Is Tesla Building a C-Store Chain?

By 
Jackson Lewis, Associate Editor

FSTEC 2017

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- One theme became clear in the early hours of Winsight's FSTEC conference: Digital surprises are coming fast in business.

The restaurant industry’s annual gathering of technology executives, held in Anaheim, Calif., offered a collection of ambitious innovation relevant to all types of businesses across the United States.

Here are some of the revelations that likely prompted attendees to pause—if not panic—and what they might mean for the convenience-store industry ...

Tesla eyes convenience

Tesla

Is automobile maker Tesla bound to muscle its way into its own food-focused c-store? That possibility was raised at FSTEC by JB Straubel, the electric-car company’s chief technical officer. He revealed how the plug-in stations being constructed by Tesla for roadside recharges are morphing into full-scale rest stops that could offer food.

“People are coming and spending 20 to 30 minutes at these stops,” waiting for their Teslas to suck up electric power, Straubel said. “They want to eat; they want to have a cup of coffee; they want to use the bathroom.”

He showed an aerial depiction of a recharge center that included what looked exactly like a c-store. “They’re starting to look a lot like convenience stops,” said Straubel. “It’s amazing how quickly things are evolving.”

Still, he stressed, Tesla has no interest in managing a foodservice operation. More likely, he said, the company will pursue partnerships.

“We already have been working with restaurants,” said Straubel.  “That can only start scaling up.”

More data, more employees?

Data analysis

Technology has sparked debate about machines replacing restaurant crew members and eliminating gads of jobs. At FSTEC, the discussion shifted to the effect on headquarters hiring. The topic applies to c-stores as well. There are a multitude of analysis tools c-store operators can use to track their store’s performance, but is it necessary to hire someone whose primary responsibility is tracking said data?

“Before, you couldn’t afford an analyst,” said Jim Balis, CEO of the Norms Restaurants chain. “Now you can’t afford not to have an analyst.”

Not every speaker agreed. Gala Capital Partners, a company that operates franchised and proprietary restaurant brands, hired a college intern to boil data into insights for 20 hours per week, said Managing Partner Anand Gala.

He contended that the right dashboard and analytical component of data-generating software should provide easy-to-absorb intelligence if it’s done right.

“Not everyone has an analyst, not everyone can afford an analyst, not everyone needs an analyst,” Gala said. “If you can have a solution that pulls in the data and analyzes it in a KPI (key performance indicator) dashboard, that’s it.”

The need to manage legacy systems while adopting new technology may require companies to expand their teams initially, said Maureen Cushing, vice president of technology and systems for Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG). But “if we do technology right and move forward, you probably will end up with less people to support it,” she said.

The new rules for ROI

Technology

A recurring topic during FSTEC was determining when to embrace a new piece of technology, an applicable lesson for c-stores, as well. The consensus was to base the decision squarely on the return. The yardsticks for gauging that payback were as varied as the concepts represented at the conference.

Look beyond money, said Cushing, who came to the USHG fine-dining group from retailing and tech businesses. “The technology that’s going to win the race and change the game is going to be the one that gives back time—time for your staff and time for your guest,” she said.

Gala Capital Partners uses a checklist to determine if a technology merits adoption. “Does it impact sales positively? Does it impact profits positively? Does it impact process positively? If it does not check two of those boxes, it’s not a priority,” Gala said.

Check customer reviews

Customer reviews

Going by gut is definitely not a sound way for choosing a technology or vendor, a number of speakers agreed, some citing their own blunders as proof. They recommended a number of specific safeguards, all of them pivoting on information gathering before the contract is signed.

Gala Capital Partners was one of the operations that admitted getting burned. And it knows now how to avoid a repeat. “We should have been more diligent and called every one of their customers who were in our industry who were of similar size,” Gala said.

“One of the questions we usually ask is, ‘What’s your refresh rate?’ ” said Balis. “How many people re-up after using your solutions?”