Episode Summary

More than befitting of “CTO Trailblazer” status, join the man, the myth, the legend – Phil Crawford, CTO of CKE Restaurants. We talk about how he’s using AI today at CKE and what the store of the future tomorrow will operate like.
Phil & Jen discuss how restaurants can harness technology more efficiently to save time (labor efficiency), extract data easier (personalization efficiency) and please guests (revenue efficiency).
He explains how he’s testing new AI technologies at the drive-thru, which are already delivering incredible efficiencies for the restaurant’s staff and guest satisfaction. Plus how he’s using AI on the “gnarly back-end” with data models and building proactive algorithms.
We discuss the importance of transparency in the vital franchisor-franchisee relationship, company culture, his passion for giving back (Gift A Meal)… and the 50+ Star Wars figurines in his office. Lots of fun and learning packed in this episode!


🍽️ Name: Phil Crawford, Chief Technology Officer, CKE Restaurants 
🍽️ Where to find Phil: LinkedIn
🍽️ Noteworthy: Phil Crawford is a huge Star Wars geek with over 50 Star Wars figures donning his office shelves. He’s successfully built and led world-class technology organizations, grown multimillion-dollar businesses, and positioned companies for lucrative IPOs.

Key Insights

🍔 AI is here to stay, but must complement the business.
Phil says AI is here to stay: ”It’s already in our lives in many ways. It’s in other industries; it’s in loyalty programs; and it’s all over the place. I think it’s coming to the forefront because we’re now expanding outside of our comfort zones and exploring how it can affect the hospitality side of our business. It needs to complement the business. There are solutions that talk about robotics that make burgers or fries. For lack of a better term, it does alienate the human element, but I think it needs to complement it.”
🍔 Getting actionable information from your data must be a focus.
Your business’s present and future depend on data, so how you collect, sort, and analyze data determines your next decision and action. … your data sets should be composed of information you’re getting internally and externally.
”It’s all about data interchange. It’s about taking data sets and compiling them so they become actionable.[…]We need to look at individual things and make sure the data’s clean and accurate in order to make actionable information on the backside of it.”
🍔 Efficiency Is a Priority in the Restaurant Industry in 2023: How Does Technology Add to It?
”Technology needs to be the enabler for the business. It can never be a hindrance. So we look at it as that catalyst for change. There are so many untapped areas inside and outside the four walls of the business where we can leverage the technology to become more efficient, whether through artificial intelligence in-store or outside of the store.
From optimizing shifts through proper labor management, optimizing the supply chain through order efficiency, bringing IoT inside the four walls, to understanding how often you should change oil or monitor your machines. Efficiency is top-of-mind for us because of two things: the inflationary environment and labor. So we have to control what we can control on the bottom line.
Efficiency also helps employee morale. They don’t want to be stuck twiddling their thumbs and not doing anything, and vice versa. So having that fine line, and the balance between the two, inside the four walls. And every aspect comes down to better processes and procedures, which leads to better efficiency.”  
🍔 AI in CKE Restaurants.
”AI is a big word, and there are a lot of things underneath AI. We’re looking at leveraging AI in two facets. First – inside the restaurant at the drive-through. We’ve deployed it in about 30 restaurants, both corporate and franchisee.
You’re talking to a machine using natural language processing or NLP. It takes your order. It’s consistent, and the beautiful part is you have a high level of accuracy; over 90% accurate going into the point of sale system with direct integration.
It also benefits the consumer because they can see the accuracy. There’s less of an issue with language barriers because the models have gotten so good and are bi-lingual.
Employees, too, get away from some of the most mundane tasks. This [solution] delivers a consistent message, and it allows the employee to focus on what they do best, which is make the product right and meet and greet people at the drive-through window.
“The second area is using the AI machine learning on the backend through our new instance of Snowflake and reporting solutions so we can start building models and do proactive algorithms that take a lot of the human element out. We all know quantum computing is prevalent and can do and process a lot more information and come to amazing results if you train these models correctly. And both of that is using intelligence.”
🍔 The winning formula for healthy franchisor-franchisee relationships.
Unfortunately, conflicts between franchisors and franchisees are too common in the restaurant industry. But CKE has built healthy relationships with the franchisee community through transparency and strong communications.
”Our number one success here is that we put our foot forward and say, ‘We want to try this new solution. Before you invest, we’re going to put them in our company stores, and then we’re going to share the results. But I’m going to share not just the winners; I’m going to share the losers as well because that adds validity.’ […] You have these discussions with them, have an open conversation, get their inputs, and work the solutions together with them. […] It’s good to get their feedback, input, and buy-off and have them be part of the process. That’s the winning formula.”
🍔 We Are All in This Together or Cross-Departmental Collaboration Is Key to Long-Term Success.
”It’s easy for us to sit at a corporate office in the top level to look down and say, ‘Here’s what we know.’ Our key to success is to take it down to lower levels. If you look at what we do at a leadership level, we have all the decisions, but we’re not living day-to-day at a store level.
“I think it needs to be the inverse. We have all the power, but we don’t have all the information. We need to give a lot of the power back to the individual stores and operators because they have more of the information themselves; they’re seeing it in real time.
That’s one of our successes here — we’ve had a great partnership from the IT standpoint, working with the different franchisees and our operators to get their buy-in and input because, without their buy-in and input, our decisions are hypotheses, which aren’t always accurate.
It is a collaborative effort to understand how everything we do affects the bottom line and our most important people, our team members. It has to resonate with them and we get their input before things go to a larger stake.”

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