Firehouse Subs '5-alarm' tech emergency highlights value of evaluating systems

For Firehouse Subs, the emergence of COVID-19 on the American landscape triggered nothing short of a five-alarm emergency to get the sandwich brand in sync with consumers' changed demands. Their story shows how invaluable a little tech self-examination can be now.

"I feel the need — the need for speed!" That famous shared line between Tom Cruise (as Maverick) and Anthony Edwards (as Goose) from the 1986 movie, "Top Gun," has never been more appropriate than with today's restaurant technology systems. After all, patience has never been a virtue shared by restaurant customers, and amid COVID-19 constraints — with an ever-growing percentage of customers ordering online for pickup and delivery — the expectation is that their orders will be processed, prepped and waiting at lightning speed.

That fact, said Netsurion Senior Vice President of Sales Mark Cline, is why speed is the biggest and most important asset restaurateurs are telling that computer network management company they must have in their technology now.  

"The idea of curbside and contactless payments isn't new, and due to COVID it is almost essential for any restaurant," Cline explained in an interview with this website. "I think we can all agree this will not be going away anytime soon so restaurants that can figure out how to optimize this process and build a procedure for speed will prosper. Wireless tablets, QR code scanning to alert the restaurant you have arrived and (are) in the parking lot, and others are technologies that can refine this curbside and contactless system and increase the amount of orders fulfilled. Buyers that have a quick and safe curbside experience will return knowing the efficiency and safety of a restaurant is the top priority."

The need to build in that super speedy tech performance has sent many restaurant system leaders in search of either tech additions or complete revamps to bring the systems they have — which Cline said can often be  piecemealed conglomerations of years of add-ons — up to snuff. 

The Firehouse Subs story

Florida-based sandwich QSR, Firehouse Subs, found itself in just such a kind of emergency tech re-evaluation phase when the pandemic first began shutting down restaurant operations nationally, according to Firehouse Subs CFO Vince Burchianti. In fact, their need was so urgent last March, it almost forced their hand in what ultimately became the direction they took with their technology. 

"In my 30-year career in the restaurant industry, I have never seen such a dramatic, overnight shift in consumer trade demands, ever," Burchianti told this website in a recent interview. "In March, we were all faced with a new challenge and were forced to make changes in our lives, resulting in necessary changes to how consumers interact with retail businesses. 

"Firehouse Subs, like all brands, especially in the restaurant industry, experienced a sharp decline in mid-March as consumers retracted from their normal spending patterns. Firehouse Subs needed to make fast changes in our 1,180 restaurants in order to continue serving our guests in this new way of life. Anticipating the new spending habits of consumers, we made immediate operational and technological changes. "

In the sub sandwich brand's case, Burchianti said that although the brand was right in the middle of a full POS upgrade when the pandemic hit the U.S. in mid-March, the brand needed faster answers to serve their new customer demands technologically. They immediately stopped any further installations and switched tracks to answer their urgent new sales problem.

"What led to this decision was that our consumer technology stack was 90% of where we needed it to be to serve our customers with increased off-premise demands without any disruptions. We considered ourselves very fortunate to be in that position," he explained. "There was a 10% technology and operational hole we needed to quickly plug with our current technological capabilities, and that was serving our customers curbside."

Burchianti said with the brands dining rooms all closed, patrons moved to online web and app ordering, as well as orders via third-party delivery that served approximately 80% of those 1,180 units. Firehouse also still had phone-in orders and regular take-out channels available. When the brand cast about for a new sales channel, curbside delivery started looking better and better. 

"Both our Operations Services and IT departments went to work over a five-day period," Burchianti recalled, relaying the sense of urgency throughout the process that many restaurant operators can clearly relate to. 

"Focusing on technology — which is always the most challenging — we identified we needed to add customer car information on our digital ordering platforms to make it easy for restaurant staff to identify which car to deliver the order to. With our IT department and the help of our partners at NCR Corporation, we had the required fields on our web ordering site within a week. We quickly turned to formatting our app and were able to make the needed changes within another week."

Granted, it was a lot of fast work by a lot of people, but Burchianti said the brand has never looked back. With customer satisfaction a primary focus of the Firehouse mission and overall brand nimbleness receiving renewed importance, he said the new sales channel has been a lifesaver for the brand and its franchisees, not to mention customers craving a sub. 

But Firehouse's story is one that underlines the importance now for all restaurant brands to give their tech systems a good long look in the mirror, to insure what they are now using is meeting these relatively suddenly changed consumer needs, Netsurion's Cline said. What brands may find in their system evaluations, he said, is that they need to consider the overall benefits of adding on, versus a system revamp. 

The value of a good, hard look in the mirror

"A first step would be to take inventory of what hardware/services are running in the restaurant. Many times the hardware/software manufacturers will provide an End of Life or End of Support date that will dictate when it is time to upgrade," Cline said. "If you find that 40% to 50% of your hardware/software is out of date, then you need to make the decision of either to patchwork a solution together or just rip and replace. Often times upgrading one new technology will have an adverse effect on another and then it becomes a snowball effect throughout the restaurant. The inventory review stage will also provide an opportunity to look at consolidation of products and or vendors.

"Rip and replace" are daunting words to any restaurant leader who has an inkling of the costs behind those types of technological revamps. But, the market is proving there are solid sales and operational benefits to be had in cases where that is really demanded. Plus, Cline points out, new systems often bring longlasting operational savings as well. 

"It can vary but potentially 20-30% of technology spend," Cline said when asked how much brands might realize in costs and operational savings from these types of evaluations and technology course corrections. "Once you identify technology that is out of date or not providing the ROI, then you can eliminate and focus on what is needed for growth."

Specifically, Cline advised that brands hone in on adding tech that will grow revenue. As an example, he pointed to adding a connectivity redundancy plan. This kind of action allows credit cards and online orders to continue being processed even when there is an ISP outage. He said that the additional expense typically pays for itself each month. 

Tech upgrades: 3 key areas to focus on 

And speaking of money-saving moves, Cline had some very specific advice on the types of actions brands should think about in the next half-year to year to get their systems in shape to save and make the most money possible through any necessary system upgrades. 

First, he advised that brand leaders think about the advantages that consolidation of several hardware platforms into a single device offers. Similarly, he said brand leaders should also think about standardization in their systems since this can often be effective in cutting overall tech spend.

"Traditional network security is expensive, but many times restaurants are only utilizing 25% of the services available," he explained. "With more adoption of P2PE Point of Sale, the price tag doesn't equal the services provided in restaurant environments. Standardizing the network across corporate and franchisee locations is a platform for growth, but also reducing overall spend."

Finally, Cline said the perks of visibility into franchise location data are often not as highly valued as they perhaps should be at the corporate level of many brands. As a result, leadership is often left with little solid data about operations in franchise locations. But he said many tools — including those provided by Netsurion — can afford this level of visibility by providing real-time analytics around things such as WAN outages, which can be provided to corporate leaders and franchisees in minutes. And any operator who has ever experienced the bottom line-devastating effects of a network outage will attest again to that absolute "need for speed" in quickly solving these types of tech problems, too.