Tech Tools! Franchisees turn to digital post-Covid
After a year where technology saved-or at least salvaged-the day-to-day for many franchises, savvy operators are shifting their attention beyond stopgap measures to optimize innovation and shape their future success. Along with off-premise, the digital marketing space has exploded in franchising with tools, techniques, and strategies now a requirement to meet today’s customers in every way they have come to expect during and post-pandemic.
The pandemic has fast-tracked the rollout of technology adoption in franchising at lightning speed. While the dust of recovery is far from settled, multi-unit franchisees in every retail, restaurant, and service sector are embracing technology’s power to harness everything from cloud computing and artificial intelligence to many types of automation to create efficiencies and boost profits.
Dog Haus multi-unit franchisee Faizan Khan sees tech-driven possibilities for his gourmet hot dog shops everywhere he looks. “I try to introduce solutions that make it easy for my team to track the pulse of the restaurants,” says Khan, who opened the brand’s first East Coast location in 2018.
Khan, a process and management specialist with more than 20 years of technology industry experience, has found the perfect franchise fit in Dog Haus, an early adopter of virtual kitchens.
Forced to shift to delivery-only for much of 2020, Khan implemented technologies such as Otter to merge his multiple delivery services into a single hub. He also employed the restaurant management system MarginEdge to keep his business humming. As he readies to open his third location later this year, in Silver Spring, Maryland, Khan is busy capitalizing on the advantages these tools provide. MarginEdge, for example, uses POS integration and invoice data to give him a real-time view of cost of goods sold, distributor pricing, and sales performance over time and against targets.
Khan’s current stable of tech tools is impressive. Among them, 1Huddle’s gamification to train employees; YouTube for culinary training; SlickText for SMS marketing; and Zenreach’s attribution capabilities to build his CRM base and target customers through email. In addition, LevelUp and Linktree are his go-to’s for mobile and online ordering. Khan also counts on the insights from Chatmeter to monitor social media sentiment, and has deployed tech-related strategies such as using influencers on Instagram and TikTok. (Got all that?)
Dog Haus franchisees drive the exploration of operational tech and testing new technologies with the blessing of their franchisor, says Khan, who garners many new ideas in group chats with fellow Dog Haus franchisees, who offer solutions and support.
Happy Joe’s Pizza
Modernizing operations that preserve the legacy of a brand is essential for operators like Steve Mapes, a multi-unit franchisee and second-generation owner of Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream.
Like most franchisors, Iowa-based Happy Joe’s turned to digital marketing and online ordering to survive the past year. Mapes, who started at Happy Joe’s in 1996 as a cook in his father’s Rock Island, Illinois, restaurant (which he now owns), recently installed a major upgrade to his online ordering system that is already paying off.
“Our new system seamlessly integrates with our existing systems, allowing us to better manage orders coming through both online and in-store,” Mapes explains. “We’re able to manage our inventory at the click of a button,. And if we’re sold out of a product, it automatically updates our online menu to let guests know it’s unavailable to order.”
SpeedLine’s online ordering platform, SpeedDine, is part of Happy Joe’s new technology strategy for all its stores. The Speedline POS has also improved how Mapes tracks labor, busy times, and the success of limited-time offers. And he eagerly awaits Happy Joe’s new app (in development) to further enhance operations and reward the frequent purchase behavior of the Midwest brand’s loyal following. Conducting due diligence to ensure his current systems will coexist with any tech-fueled strategies coming down the pike is critical for Mapes, and he advises other franchisees to do the same.
“Ask to see the programs work together in motion, not just singularly functioning on their own, to give you a sense of how they operate in your real-world scenarios,” he says. “Also, don’t be afraid of change or having to pay the expense for that change. The gain in efficiencies from having a cohesive tech stack will pay for itself in due time.”
Ramping up digital advertising and social media has helped Mapes drive online orders and find new avenues to engage with the brand’s loyal restaurant guests. He has taken advantage of this digital shift to share historical Happy Joe’s photos, upbeat messaging, and deliver updates on changes related to the pandemic and, more recently, dining room renovations under way.
“In my 30-plus years of franchising, I’ve learned that actively engaging your market or community yourself both digitally and in-person is a key contributor to your locations’ success,” says Mapes.
Mr Brews Taphouse
When Mr Brews Taphouse tapped into off-premise and online ordering to survive the past year, a one-size-fits-all system wouldn’t cut it for the brand, known for its gourmet burgers and locally sourced craft beer. Each location features a different selection of 50 or more beers and a site-specific calendar of events.
Rather than overhaul its national site to drive traffic through a single online ordering portal, the full-service Wisconsin-based chain adopted a platform that seamlessly allows guests to order through individual landing sites that embrace individuality and are not dictated by a systemwide setting or campaign, says Gregg Day, owner of Mr Brews Taphouse in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.
“Our website is built around the core of our franchise model, ‘Freedom within the Framework’: the framework we need to deliver on the brand promise, and the freedom to embrace our location’s personality,” he explains.
Recent back-of-house additions for the brand include the adoption of Sysco’s food ordering app for inventory management, an online shift scheduling system to track staffing and reduce labor costs, and a direct ordering system for purchasing marketing materials. Training modules also received a facelift, introducing short videos that offer what Day calls “bursts of micro-training” of information for improving retention and execution.
“I think the most important takeaway is that these upgrades built a greater trust within our brand,” says Day.
Penn Station’s digital marketing has come a long way since franchisee Bob Shingleton began doing the brand’s online marketing on the side, following the success of an email marketing campaign he did for his stores was shared across the system.
Consumers can interact with a brand across platforms more than ever before, which means franchisees must be ready to engage, says his son Matt Shingleton, who is part of the ownership group that operates 20 Penn Station East Coast Subs in Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee—along with the marketing firm Mobile Exposure.
Mobile Exposure, which has handled Penn Station’s email marketing and customer service for more than 15 years, was originally formed to market directly for the Shingletons’ restaurants. Today, the firm still leads the digital and social strategy and advertising for Penn Station brand, in addition to their own investments.
“We believe this is an opportunity to identify problems, opportunities and have one-on-one conversations with customers,” says Matt Shingleton. “The CRM technologies we use allow us to aggregate the data across platforms into a manageable workflow. This allows us to connect directly with a consumer on their preferred platform, and also to share opportunities and trends directly to Penn Station and our businesses.”
He calls Penn Station a “hands-on” franchisor that has done a great job helping franchise partners navigate Covid-19 by providing data through a proprietary POS system and focused and profit-centric tools. “Corporately, they believe you can get into information overload if you’re not careful. When individuals are bombarded with data they don’t understand, they tend to ignore all data, which could cost them in the short and long term.”
Push your franchisor
Franchisees who use technology to rethink and improve the ways they run their business also look to their franchisors to commit to resources at scale to ensure both ROI and sustained systemwide success. Adopting new technologies requires planning and training, which can be hard to make time for during the hustle and bustle of everyday operations. But the opportunities delivered by change far outweigh the challenges, says Mapes.
“Don’t be afraid to push your franchisor sometimes too,” he says. “They can be a great asset but sometimes even they struggle with change. Don’t wait for them to come to you all the time. If you want to make a change, don’t be afraid to do your own research and look for the new and exciting things that can help make a difference for you. Then work with your franchisor as much as possible to make those new and better things a reality for the entire franchise system. A stronger franchise will make you individually stronger also.”
The Dog Haus system practices a hyperlocal marketing strategy designed to preserve brand quality by centrally producing images and videos that franchise owners can use to connect with their customers on the local level.
“It’s been a partnership between the franchisor and the franchisee,” Khan says. “Allowing franchisees to explore and adopt technology enables agility, while still maintaining consistency around the core tech stack every franchisee needs.”
Transforming the Future
If Covid-19 accelerated the use of technology in franchising, the ability to integrate and access innovative digital applications, such as AI, robotics, automation, and advanced analytics, is set to change its face.
Faizan Khan is mulling over a myriad of applications, including surge pricing that relies on machine learning models to optimize for the right price at the right time for his Dog Haus locations. He also is evaluating applications for vision technology, including AI smart cameras that improve service and analyze foot traffic for marketing and scalability, and solutions to automate delivery marketing.
“In the future, I’d like to track the build quality of food,” says Khan. “Was a specific dish made correctly every time? If there was a dip in quality, could I correlate that to specific staff for training opportunities? “
For Gregg Day at Mr Brews, the future holds more integration of its CAKE POS system with all third-party delivery and carryout vendors to maximize customers’ ordering and loyalty experience and reward both online and dine-in purchase behavior, he says.
“Another franchise operator is also working on developing the brand’s first ghost bar to deliver growlers through a third party in their area,” he says. “It’s exciting to see our brand build on the advanced technology infrastructure we now have in place to support these types of new, forward-thinking restaurant models.”
Day, who has worked in the restaurant industry since he was 15, encourages franchisees to choose technology wisely and leverage vendor partners for solutions.
With the outpouring of new and useful technologies and means of gathering data, it’s important not to get too caught up with the latest craze, says Matt Shingleton. To maximize the return on any technology investment, his advice is to decide what is most important to your business and make sure your systems target those metrics.
“We must focus on and manage certain key indicators in all of our businesses,” he says. “We pay very close attention to those and don’t let the technology tail wag the dog, so to speak."
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