Apr 20, 2024 14 min read

If Everybody Looked the Same

If Everybody Looked the Same
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Happy Saturday and I hope you had a great week.

This week team Branded was out at the Restaurant Leadership Conference (“RLC”) in Phoenix, AZ. Hitting the road isn’t new to Branded and in fact showing up for industry events continues to be something we’re committed to doing as we believe its contributed tremendous value to our company.

Readers of the H^2 know my views on the importance of showing-up and my strong preference for in-person work and meetings. I understand and respect that in this post-COVID world, optionality and flexibility, when it comes to work from home and remote work, are in vogue, and I dare say, are here to stay.

I reserve the right (as we all have) to re-visit this topic years from now to see how it all plays out. I’m particularly interested (and I dare say concerned) on how this will have impacted the new talent that entered the workforce since the pandemic and the embracement of working remotely. As a product of my own experiences (as we all are), the most meaningful, influential, and pivotal moments in my career were all unscripted, spontaneous, and chance encounters. For avoidance of doubt, no such moments, at least for me, have happened on a Zoom call.

The embracement of this optionality around in-office and remote work has only made industry events like RLC even more important as our coming together has become more concentrated in these in-person conferences.

There’s been a great deal written about RLC 2024 including below by Branded’s marketing evangelist, David “Rev” Ciancio, and while my theme for the Top of the Fold this week was inspired by the conference, I’m going to attempt to play it a little differently (would you expect anything else?).

Before diving into that, I do want to give a big thank you and shoutout to our friends at Informa Connect including, but certainly not limited to Joe Donnelly, Chris Keating, Marcus Viscidi and Mark Hatch. The team at Informa Connect continues to raise the bar (pun intended) on its hospitality & food service conferences and I would argue that RLC 2024 was the strongest I’ve attended as the energy and genuine enthusiasm for being together was at an all-time high.

For those less in the weeds of this conference or even the industry, a few of my takeaways from RLC 2024 included the following:

  • Restaurant traffic is down and expected to remain so for the foreseeable future.
  • Labor issues remain a critical headwind and that includes sourcing talent, retaining talent and the 800-pound gorilla in the room, California’s $20 minimum wage. The industry expects this to become a nationwide wage.
  • The M&A market in both restaurant brands and technology is expected to continue and only gain momentum. I’ve been pounding the table on this for a while now but heard this view from many others at the conference.
  • If Schatz and I were playing our conference drinking game, where we select a word and take a fictious sip (and sometimes a real one) of a libation every time we hear the selected word spoken, one word that I heard more this year at RLC 2024 than ever before was “catering.”
  • Personalization and that includes loyalty, direct & targeted marketing and actionable guest feedback might not be new topics, but were part of many discussions, presentations and for Branded specifically, the subject of several strategic conversations.
  • Finally, despite all the attention and emergence of tech & innovation on the restaurant industry, I had more discussions about a reset or how to rethink tech-stacks. I’ve long said we’re still in the early innings of this digital transformation and I felt the discussions around how a restaurant group would start a tech-stack today was very telling of how many operators have been patiently watching, learning and desire to move with intentionality. Yes, we’re still in the early innings.
JB: the selection of this scoreboard is for you!

Coming out of RLC 2024, what I want to touch on were a few questions that were asked of me at the event and specifically ones tied to expressions or maybe verbiage I’ve used often in the H^2. Based on these questions and with good intentions, it's clear that some clarity is needed.

As a point of reference, when I’m in a meeting (or on a Zoom call) and something is said that I don’t understand or maybe I’m unsure about with respect to its intended meaning, I’m the person that asks for clarity.

Think of me as your friendly Tom Hanks from the 1988 film Big in the scene when a toy is presented in a corporate meeting. If “I don’t get it,” I will raise a question or speak up. Over the years, I've found it quite rare when I elect to speak up that there aren’t others who also had the same question or maybe also needed some clarification.

So, in that spirit, and b/c I was asked a few questions about the H^2, I want to raise those questions here and address them (as maybe there are others who have the same questions and would like some clarity).

I write often about Branded being an “operator-centric” investment platform and how our investment thesis is to identify, vet and then invest and help accelerate “operator-centric” emerging technology & innovation companies.

The question I was asked, was what do I mean when I say “operator-centric?” I appreciate my friend Mr. AE asking that questions (and I enjoyed our discussions while we were together at RLC).

If you replace the word “operator” with the word “people” and even more specifically “people in the industry,” I wonder if that would help address the question (or does it raise more questions?).

At the end of the day, every business needs to know who it serves and why they serve them. There are of course often more than one constituency or stakeholder that a business must serve and deliver for, but who are they and how do you rank their importance to your business?

On Tuesday out at RLC, and at the CEO Roundtable (“Lessons in Leadership”) session presented by Jason Valentine, CSO at Botrista Beverages which included CEOs Elisia Flores from L&L Hawaiian BBQ; Beto Guajardo from Blaze Pizza; Josh Halpern from Big Chicken; Jason McGowan from Crumbl, Mr. Halpern expressed that “you need to work on your authentic brand every day.” I loved that line and ethos as I feel it’s not only mission critical for all businesses, but b/c Big Chicken screams of authenticity.

For Branded, we’re an investment platform, and our business was built on the conviction that there was meaningful friction between hospitality operators and technologists. There are many kinds of technologists just as there are many kinds of operators (aka: the people) that work in the industry and the plethora of roles, responsibilities and functions they perform.

If you have the opportunity to quote El Guapo from the Three Amigos, you take it!

Branded is authentically committed to supporting operators and we believe that the right technology & innovation can improve efficiencies, optimize margins, and address the most pressing pain points & challenges. There’s no one-size-fits-all (or even one-size-fits-most) solution and that’s why understanding the individual needs of a large and diverse group of industry personnel is so critical.

There are operators (people) responsible for the front of house (“FOH”) just as there are those responsible for the back of house (“BOH”). There are those that work in the corporate office that of course have different responsibilities and therefore needs from the folks in the weeds and on floors of the brick & mortar units.

Our “operator-centric” ethos is to understand all aspects of the restaurant business, its operations, workflow and specifically where technology can be utilized to create value.

In speaking with Mr. AE about all of this and digging into the meaning of Branded being authentically “operator-centric,” he responded that it’s about how technology can help, enable, or create leverage for the people that work in the hospitality industry.

Yes Mr. AE, that is exactly what it’s about and I appreciate you helping to address and maybe provide some clarity around this critically important value-proposition that Branded is committed to bringing to the industry (one operator at a time).

A second question that I was asked and I want to cover today is the meaning of “best in suite.” I’ve shared (often) that Branded believes “best-in-suite” will beat “best-in-class.”

I appreciate my friend, Mr. BB, (aka: "The Wine Guy") asking me to clarify this b/c this conviction isn’t meant to suggest that I expect only a few technology platforms will dominate the industry. For avoidance of any doubt, that will most certainly not be the case.

The size, fragmentation, and diversity of the restaurant industry will uniquely not allow the type of dominance by technology platforms that we see in other industries (where a few players own the majority of the market).

Branded’s expectation is that the winning technology platforms will be the ones that offer a larger suite of services to its hospitality customers. This can be done by larger platforms acquiring point solutions, building additional functionality, or integrating with other service providers. Any of these paths and strategies will expand the offering and increase value to the operator by reducing the friction that comes with maintaining disparate and separate technology solutions.

For the companies that feel they represent a “best-in-class” solution, your job is to secure the right partners and sales channels. You need integrations (lots of them) b/c operators will elect to move forward with a lesser solution if it more seamlessly integrates with its “heart” (point of sale) or “brain” (kitchen display system) or any of the other foundational software systems imbedded in their business.

The restaurant industry is a team sport and for the technology companies that desire to win in this industry, you need to approach operators (aka: the people who work in the industry) with solutions that embrace the mantra that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.

It takes a village.

If everybody looked the same, we'd get tired of looking at each other.

Capital is not ‘Free Fallin,’ and I don’t want anything I’ve been writing to be taken as otherwise.

However, there has most certainly been a loosening or maybe a thawing in the capital flows and that’s proving to be most excellent for Branded’s portfolio companies and I'm sure other investment management platforms as well.

Last week I had the privilege of sharing with the subscribers of the H^2 that Bite; Juicer and Leasecake all successfully closed on meaningful rounds in support of their respective growth strategies.

What I couldn’t announce last week, but I get to do this week, is that another Branded portfolio company, Ecotrak, a company that provides an intelligent facility management platform, raised $30mm in funding.

The round was led by Respida Capital, with participation from Carver Road Capital and existing investor, Gala Capital Partners.

The Branded Team is excited to welcome Respida Capital, a private investment firm based in Miami, Florida that invests in the information technology, SaaS, and TMT sectors to the Ecotrak family. We also want to give a shoutout to our friends from Gala Capital for their continued support and leadership of Ecotrak.

This successful capital infusion follows a record-breaking year for Ecotrak and will help accelerate the company's product development and go-to-market efforts. Ecotrak has experienced rapid growth, driven by its unrivaled ability to provide insight into enterprise facilities and assets, which generates significant ROI for customers like Inspire Brands, Flynn Group, Dutch Bros Coffee and Dave & Buster's.

Ecotrak simplifies facilities management through modern web and mobile applications for multi-site owners and operators of restaurants, convenience stores, grocery stores, and countless other businesses. The Ecotrak platform combines asset-specific data at a granular level, automation, and predictive analytics with a large network of service providers. The result is a modern and easy to execute workflow that reduces equipment downtime and maximizes warranty claims.

From one of the announcements about the $30mm raise, CEO Matt singer shared "we are excited to partner with experienced operators and technology investors who can help accelerate our growth strategy. As pioneers of enterprise asset management, Ecotrak drives operational scale for our customers and delivers tangible bottom-line impact through analytics and work automation. This investment allows us to further capitalize on these opportunities and solidify our market position."

From the investors that drove this investment, "we're thrilled to be part of this exciting journey with Ecotrak," said James Zubok, Founder and Managing Member of Respida Capital. "Their innovative approach in the rapidly growing facilities management market, integrating enterprise asset management with AI-powered analytics, creates a compelling formula for success."

Finally, "with our experience operating premier hospitality destinations, we understand the critical importance of having detailed asset information readily accessible," said Sean Christie, co-founder and CEO of Carver Road Capital. "Combining this information with connections to service providers is critical to efficient facilities management and ensuring unparalleled guest experiences."

The second shoutout this week goes to our friends and partners at Chowly. I’ve been told I write about Chowly often. Others say I owe Sterling some Branded swag for his commitment to our podcast, The Hospitality Hangout, as a result of his setting an almost untouchable high watermark with respect to his guest appearances.

Both preceding statements can be true.

However, my enthusiasm for Chowly is about their commitment to SMB restaurant owners and the building a platform that uniquely affords SMB operators enterprise level software.

Chowly’s commitment to SMB owners runs deep and this week I have privilege of sharing their Top 7 recommendations on “How to Ace a Conference as an SMB Owner.”

As the conference circuit continues to heat-up, I hope these recommendations from Chowly prove helpful.

Conferences serve as powerful platforms for SMB owners to network, gain industry insights, and discover innovative solutions. By mastering conference strategies, SMBs can seize opportunities, forge valuable connections, and propel their businesses to new heights.

Acing a conference as an SMB owner involves strategic planning, effective networking, and proactive engagement.

Here’s how:

1. Research and Connect: Prioritize researching conference speakers, exhibitors, and attendees. Identify key players in your industry and learn about their work and recent developments. Approach interactions with a genuine interest in connecting and finding common ground.

2. Plan Your Schedule: Review the conference agenda in advance and select sessions, workshops, and networking events that align with your business goals. Create a flexible schedule that allows for meaningful engagements while also leaving room for spontaneous opportunities.

3. Dress Comfortably: Opt for attire that is both professional and comfortable, especially shoes suitable for walking and standing. Being physically at ease enables you to focus on networking and learning without distractions.

4. Bring Business Cards: Despite the digital age, business cards remain a valuable tool for exchanging contact information. Ensure your cards are updated and easily accessible to facilitate seamless networking.

5. Engage Actively: During sessions and networking breaks, actively engage in conversations, ask questions, and share insights. Approach each interaction with curiosity and a willingness to learn from others’ experiences.

6. Follow Up: After the conference, follow up with contacts you’ve made, expressing appreciation for their insights and suggesting next steps for collaboration or further discussion. Personalized follow-up emails or messages demonstrate your commitment to building lasting connections.

7. Share Insights: Share your conference experiences and key takeaways with your team and on social media platforms. Highlighting valuable insights and connections demonstrates thought leadership and reinforces your presence within the industry.

Small business conferences can be a goldmine of insight and connection if you approach them with the right mindset. By implementing strategic planning and proactive engagement, you can establish trust and rapport with like-minded entrepreneurs and operators that will equip you with newfound knowledge and drive business growth.

Readers of the Hospitality Headline, that are interested in learning more about Branded’s portfolio companies, investment strategies and future opportunities, are invited to explore becoming part of our Access Hospitality Network.

In today’s episode of Hospitality Hangout, Michael Schatzberg, “The Restaurant Guy,” and Jimmy Frischling, “The Finance Guy,” are joined by Angela Leet, CEO of QSR Automations and the self proclaimed "Kitchen Chick"!

Angela discusses the company’s innovative kitchen automation solutions and their recent recognition of being named as a finalist for the prestigious Ring of Fire award. She shares insights into their new product, ConnectSmart Recipes Plus, which aims to extend the capabilities of kitchen screen investments and address labor challenges through digital transformation. She delves into QSR Automations’ philosophy of treating the kitchen as the “engine room” of a restaurant, creating a calmer environment with real-time information and predictive data for kitchen staff.

You can tune in on SpotifyAppleAmazoniHeart, or your favorite listening platform!

Make your drinks go viral!

Craft personalized drinks for an unforgettable guest experience!

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🔍 Got Questions? We've Got Answers! 🌟

Satisfy your thirst for knowledge? Look no further! It's time to dive into our brand-new segment: "Ask The Headline"! 🎉

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That’s it for today!

See you next week, (about the) same bat-time, same bat-channel.

It takes a village!

Jimmy Frischling
Branded Hospitality Ventures
235 Park Ave South, 4th Fl | New York, NY 10003

Branded Hospitality Ventures ("Branded") is an investment and advisory platform at the intersection of food service, technology, innovation and capital. As experienced hospitality owners and operators, Branded brings value to its portfolio companies through investment, strategic counsel, and its deep industry expertise and connections.

Learn more about Branded here: Branded At-A-Glance

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