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Highlights from the 2024 Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit: Embracing Authenticity and Hospitality

Co-founder Steven Cook at the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit

I recently attended this year’s RFIS (Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit) and had a lovely time meeting and collaborating with fellow industry professionals at the forefront of innovation and excellence in the restaurant landscape. From insightful keynote presentations to engaging panel discussions, the conference provided a platform for sharing invaluable insights, best practices, and emerging trends shaping the future of the food service industry. I hope that my recap of the highlights makes you feel like you had a front-row seat at the conference and you can find takeaways for your restaurant!

Steven Cook, Cofounder of Force4Good

Highlights from the 2024 Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit: Embracing Authenticity and Hospitality

In the ever-evolving landscape of the restaurant and food service industry, the RFIS (Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit) is an invaluable opportunity to discuss the latest trends, strategies, and challenges facing industry leaders. The RFIS 2024 Conference, held in Kansas City March 24th-26th, brought together a diverse array of professionals, from CEOs to marketers, from across the country to discuss pressing issues and share their experiences. Here, we delve into the highlights of the conference, exploring key themes, notable speakers, and actionable strategies that emerged from the event.

Top Themes: Authenticity and Hospitality

At the core of the discussions during RFIS 2024 were two prevailing themes: authenticity as a brand and the importance of hospitality. Speakers emphasized the need for brands to exude authenticity in their interactions with customers. This authenticity fosters deeper connections and loyalty among patrons.

Attendees were also reminded that guests don’t merely visit restaurants for a meal; they seek an emotional connection and a memorable experience. Prioritizing hospitality and ensuring that guests feel valued and appreciated were highlighted as essential strategies for success in the industry.

Speakers onstage at the RFIS

Key Insights from Featured Speakers

Many speakers from a variety of brands took the stage, with perspectives and insights drawn from their extensive experiences in the industry. Here are some highlights:

Dustin Portillo: Speaker, Author of “It’s Okay to be an Idiot”

Dustin Portillo’s unconventional journey, from 3,500 shows as a circus clown with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to community ambassador for McDonald’s, serves as a testament to the power of embracing one’s authenticity and originality. Portillo encouraged attendees to “imagine their potential, dream big, and ignite their inner fire,” emphasizing the importance of gratitude and connection in both personal and professional endeavors. He said “people don’t go to restaurants for food but because they will feel a certain way. People are looking for an escape.”

Brad Haley: CMO at Dave’s Hot Chicken

Haley shared Dave’s Hot Chicken’s remarkable rise to prominence, driven largely by its authentic engagement with guests on social media platforms with 2.1M followers on TikTok and 1.2M followers on Instagram. Haley advised to make the content authentic – don’t tell influencers what to say. Just take user-generated content, amplify it, and let influencers promote it however they feel best to reach their own audiences. By allowing customers to define what it means to have their minds “blown,” Dave’s Hot Chicken has cultivated a loyal following and leveraged user-generated content to amplify its spicy brand presence.

Tom Gordon: Founder/CEO of Slim Chickens

Gordon addressed the challenges posed by rising labor and construction costs. Additionally, he advocated for a collaborative approach that empowers employees at all levels to contribute their ideas. He said “Let the youngest or least experienced talk first so they aren’t afraid to share their ideas.”  He believes the solutions are amongst employees, and more often than not, the new ones who have fresh eyes and don’t yet have experience with “how things are done” in restaurants. Everyone in the business should feel safe voicing their thoughts.

Beto Guajardo: CEO of Blaze Pizza

Guajardo discussed the importance of prioritizing the customer experience, particularly in handling channel conflict between digital orders and in-person customers. He said “Take care of the customer right in front of you. Every moment you’re ignoring the customer, you’re saying they don’t matter.” He cited a study that found the 8th person in an order line is 25% more likely to leave because it’s too busy, while the 11th is 40% more likely. One solve Beto offered for this is to have the production line for digital orders be separate and out of sight so the in-person guest has your team’s full attention and feels important.

By optimizing operations and making guests feel valued, Blaze Pizza seeks to enhance customer loyalty and drive business growth.

Ryan Maybee: Founder of J Rieger & Co

Maybee shared his philosophy of embracing uncertainty and remaining open to new possibilities, drawing parallels between mountain climbing and entrepreneurial pursuits. His advice: sometimes we meet false summits where we think we’ve met our goal or found our  perfect job or business, but these experiences prove to be false summits when we discover we are destined for greater things. He advised us to stay open to new possibilities for our next summit and peak. By setting ambitious goals and remaining adaptable, J Rieger & Co aims to reach new heights of success.

A conversation between Sam Stanovich, SVP Franchise Leadership of Big Chicken, and CJ Ramirez, EVP of Marketing at Dog Haus. The conversation was playfully dubbed “Dog vs. Chicken Showdown Rematch.”

The “Dog vs. Chicken Showdown Rematch”

Below were key points from a conversation between Sam Stanovich, SVP Franchise Leadership of Big Chicken, and CJ Ramirez, EVP of Marketing at Dog Haus. The conversation was playfully dubbed “Dog vs. Chicken Showdown Rematch.”

  • Small Gestures Make a Big Difference: there’s a huge and often missed impact of simple gestures, such as offering a dinner mint or chocolate after a meal. Not only does this increase tips by 23%, but it also boosts the likelihood of a guest returning by 60%. 
  • Feedback is Essential: there’s huge value to gathering feedback from customers, particularly after delivery orders. Sending a survey with delivery orders allows restaurants to gather valuable insights into customer satisfaction and identify areas for improvement. 
  • Authenticity is Key: Allowing influencers to write their own reviews and content without predefined talking points ensures that their endorsements resonate with authenticity and credibility, enhancing their impact on consumers.
  • Build Loyal Customers: It takes an average of four visits to build a loyal customer. Nurturing customer relationships and delivering exceptional experiences is key to encouraging repeat visits and fostering loyalty.
  • Address Customer Concerns: Making guests feel important and valued is paramount in the restaurant industry. An unhappy guest who is promptly assisted and has their issue resolved becomes 32 times more valuable than the average guest. 
  • Employee Recognition: Utilizing surveys and feedback internally can help restaurants identify and showcase their top employees. By recognizing and reinforcing positive behaviors, restaurants can motivate staff, boost morale, and create a positive work environment.
  • Operational Efficiency: Simple, practical strategies enhance operational efficiency, such as printing checklists on receipts for stuffing bags. 

A panel conversation at the RFIS conference

Panel Discussions: Franchise Metrics, Labor Management, and Marketing Strategies

Panelists: Craig Haley: President of Smokey Mo’s BBQ, Josh Halpern: CEO of Big Chicken, Andrew Pudalov: Founder and CEO of Rush Bowls, Ryan Weaver: CEO of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken

Franchise Metrics: Panelists emphasized the importance of prime costs, cash flow, and sales-to-cost ratios in evaluating franchise performance. Additionally, they highlighted the need for franchisors to tailor their support and training programs to the unique needs of individual franchisees.

Labor Management: Panelists discussed the importance of fostering empathy and trust among employees, as well as the role of technology in streamlining operations and facilitating real-time communication. By investing in training and creating a supportive work environment, restaurants can improve employee retention and satisfaction.

Marketing Strategies: Panelists shared innovative marketing tactics, such as hosting community events and leveraging user-generated content, to enhance brand visibility and engagement. They emphasized the importance of authenticity and consistency in messaging, as well as the need to track key metrics to measure marketing effectiveness.

Final Remarks: Balancing Tech with Tradition

As the conference drew to a close, attendees were reminded of the importance of striking a balance between technological innovation and traditional hospitality. While technology can enhance efficiency and customer engagement, it should never overshadow the fundamental principles of great food and genuine hospitality.

The RFIS 2024 Conference offered a wealth of insights and strategies for navigating the complexities of the restaurant industry. With a head full of new ideas and a stomach full of Kansas City BBQ, I left the RFIS inspired. By embracing authenticity, prioritizing hospitality, and leveraging technology strategically, restaurants can thrive in an ever-changing landscape, creating deeper connections with customers and driving long-term success.