Wild Technology for Wild Wings – a Restaurant with no Servers?

Buffalo Wild Wings leverages digital technology to improve customer interactions

Buffalo Wild Wings (“B-Dubs”) announced on November 15, 2016 the appointment of a new chief information officer [1].  As competition continues to increase in the casual-dining space that B-Dubs occupies, restaurants are increasingly turning to digital initiatives to grow revenues and improve operational processes.

On the customer-facing side, multiple studies have indicated that online review platforms including Yelp and TripAdvisor have dramatic effects on restaurants’ customer growth.  One study notes that “an increase in a restaurant’s rating by half a star on Yelp, where ratings are one through five, could make the difference between a full house at dinnertime and scattered customers” [2].  This is both an opportunity and a challenge for B-Dubs.  If some of B-Dub’s restaurants are in less trafficked areas, a single Yelp review has a more dramatic effect (either positive or negative) on future traffic to that restaurant.

Many restaurants including B-Dubs have started incorporating technology as part of the customer interaction, ordering and payment process.  While this presents an opportunity for B-Dubs in that order fulfillment is less prone to variability due to a server’s backlog or human error (and also saves on labor costs), it presents its own challenges.  Per the National Restaurant Association, “Forty-two percent [of consumers] say technology makes restaurant visits more difficult to navigate, versus 37 percent a year ago” [3].

On the operations-side, B-Dubs is also presented with new improvement opportunities.  Restaurants are incorporating enterprise risk planning software to increase visibility to sales as well as supply and labor costs.

What they’re doing:

B-Dubs is using digital technology to engage customers more effectively, and also to increase information transparency.

Although B-Dubs has little control over customer Yelp reviews, the company has sought to create a deeper connection with customers through social media; the company has more than 12 million fans on Facebook, and last year won the Restaurant Social Media Index Award for “the most beloved brand of the year, which was based solely on consumer sentiment” [4].

The company also has tablets installed at each table in approximately 90% of its locations [5].  The company currently uses the tablets to deliver content and entertainment, but envisions using the tablets to facilitate order-placing with buttons such as “Wing me” or “Beer me” 6.  See image below.


The company leverages point-of-sale technology to improve operations at each of its locations.  In its annual report, the company notes that “visibility to sales, cost of sales, labor and other operating metrics is provided to company-owned restaurant management through web-based decision support and analysis tools” [6].  This provides management with better insight into customer ordering patterns and demand, allowing them more efficiently to match demand with supply.  In addition, B-Dub’s system is available in almost all of its locations, including franchises, allowing management to monitor and have more control over franchised operations.

What they should do:

B-Dubs has experienced higher labor costs in the past year, but expects to benefit from its tablet ordering process once its payment technology is fully integrated.  While it’s easy to see the information and cost benefits from this technology, it’s also easy to see how the company could hit some bumps in not having human servers.

If, for instance, the ordering technology isn’t so easy to understand, customers might see the tablet ordering process as confusing.  There’s also the paradox that B-Dubs aims to create the best “customer experience”, but is replacing human servers with iPads.  Lastly, there’s the concern of how tablet ordering would affect customer service.  Yelp itself states that “the best way to succeed on Yelp is by focusing on great customer service” [7].

To mitigate these concerns, I’d suggest keeping a few servers on board as touch-points and supervisors, especially during the transition to tablet ordering.

I’d also double down on server training as it relates to using the new technology, and rounding out the “experience” on the human side as well, i.e., training the servers they do keep in topics the company knows are of interest to MVPs such as sports, music, and good food.

(786 Words, Not Including this Disclosure)

[1] “Buffalo Wild Wings, Inc. Names Santiago Abraham as Chief Information Officer,” November 15, 2016, Business Wire, http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20161115006722/en/Buffalo-Wild-Wings-Names-Santiago-Abraham-Chief, accessed November 2016.

[2] Evanskevans, Kate, “Dining: Online reviews affect restaurants, potential patrons,” August 6, 2015, Wicked Local, http://swampscott.wickedlocal.com/article/20150806/NEWS/150808051, accessed November 2016.

[3] “Diners Like Food with a Side of Tech,” [ENTER DATE], http://www.restaurant.org/News-Research/News/Diners-like-food-with-a-side-of-tech, accessed November 2016.

[4] “Technology & Creating Demand: The Digitization of the Foodservice Consumer’s Experience,” President’s Conference 2014, November 2014, http://www.ifmaworld.com/media/231940/2014%20PC%20Exec%20Summary%20Technology%20and%20Creating%20Demand.pdf, accessed November 2016.

[5] Upton, Nicholas, “Buffalo Wild Wings Investing in Tech, Expansion and Loyalty,” August 25, 2015, Restaurant Finance Monitor, http://www.restfinance.com/Restaurant-Finance-Across-America/August-2015/Buffalo-Wild-Wings-Investing-in-Tech-Expansion-and-Loyalty/, accessed November 2016.

[6] Buffalo Wild Wings, 2015 Annual Report, page 9, http://files.shareholder.com/downloads/BWLD/3232754674x0x881352/FFA0EAAF-7477-4C53-B9D3-818CC27D1D8A/BWLD_2015.12.27_10-K_FINAL.pdf, accessed November 2016.

[7] “Don’t Ask for Reviews,” Yelp, https://biz.yelp.com/support/review_solicitation, accessed November 2016.


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Student comments on Wild Technology for Wild Wings – a Restaurant with no Servers?

  1. Very interesting article about technology seeping into restaurants. I know Chili’s has a very similar offering by using a tablet at the table to reorder drinks, order dessert, and pay the bill. However, in its current state, this tool is often broken, unclear, and does not meet the needs of the consumer. A key example of this is splitting a check amongst multiple people, a common occurrence at B-Dubs or Chilis. Additionally, the job of a waiter/waitress at this type of restaurant should be to try to encourage increased food and drink purchases. A tablet may prevent this and could have downstream complications for the restaurants revenue stream.

  2. I was very intrigued to read about the effects of Yelp reviews on restaurants. I definitely utilize reviews a lot and if certain reviews are bringing down the overall rating, I see how that could have a huge influence on traffic for a given restaurant. I feel that this poses an even greater dilemma for chain restaurants where overall perception might be more mid-level due to the fact that is is a chain. I could also see how the reviews of some restaurants and people’s experiences there could work against the overall brand’s equity.

  3. Interesting read on how B-Dubs is leveraging technology to become more efficient. I am curious to understand why the B-Dubs executives decided to leverage technology to impact customer-facing operations rather than tackle back-office operations. With human interaction being a crucial part of the customer service experience, it is a risky move to reduce customer-facing interactions. I also wonder how can B-Dubs use technology to improve its ratings by engaging customers to leave reviews in the restaurant instead of relying on customers to leave a rating after leaving the establishment. Lastly, I’m interested to see if B-Dubs will use its digital platform to surface analytical insights to restaurants and use the platform to share insights among all of its B-Dubs locations.

  4. I’m glad you said you would double down with server training, I’m on your camp. I see the cost benefit of having it all automatized, but the experience, in my opinion, is much worse with IPads instead of people. Maybe we’re only the minority, it seems that OTG (restaurateur with 250 restaurants and present in 11 airports) are betting high on the benefits of the automatized service. It says they are the second-largest customer-facing iPad platform in the world, only behind Apple’s retail stores (1).
    For me, not only the service but the whole experience is spoiled by the IPad in the table, with people paying attention to the technology instead of interacting with each other – a growing social behavior, unfortunately.

    (1) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2015-03-02/massive-redesign-turns-newark-airport-terminal-into-a-foodie-theme-park
    (2) http://travelskills.com/2016/05/18/ipad-airports/

  5. Great article! I’m feeling conflicted about this new technological advance in B Dubs – do I love it or hate it?

    I love the convenience of not having to deal with a waiter, but I wonder how their regulars would respond. And how will you keep those lovely tablets from being smothered in buffalo sauce?

    Agree with SBP – the inability to split checks or upsell is a big disadvantage. In addition, B Dubs has a bar-feel to it – it isn’t McDonalds where such a technology would be ideal. People enjoy the human interaction and waiter(ess) banter in sports bars.

  6. Very interesting article. I remember we were advising management of McDonalds in one of the countries to install terminals that would enable customers making orders without engaging with servers. The major concern the management had was that customers could find it more confusing. At the beginning this might be an issue, but I agree with you that by providing trained customer service representatives, you can educate customers and improve the efficiency.

  7. Thanks for the interesting piece! Ordering through the iPad reminded me of some of my recent experiences in airports where restaurants have implemented this technology in the terminals (http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/21/travel/ipads-at-airports/). Not only can you order food on the iPad, but also you can browse the internet, check email and play games, which makes the wait for a delayed flight a lot less painful! While this technology certainly helps streamline operations on a crowded day (or when there are thousands of passengers trying to quickly grab a bite to eat between flights), an element of the personal touch is definitely missing from the restaurant experience, which, while may be alright for an airport, could have adverse effects for a restaurant that is serving as a social gathering experience. Perhaps Buffalo Wild Wings could instead try to enhance the social element through the iPad by using it to facilitate games (i.e., trivia) within the restaurant, such that each table could participate through the iPad and interact with other restaurant-goers.

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