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Fast-casual growth and drive-thru AI: Highlights from 2023’s Restaurant Leadership Conference

Steven Cook of Force4Good at the 2023 Restaurant Leadership Conference

The 2023 Restaurant Leadership Conference (RLC) took place recently in Phoenix over April 16th-19th. The conference featured over 100 speakers from across the restaurant industry and was attended by over 1,350 participants from major restaurant brands. These participants represent over 300,000 restaurant locations across the country, which make up an astonishing 50% of the U.S. restaurant market! I was in the crowd as a representative of Force4Good and had a fantastic time listening, learning, and connecting with passionate restaurateurs and leaders. These are my major takeaways from this year’s RLC.

Trends and statistics:

  • The food service industry is expected to reach $1 trillion in 2023, with full-service restaurants making up $272 billion, limited-service restaurants making up $381 billion, and other services such as hospitals, stadiums, and cafeterias making up a combined $364 billion.
  • Though customers are less satisfied with pickup and delivery in 2023 than they were in 2020, pickup and delivery now represents 17% of restaurant sales (11% pickup, 6% delivery). Stats are also reflecting that younger generations will pay for the convenience these options provide. 
  • Though menu pricing is increasing slower than grocery prices, customers are reducing their frequency of restaurant visits due to inflation and are opting for less expensive menu items and seeking deals. 84% of customers are eating out less than in 2022.
  • As a result, personalized marketing and loyalty programs are becoming more important to attract and retain customers – 65% of business comes from existing loyal customers. In fact, 57% of customers are more likely to visit a restaurant if it has a loyalty program.
  • Breakfast sales are on the rise. Some speculate this comes as a result of more people working from home and having increased flexibility in their schedules. Another hypothesis is that breakfast items often cost less than dinner – coupled with inflation and rising prices, people are simply eating out for breakfast more often than dinner.
  • The demand for plant-based food is still growing. André Vener, co-founder of Dog Haus, reports plant-based food makes up 8% of their sales.
  • The fast-casual segment grew 13% YOY, with the fastest-growing chains among the top 500 including Dave’s Hot Chicken (156% growth), Crumbl (123% growth), Cava (60% growth), and Dave & Buster’s (50% growth).
  • Sustainability and social responsibility are becoming increasingly important to customers. As brands take steps to become more sustainable and socially responsible, customers are responding positively. Looking to get your restaurant involved in helping the community and making the world a better place? Force4Good is here to help – restaurant fundraisers are a proven strategy that build community, sales, and new customers.

A presenter at 2023's Restaurant Leadership Conference


AI hit the mainstream in 2023, with chatbots like ChatGPT becoming a household name – and restaurant companies aren’t missing a beat.

  • Restaurants are using AI to build predictive staffing schedules using historical data, weather, and upcoming social events.
  • An AI called “Julia” is being tested by White Castle to take drive-thru orders.
  • White Castle is also testing Flippy, a robot arm, to flip burgers and make fries in 10 of their restaurants. Employees generally like the robot arm and see it as helpful in their day-to-day tasks. 
  • Some restaurant brands are finding that customers want to interact on their own terms/channels (in-store vs. digital/to go). As a result, P.F. Chang’s is testing separate entrances for digital/to go orders.
  • As a whole, tech is becoming a larger part of a CEO’s role. Organizations are seeing Marketing and IT collaborating more than ever.


RLC 2023 was stacked with great speakers – below were a few of my favorites and high-level thoughts I took from each:

  • 2023 Leader of the Year Award: Mark King, CEO, Taco Bell: A true leader has an extraordinary aspiration for their team – something that makes people want to come to work. Find and implement that big thing at your brand.
  • Derek Jeter, Hall of Fame Yankees shortstop, businessman, executive: The greatest fear is not being prepared. When you’re not prepared, the game speeds up. But when you’re prepared, it slows down because you’re ready.
  • Greg Majewski, CEO, Craveworthy (mentored by Dave Thomas of Wendy’s): Greet and send off customers warmly, so people always feel good. Trust and hold high expectations. Be the dreamer they can look to.
  • John Chidsey, CEO, Subway: Don’t discount the value of perception. If it’s already broken, you can only go up.

2023’s Restaurant Leadership Conference highlighted crucial trends and statistics for the restaurant industry, such as the growth of fast-casual restaurants, the significance of personalized marketing and loyalty programs, the increasing focus on sustainability and social responsibility, and the adoption of automation and AI technology. The event was eye-opening and insightful – I’d recommend this conference and hope to attend again in 2024!

Are you leveraging automation and social responsibility in your restaurants? What if you could drive sales and gain new customers at the same time? Tap into the power of restaurant fundraisers with Force4Good, a world-class fundraising platform that builds community, sales, and attracts new customers. Several of our clients are receiving up to 25x ROI on our service, and you may join them by contacting us or scheduling a demo today. Or try it yourself first – our starter plan is completely free.