurant News and Senior Food Editor, Restaurant Hospitality


  • Zia Ahmed – Senior Director, Dining Services, Ohio State University
  • Lance Reynolds – Restaurant Operations Consultant, US Foods
  • Katsuji Tanabe – Executive Chef, Barrio (Chicago, IL)
  • David Portalatin – Vice President, The NPD Group

Restaurant Operations Consultant Lance Reynolds says: “On one side, I don’t think it’s ever been more difficult to make money in the restaurant industry. However, there’s never been a better opportunity to make money in the restaurant industry if you’re willing to evolve.”

1. Your Employees Are Your Best Asset – Act Like it

Chef Katsuji Tanabe says, “My employees are extremely important; without them, I’m nothing.” He remembers the days when nobody cared about the culture of the dishwasher and line cooks. Now, he prioritizes learning more about the cultural diversity in his back and front of house. At his weekly meetings, they talk about the business of the restaurant about 60% of the time – and 40% about their lives and cultures. Since he started that, he’s seen historically feuding ethnicities work more seamlessly together, and happier employees overall.

“Back in the 80s, you could have a mean chef and the restaurant would still be successful; today that’s not the case,” he says. That employee satisfaction rubs off on the customers, too. He says when customers walk in and feel the sense of camaraderie among his staff, they’re happier. They eat more and they drink more – leading to higher check averages and a successful restaurant overall. Later in the discussion, he mentions how having happy employees is also free advertising. His employees take pictures of their food and the atmosphere and become micro-influencers to attract both new employees and customers.

2. ‘Ethnic Cuisine’ Is Dead

David Portalatin says the Gen Z and young Millennial audience is the most diverse generation in our nation’s history. They’ve grown up with exposure to world cuisines and diverse cultures in their neighborhoods. They expect diverse flavors to show up on their plate. This and future generations don’t think of cuisines as ‘ethnic’ – they think of them as food. Restaurants must adapt and incorporate global flavors to stay relevant and profitable.

3. There’s An App For That

Lance Reynolds frequently works with restaurant operators whose highest-paid employees are walking around with a clipboard. “Burn your clipboard,” he says. “There’s an App for that! We can no longer afford to throw labor at our processes. To be successful and efficient, we must automate. We can do everything on an iPhone, from scheduling to ordering. Let go of those old practices and use the technology that’s available and cheap, to make your processes as efficient as they can be. Old School is no longer affordable.”

4. “If You Have High Data, You Also Need To Have High Touch”

Without data, every time a customer walks into your door, they’re a brand new customer. With data, you know from past visits what that customer likes, what they order, and who they are. “When you negotiate with a third party, make sure you’re getting benefit from that third party, so you can leverage it,” says Bret Thorn.

Chef Tanabe does something in between. He uses the data and combines it with old school customer service tactics. He gets the data from third-party providers like Resy and Uber Eats, and he calls the customer the next day to ask them about their experience. That’s right – he calls them on the phone. He says letting people know that he cares in an old-school way, brings diners back time and time again.

Lance says don’t let the technology allow you to hide – the human connection that Chef Tanabe spoke about is essential. Bret says data-driven platforms like Avero can tell you “when it rains, you need to make more grilled cheese and tomato soup.” But customer service delivers a differentiated, personal experience that keeps diners coming back.

Check out this exchange between all of our panelists:

5. Want to Reduce Waste And Grow Check Averages? Give Diners a Reason to Crave Leftovers

We’re not going to recap it…we’ll let Chef Katsuji tell it for us in the clip below.

6. Hey Google, When Should I Deliver?

Lance Reynolds has seen plenty of operators recently who have slimmed down or cut their delivery service entirely during traditional restaurant hours, because they’ve dug into their Google Analytics data and found that they’re getting search activity during late night hours. Watch the clip to see how some of his customers have shifted their business model to capitalize on the late-night diner crowd. 

7. Get Experiential

Chef Tanabe has shifted his restaurant strategy to grow check averages by turning visits to his restaurants into an experience. He says to think of ways to switch your diners from “dinner and a movie” to making dinner with you an entertaining experience. Think open kitchens, tableside prep and “Instagrammable” moments. If you can keep diners engaged with you for two hours instead of one, you’ll better leverage – in a world of flat restaurant traffic – every diner that walks through your door.


Zia Ahmed, director of food service at Ohio State University, says traceability and sourcing – and food tribes – have become a huge part of college and university dining. Being transparent on your menu and catering to these types of diners will become crucial to success when serving those who associate with very specific dietary tribes (think paleo, keto, whole30). Allowing the diner to make the choice for themselves – based on menu transparency – is key. You can’t satisfy every diner with every dietary restriction, but if you describe ingredients on the menu, the diner is empowered to choose for themselves.