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National Restaurant Association - Game changers turn tables on keynote and business

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Game changers turn tables on keynote and business

This year’s NRA Show turned the tables on its traditional keynote presentation Sunday. It featured the ideas and perspectives of three innovators who are changing the way the restaurant industry does business.

In three sit-down interviews, National Restaurant Association President and CEO Dawn Sweeney asked Kimball Musk, co-founder of Boulder, Colo.-based The Kitchen restaurants, about the impact of local sourcing; talked to Red Robin President Denny Marie Post about how the Red Robin concept is changing to stay relevant in a sea of competition; and examined the future of restaurant delivery with Jason Droege, head of technology company Uber Everything, which developed the UberEATS food delivery service.

Some takeaways:

Kimbal Musk


A local-sourcing pioneer, Musk started his company after a stint in the tech industry. Today he runs two restaurant concepts: The Kitchen, a farm-to-table operation, and the casual Next Door by the Kitchen. He said same-store sales grew 25 percent in 2015.

“People want to dine local,” he said. “They appreciate the flavor and connection. I’m really excited about the future of local food.”

In addition, Musk’s Kitchen Community nonprofit planted 240 “learning gardens” in schools and community organizations and expects to get to 300 by July.

When asked to compare the tech and restaurant industries, he said, “Running a great restaurant requires great people, great culture, and great quality of food and service. When you run a tech company, you face the possibility of death every day. What I like about restaurants is the immediate gratification.”


Denny Marie Post


Red Robin has redefined itself over the last five years. The company started as a tavern in the 1960s, but morphed over the years into a family-centric brand. Yet Post notes that families were the first to stop frequenting the chain during the recent recession. “We were uniquely vulnerable because we were so skewed to families, but the reality is they weren’t the only guests we were serving.”

After some initial research, Red Robin found adults still wanted to dine there. “They wanted to enjoy our burgers, brews and fries, but didn’t want to be seated next to kids. We needed to morph the design of our restaurants to accommodate different kinds of customers.”

Nearly all of the chain’s 530 stores have been revitalized based on this research, Post says.

When Sweeney asked Post where she sees her brand in the next five years, she said the focus would be on delivery. “We’ve got to figure this piece out. There’s always going to be a place for coming out for a great dining experience, but the winners will be the ones who figure out how to package the whole thing up and take it home.”


Jason Droege


At nearly six years old, Uber now operates in almost 400 cities around the world. Droege said the company has two big questions: What else can it do with its vast network of drivers? What efficiencies can it bring to other industries?

One answer: UberEATS, which operates in 14 cities. “We thought we should celebrate cities and enable people to engage in the best of those cities in a frictionless way,” he said. “When you think about what makes a city, it’s not the things you go to, but the things that come to you. Connecting people with the food they want holds power.”

UberEATS works in partnership with restaurants to deliver from a limited selection of menu items. The company is working with restaurants to ensure food safety and product integrity, as well as to determine how far and long the food should travel and how it’s packaged.

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