Like every industry, restaurants have seen accelerated change over the past few years. Brewing demands for faster, more convenient and more delightful dining experiences have created a battleground for customer loyalty and business growth in a post-2020 world. As a result, some of the best leaders are getting creative, bringing some of the most compelling advancements in automation, robotics, and digital to their businesses.
Among them is Wyman Roberts, the former CEO of Brinker International and is currently a consultant to the CEO. Brinker International is a world leader in casual dining, and owns Chili’s, Maggiano’s Little Italy and two virtual brands. Wyman, who spent nearly two decades in leadership roles at Brinker, spearheaded cutting-edge innovation for both restaurant guests and teams. In his tenure, he oversaw Brinker’s ownership of more than 1,600 restaurants in 29 countries and two U.S. territories and led a period of major growth at Chili's, with total sales up 23.4% over the past decade.
Today Wyman is joining us as an advisor. His tenure begins as we are starting to see increased engagement from the retail, e-commerce and restaurant sectors and more opportunities for growth following our recent Part 135 regulatory milestone. We’re excited to work with Wyman and recently sat down with him to hear his perspective on the industry.
You spent nearly two decades with Brinker International. Tell us a little bit about how things have changed in the restaurant industry.
I've been in the restaurant business my entire career. A lot has changed – fast food, health trends, more delivery options, and more opportunities to automate the experience. But the reason I got into this business hasn't changed. People will always want to gather and sharing a meal will always bring people together.
At Chili's our customers wanted a casual dining experience that was convenient and fast, without sacrificing quality. We wanted to delight customers while keeping costs down. A lot of the innovation we've seen over the last several years – mobile apps, delivery services, robotic kitchens - has been aimed at those two priorities. For example, well before the pandemic, Chili's was the first to roll out tabletop ordering technology. It was incredibly effective; it saved money and customers loved it.
The pandemic pushed the industry to innovate further and much faster, particularly with delivery, mobile ordering, and contactless service. Luckily for us, Chili's has a long history of looking to technology to improve the customer experience.
What brings you to Zipline?
Throughout my time at Brinker, I worked closely with our innovation group to invest in technology or other novel approaches to the dining experience.
In the pandemic, ordering infrastructure and delivery became even more critical. In response, restaurants began reconstructing everything that interfaces with customers and looking for ways to reach people where they lived. That’s how I started exploring automated autonomous delivery.
We looked at a lot of technology in automation and autonomy - cars, robots that moved along the sidewalk - and narrowed the field to drone delivery. We had some early success, and I really became a believer in the technology. This is when I started meeting with Zipline, which is proving that automated instant delivery technology can work at scale.
What gets you excited about this technology?
Drones get to the heart of the core issues facing the restaurant business today.
Take inflation. It’s top of mind for all of us at the moment. A lot of delivery models break down with scale. Think about on-demand delivery apps (the Grubhubs and UberEats of the world); a person needs to come to a restaurant and pick up an order, then drive a gas-combustion vehicle to deliver a small meal to a customer. At the individual level, that’s costly. And those hard costs (labor, transportation, time, gas, service fees) don’t get cheaper with more orders.
Autonomous, instant delivery solves a lot of these margin challenges on first order (no traffic and no gas, for example) and have the potential to be hugely cost-effective at scale. And, it’s incredibly efficient and reliable. Orders can be delivered in a matter of minutes, delighting customers with hot food straight from the kitchen. At Brinker, we saw this potential and wanted to be a first mover.
We’re excited to have you joining Zipline as an advisor. As you know, there’s a lot of opportunity for drone delivery, and for Zipline in particular. From your perspective, what does the future hold?
Drone delivery from restaurants is going to happen. There’s a ton of excitement and real market pull for the value it provides. I’m excited to be joining Zipline as an advisor because they’ve already proven their value and ability to scale in the healthcare space and in other markets. By starting with more critical products like blood and vaccines, they chose the harder path to get where they are today, and are more trusted to deliver as a result. Their model is proven, it’s effective and it’s changed lives. They’re the reliable partner that restaurants need for this to take off.
What does the restaurant experience look like in 30 years? Will it all be automated? Will people just get delivery?
I still think it comes down to my belief that gathering is fundamental to the human experience. If you ever doubt that, just look at theme parks. They defy logic, yet people will stand in line for hours for a 3-minute experience. People want to share experiences and feel connected. We may make some changes to make things more efficient, but at the end of the day, we’ll all still gather to eat good food together.