Generating Revenue Through Innovation with Ben Pryor

SPEAKERS

Ben Pryor, Zack Oates

Zack Oates

(Intro) What’s up? Zack Oates here – author, entrepreneur and customer relationship guru. Welcome to Give an Ovation: growth strategies for restaurants and retailers, where we find industry leaders to share their secrets to grow your business. This podcast is sponsored by Ovation, the actionable guest feedback tool that works on or off premise, and is easy, real-time, and actually drives revenue. Learn more at Ovationup.com.

Welcome to another edition of Give an Ovation. I am joined today by Ben Pryor, who is the director of innovation at Dewey’s Pizza, a 24 location awesome chain that serves, if you can guess it, pizza! Almost 30 years in hospitality with Noodles and Company and Quality Dining Inc. He has an uncanny ability to look at problems from multiple angles. And he’s got an incredible passion for music. So he’s helping us to get through these flat times and maybe even playing us out a little bit of live music? He’s got a keyboard right behind him. Ben, welcome to today’s episode of Give an Ovation.

Ben Pryor

Thanks. Great to be here.

Zack Oates

So Ben, tell us a little bit about – what does a director of innovation do? It sounds like a really cool title. And what does that, what does that mean?

Ben Pryor

Yeah, it’s a fairly unique title, especially for a company of our size with 24 locations. And I’ve been very lucky to kind of get to form my own role at Dewey’s. I’ve got a pretty heavy operations and training background, along with a culinary background. And then I have always been a kind of dabbler in all things tech and electronics growing up in Austin, Texas, my Dad worked for a computer firm down there in the 70s. So I’m definitely an early adopter of all things technology, and know just enough to be really dangerous. So you know, my my day to day role really is around technology. So from a practical level, I manage the tech part of our organization. But I also spend quite a bit of time in forward looking strategy as well, as you know, I also manage our culinary and supply chain team for the organization as well. So innovation for me is really combining technology people and amazing food, high quality product to deliver an exceptional experience for our team members and our guests every day.

Zack Oates

Yeah, and speaking of that experience, that guest experience for both your people and your guests has changed significantly. I mean, what have been some of the the biggest movements over the last year for you guys?

Ben Pryor

Yeah, it’s really interesting, because in some ways, I feel like at Dewey’s it hasn’t really changed that much. I think the way that I viewed this last year and all the craziness that came with it is kind of an amplifier, to use a musical term. You know, what was already there was just significantly amplified. So if that was something great, meaning guest experience, team member experience, culture within a restaurant organization, the pandemic and and all the, you know, the iteration, fast fail, digital transformation, all the buzzwords that have been thrown around this last year. Pivoting I think, is probably the most common one.

Zack Oates

You got it. We’re all sick of that one.

Ben Pryor

Yeah. There’s a few I’m trying really hard not to mention, because I’m really tired of them. I’m sure as most people are, you know. But it’s been really interesting to kind of think about if an organization was already really strong at something, even though times have changed, government regulation has changed, guest expectation and team member expectations of what that experiences I don’t think have changed. So while I would argue that every everybody’s probably been a little more forgiving and patient, it hasn’t been an excuse for us to say, Oh, well, our our guests aren’t coming our dining room so we don’t have to worry as much about the experience. Or we don’t have to worry as much about hospitality because our team members are wearing masks. So we’ve been really focused on you know, how do we continue to deliver a great experience great product and hospitality, even behind a mask in our parking lot? That’s definitely been our focus. So we were fortunate in that we hadn’t really been 100% reliant on dine in, and we’d been about 35 to 40% carry out as an organization for the last two or three years.

Zack Oates

And what about delivery?

Ben Pryor

Delivery, ironically, as a pizza place, we never delivered a pizza until March of last year.

Zack Oates

No way. Are you serious? How do you survive as a pizza place without delivering??

Ben Pryor

Yeah it’s the word you brought up: experience. We created, you know, we’re a 23 year old brand, we created an exceptional experience every day inside our four walls. So we actually didn’t do curbside until this last year as well. So our takeout experience was, a guest would call us up, they would talk to one of our team members, we didn’t do online ordering either. So we would, we would develop this relationship and present hospitality through the telephone. Just like it was tableside, we’d bring the order in the POS system, prepare the product, and then the guests would actually come in our dining room, or the edge of our dining room, in our bar area, interact with a bartender, pick up their order. If it wasn’t quite ready, they’d enjoy, you know, a cold pint of beer while they were waiting. So we really tried to create even a takeout experience to mirror what was happening in the dining room. That’s been our biggest challenge this last year, because we have engaged in online ordering. We partnered with DoorDash, to do your third party delivery for the first time. So a lot of new things for us. And that’s our challenge is how do we still maintain that level of hospitality and that guest experience, whether it’s in our dining room, in our parking lot, or the hardest one? I think your most of your guests have probably talked about is, you know, relying on a third party delivery company to extend that hospitality and that guests experience and that quality all the way to somebody’s door, you know, 30, 45 minutes later.

Zack Oates

And have you found any, any successful ways that you’ve been able to kind of, extend that hospitality?

Ben Pryor

Definitely. From a curbside perspective, so similar to, you know, most restaurants, we’ve engaged with some technology, texting, you know, SMS etc, to try to make it as convenient as possible for our guests. Our big focus for the technology component of our business is, our ultimate goal is if somebody is ordering even online, when they show up in their car curbside, I’d love for that pizza to come right out of the oven into the box, right to somebody’s trunk or backseat, almost to the point where that person can’t even stand and not open the box is shallow on a slice, close it back up and take it home, and then let whoever they’re taking it to enjoy it, you know, semi warm, 20 minutes later. Yeah, that’s a great experience in my mind, like, I can’t control if that person drives, you know, 45 minutes away, and the pizza is not amazing when they get there. But as long as we do our part and provide that experience in our parking lot, then I think that’s a huge win for us.

Zack Oates

Yeah, when I went to go pick up a pizza last night for my family. And it was, it was perfect. They even had like a drive thru window there. And while the pizza wasn’t fantastic, I appreciated the fact that it was too hot to put on my lap. You know, like, that’s how hot I want my pizza when I go to pick it up. And that’s why I like to do curbside as opposed to delivery. Because I’ve had so many experiences where it takes so long to get my food when I do third party delivery. That, you know, by the time it gets to me, it’s literally cold, I got to put it in the microwave. And then what’s the point of, of ordering fresh food if I have to put in the microwave? So I think that that’s you know, with curbside, really taking as much ownership as you can over every leg of the experience is is fantastic. And what would you say to those people who look at innovation and they say, Ben, you know, like innovation sounds nice, but that to me just sounds like a cost. I’m running thin margins already. How do you expect me to add a position of innovation to my group?

Ben Pryor

Yeah, it’s exactly the same as any thought leadership role. There has to be some revenue generation. It may not be direct. And you know, there’s many articles over the last five years about the CFO role. CIO, whatever that role happens to be that’s like, this role now is not just for one little part of the business. Technology is is a reality for, you know, every leadership role within the organization, whether that’s operations, finance, you know, HR, doesn’t really matter.

But we’ve been really lucky at Dewey’s, because most of the rest of our leadership team are similar to me in that we’ve got a lot of operations experience. So our our HR leader, actually was the, the original kind of ops leader of the company 23 years ago. He helped opened the restaurant with Dewey. In many years of operations experience, and then similar for me, leading the tech side of our organization, or culinary, you know, I come come at everything from a guest employee experience perspective. You know, we’re all really diehard operators at heart. And so if we’re not helping our team, sell more pizza, and be excited about coming to work every day, then then to your point, yeah, we’re just a drag on the organization.

It’s really easy to sign up for a, you know, $100 a month SaaS fee for every store. And then all of a sudden, we look in the rearview mirror, it’s like, alright, well, now we’re up to 700 bucks a month, per location. And you know, that that doesn’t make any sense from a financial perspective. It’s a huge, you know, weight on on the organization. And that, that, to me is probably the scariest thing is there’s a lot I mean, similar to your organization, there’s a ton of great restaurant tech startups. And it feels really nice to have a conversation in this bubble of like, Oh, yeah, it’s only 15 or 20, or 30 or $50 a month per store. And then, you know, on a macro scale, you’re like, Oh, my God, you know, we’ve worked ourselves back into this corner where we can’t sell enough pizza, you know, to pay these monthly recurring fees. Slippery slope.

Zack Oates

Absolutely. And that’s why I mean, just like you’re talking about innovation, we say the same thing with SaaS, is that there are there are products that they should be affecting the bottom line. Right? They should be making things either if you’re not saving money or making money from it, and if the technologies and paying for itself, then it’s not it’s not worth it! Right. And I think that’s a that’s a really important as with roles, so too, with technology. I think that’s a great point.

So, as restaurants are kind of thinking about innovation, do you have any frameworks that you would recommend in terms of how do I think about my organization? And where do I start with innovation?

Ben Pryor

Yeah, it can be a little cliche, but the fast fail type of mindset. It’s funny, you know, I mentioned our passion around restaurant operations. And that’s a big hurdle to overcome. Because in general, you know, most of the restaurant companies that I look up to across the country, I look up to them, because they’re fantastic, consistent operators. You know, feels like 100 years ago, I was a server at a Houston’s restaurant, you know, Hillstone group there in Arizona, which I would consider to be, you know, a top tier operating company been doing it well, for a ton of years. And the, the opposite of that feels like innovation. It’s like a yeah, we want to try something. But we’re scared to do it because we don’t want our customers to be mad. Or we got this guy, Bob, that’s come in every Friday night for the last 17 years and ordered the same thing. So we can’t take it off the menu, or we can’t change it, or we can’t, you know, remove the booth that he always wants to sit out to put a high top. So sometimes as operations folks, we become paralyzed with this idea of what innovation means change for the sake of change. And we’ve built our brand and our reputation and our success on consistency and excellent operations. So it’s striking that balance.

You know, we’ve done stuff where, you know, we’ve got a pizza trailer, I’d almost call it a food truck, but it’s a massive trailer. So we have the opportunity with that to go try some new things. So if we want to, you know, go to a festival and sell Dewey’s pizza outside, we could menu something completely differently in an environment that’s not going to irritate anybody that you know, is coming on a Friday night with their family expecting the same experience they’ve had for the last dozen years. So it’s being creative about you know, how does a restaurant organization try something in an environment that’s that’s less risky. So you know, some other examples of that would be trying to do a kind of a pop up speakeasy. You know, customer insights type of environment, like a, like a pop up shop in some random warehouse. Like invite some of your core guests in, your loyalty members, come try these six new pizzas and you know, we’re going to give them to you for free, no harm, no foul kind of idea. But again, that sits outside of, if you really want to come with your family on on Friday night, you’re going to get the same old amazing Dewey’s pizza experience that you’re, you know, you’ve grown to expect.

Zack Oates

Yeah, I love that. In the startup world, we call something an MVP, the minimum viable product. And a lot of people are talking about the MAP or the MLP, which is the minimum awesome product or the minimum lovable product. And that’s really what it comes down to, right, you’re not throwing spaghetti at a wall. But you’re, you’re meticulously planning something to try something to see if it works in the cheapest way possible, while still getting to that same effect, right? It’s like if you if you’re trying to build a car, you don’t build four wheels on an axle and tell people what do you think of it, you build a skateboard and you think, hey, can this get you somewhere faster than a bicycle, then a motorcycle than a car, right? Like you have this progression where there’s benefit along the way. That way you can test the theory, the hypothesis, and I think that that’s, that’s a great way to think about innovation, awesome framework. Ben, what would be your last piece of advice to restaurant owners operators out there?

Ben Pryor

If I had one piece of advice, I would say, people, people and more people. And it’s funny from a tech person saying that, because we get really wrapped into automation, you know, robotics, apps, you know, all these really great technologies. But as a, as an owner, operator, even at SMB, or at larger enterprise scale, it’s like, don’t forget that, you know, the reason that people enjoy a dining experience is because of the food, obviously, the hospitality, but the hospitality is driven by your team and your people. So we’re, we’re having people feed people, otherwise, we’d have a billion vending machines, and 100 restaurants in America. And we don’t have that, because there’s this, you know, idea of like, hey, as a as a human being, I crave interaction and hospitality, and this kind of warm, friendly environment, where I’m comfortable, and I’m enjoying, you know, the company I’m with, or my family or friends. So, whether it’s innovation, whether it’s technology, no matter what it is, drive thru, curbside, it doesn’t really matter, as long as the end result is people and, you know, sticking with quality.

Zack Oates

Love that. Okay, so here are my key takeaways from today. Number one, innovation, that combination of technology people and product. Number two, while expectations around what we are to do might have changed, the expectations of the guests and the team member haven’t. So we still need to maintain that high quality no matter what. Three, innovation. And technology can be a revenue generator or cost saver, and it needs to be. Four. Fail fast, try new things. Think of that minimal viable product, minimal awesome product, minimum lovable product, and that balance. Because right now, there’s a lot that’s changing, but it’s really critical that we are testing and failing fast, failing cheap. And then lastly, it’s not location, location, location. It’s people, people people. Love that. Ben, who from the industry, would you recommend we follow?

Ben Pryor

Yeah, a few folks. I mentioned Hillstone group, Chick-fil-a, Lettuce Entertain You there in Chicago. Those to me are the three companies that I look to that that have been around for a lot of years that do it really well. And then on the tech side, you know how we me, the Restaurant Technology Network. I love the idea of idea sharing, partnering with folks throughout the industry, there’s plenty of room for each of us. So I’d recommend checking that out if you’re in the industry. And also, you know, we’ve got a couple of great partners. Specifically SpotOn POS is a partner that a lot of people haven’t heard about. But they’ve been fantastic. This last couple of yours to help us navigate this last year. You know, and I would say in general, don’t over SaaS it. Be selective about partners that are transparent and open.

Zack Oates

Awesome, Ben for helping us feel better through these flat times. Today’s ovation goes to you. Now, would you mind, would you play us out a little bit?

Zack Oates

(Outro) Glad you were with us today. And thank you! You’re the ones who deserve an Ovation. Again, this podcast was sponsored by Ovation! To see how we can help you grow your business, go to Ovationup.com. Don’t forget to subscribe, and as always, remember to give someone in your life an Ovation today!

Find out how to deliver a consistent guest experience while also trying new things with the Director of Innovation at Dewey’s Pizza, Ben Pryor.

Share This Podcast!

Give An Ovation is the number one resource for ad-free, bite-sized interviews with restaurant experts. For advice on how to build your brand, hire better, navigate COVID-19, and more, SUBSCRIBE! Available on all major podcasting sites.

FREE E-Book Download
The Off-Premise Restaurant

by Restaurant Experts

Ben Pryor is the Director of Innovation at Dewey’s Pizza, a fantastic 24-location business where he drives transformational and creative solutions with people, food, and technology. Ben has over 30 years in the hospitality industry with experience at Noodles and Company and Quality Dining Inc. (Ben is also a talented musician – listen to the outro of this episode to hear a sample of him tickling the ivories.)

Here’s a quick summary of Ben’s main points:

1) Innovation = Technology + People + Product

These are the resources that Ben combines each day at Dewey’s as the head of innovation. Ben emphasized that technology people can get caught up in all of the great apps, software, and robotics of the food industry, but they should never forget the central aspect of hospitality: people.

2) Employee and Guest Expectations Haven’t Changed

Ben sees this last year as an “amplifier, to use a musical term.” Even though every restaurant went through the ringer, guests and employees still expect the best. Employees wearing masks, or off-prem ordering isn’t an excuse to stop caring about hospitality.

3) Innovation and Technology Must Be A Revenue Generator

If it’s not, it just becomes a drag on the organization. There are many great tech startups in the industry, but in Ben’s words, “Be careful not to over-SaaS it.” The costs may be small, but they add up. So be careful when choosing solutions.

4) Fail Fast

Innovation can be a scary thing for good operators because it means straying from the status quo, and it’s probably a good status quo. To strike this balance, Ben recommends trying new things in situations that won’t affect your core experience and guests. For example, consider inviting some of your loyal guests to try new pizza flavors before making them public.

5) It’s Not Location, Location, Location

It’s people, people, people! If people weren’t important to the restaurant industry, we’d simply have “a billion vending machines and 100 restaurants in America” – but we don’t.

For more from Ben, you can find him on LinkedIn as Benjamin Pryor.

Thanks for reading! Make sure to check out the whole episode, as well as other interviews with restaurant gurus by checking out “Give an Ovation: A Podcast For Restaurants” on ovationup.com/podcast or your favorite place to listen to podcasts.

More Episodes