Innovation Junkies Podcast

Ben Pryor on Innovation in Hospitality

Ben Pryor, of SpotOn joins Jeff Standridge to discuss the democratization of technology in the hospitality industry. They discuss how SpotOn helps small & mid-sized companies grow, innovating the employee & customer experience, and the future of innovation in hospitality.

Ben Pryor:
Strategy and innovation for me is this way of, and I’ll use a music term since I’ve got one behind me here, I use this phrase “synthesizing” a lot. So I do sound design in my spare time, which is really fascinating for me, which is essentially creating something that already exists. It’s a sound wave, but making minor adjustments to create something really amazing and new. And that’s really how I view where I think restaurant innovation should be heading, in my personal opinion. Which is: let’s make what has already been an amazing thing for hundreds and hundreds of years or thousands of years, you could argue, which is feeding people and making those human connections.

Jeff Standridge:
If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategies, and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome to the Innovation Junkies podcast.

Jeff Standridge:
Hey guys, Jeff Standridge here and welcome to another episode of the Innovation Junkies podcast. Great to be with you all today. I’m riding it solo on the hosting side today. My co-host Jeff Amerine—today, we had to divide and conquer. So we had two obligations at the same time, and I got the lucky option of being here with our guest today. Our guest is Mr. Ben Pryor. He’s the head of innovation for restaurant and hospitality for SpotOn.
He leads the development of SpotOn’s research and hospitality product innovation strategy with a focus on democratizing technology for hospitality businesses. Ben is recognized for his ability to blend technology and people. He is the one who’s driving the continuous evolution of SpotOn’s hospitality technology platform to address the rapidly changing needs of the industry. Ben, great to have you with us today. Thanks for being on the Innovation Junkies podcast.

Ben Pryor:
My pleasure, Jeff, thank you for having me.

Jeff Standridge:
Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, if you’ve listened to many episodes of the podcast at all, you know that we like to start out, if both of us remember, Jeff Amerine and I are kind of old and so sometimes our memory fails us, but if we remember, we like to have a random musing, something that doesn’t have anything to do with the podcast, per se. Although today our random musing, we couldn’t resist, is going to be a little bit related. Our random musing is what was your all time favorite restaurant, where was it, and what did you have as a meal there? So you’re up first.

Ben Pryor:
Great question. Yeah. I’m actually excited for this one. I think on a recent episode I listened to, you asked about favorite movie-based technology that you wish you could have. That one was pretty cool as well. Yeah, restaurant’s a really easy one for me because actually I grew up in Austin, Texas, and there’s a restaurant there called La Fonda San Miguel. It’s a family run restaurant made famous actually by the great Julia Child.
I was friends with the original chef-owner many, many years ago, and it was my dad’s favorite place for both pleasure and business dining. So as a young kid, I went there extraordinarily often and developed a pretty rapid love of real authentic high-end Mexican cuisine from the Oaxaca region. And they do an amazing Sunday brunch buffet. They clear out the entire restaurant and have these huge ceramic bowls full of every kind of beans, eggs, fruits, vegetables, anything you could possibly imagine. The most amazing Sunday brunch ever created in my opinion.

Jeff Standridge:
That is fabulous. You’ve got my chops, just can’t keep them dry over here. Well, interestingly, you mentioned Julia Child, so I am watching an HBO Max series, I believe it’s HBO Max. I always get lost on which streaming service I’m watching something on and I want to go back and watch another episode to have to go through all of them to figure out where it was, but I believe it’s on HBO Max and it’s called Julia and it is a docuseries about her rise from a former Diplomat’s wife to someone who really became an icon in the food world. So it’s kind of interesting. It’s called Julia. I didn’t mean to make a plug for that.
Well, if I were to talk about my favorite restaurant, where it was and what meal I had, it’s generally the one that’s in front of me at the moment, because if you looked at me sideways you would know that I haven’t missed many meals and that I like a lot of food. But I will tell you probably the most opulent meal I ever had, and I didn’t think of it when we were first kind of kicking around the random musing, but when you talked about brunch, it came to mind.
We went to the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, and if you’ve seen pictures of Dubai, it’s the big hotel that sits out on a little island in the Gulf and it looks like the sail of a ship, it’s called the Burj Al Arab. And we went up to this brunch that was the most opulent and exquisite brunch I’ve ever had in my life. And they even told me what it cost afterwards. And it was staggering.
We were hosted there by a client. This was when I was working in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. And we sat there for five hours grazing off of the cold bar and the seafood bar and then the egg bar. And then the… It was amazing, most amazing thing ever. So yeah, I would have to say the Burj Al Arab. And then the second most favorite, domestically, got to give you a chance to do your second most favorite was in Greenwood, Mississippi at the Alluvian Hotel, there’s a little restaurant there called, Giardina’s, I believe that’s what it’s called. And I think I probably had the best steak I’ve ever had in my life.
So Greenwood, Mississippi, Giardina’s, got to check that out if you’re ever in Greenwood. Don’t know what you would be there for, but if you ever were, you need to try that.

Ben Pryor:
Sounds amazing.

Jeff Standridge:
So Ben, let’s talk a little bit about SpotOn. So tell us about the company, kind of at a high level, and then what your role is there? We said the head of innovation and strategy for hospitality and restaurant, but tell us about the company and then tell us a little bit about you.

Ben Pryor:
Yeah, the company in its current form, which is about three and a half years old, is really a restaurant and retail technology company. When I say in its current form, it had been around for several years prior to that more focused on loyalty in the retail space. And they really wanted to expand their offerings to create a wider product suite for every type of small business. So not just retail, but also into the food service industry. And so through a series of acquisitions of other companies, as well as building some of our own products grew into what SpotOn is today.
Most recent acquisition was actually a company that has been really big in sports and entertainment. So if you ever go to a college football game, an NFL game, major league baseball, you’re potentially transacting with our technology in there as well.
So that’s why you mentioned the phrase democratizing technology. We do service really large enterprise clients. Most of the big sports teams you know, but also service every type of small business across America as well, both in restaurants and in retail. That can look like a point of sale terminal that I think everybody listening has probably interacted with, swipe your credit card at the coffee shop kind of a deal all the way up to, like I said, a belly up concession at a sports arena. We do food trucks, we do auto repair places, every type of small business you can imagine. And then we also are in kind of midsize restaurant, regional chains as well. Because we do have a restaurant-centric product team that’s really focused on that segment of the industry also. But we still do loyalty, online ordering, kind of all the things that you would want to interact with a small business or a restaurant. We do provide that at a really reasonable price for a small business owner.

Jeff Standridge:
Got it. Got it. So talk a little bit about your role there as the head of innovation and strategy. What does the day in the life of Ben Pryor look like?

Ben Pryor:
Yeah, for a little context, I actually led technology for a SpotOn client for several years. So I used the technology, chose to purchase it, on behalf of a pizza chain that I was with in the Midwest here. And as a client really enjoyed the relationship I had with SpotOn, really realized there was an extreme empathy that that company had for small and medium sized businesses. I believe so much in the organization that I ended up joining them full-time last fall, and really created this role to help kind of amplify that small business and restaurant empathy because I had been on the other side my entire career.
So I spent 30 years in restaurant training, development, operations, technology, et cetera, kind of done pretty much every job there is to do within the restaurant business over my career. And now that I’m on the other side, working for a technology company, it’s really important for me to solve actual real world problems that restaurants have. Not just create a better mouse trap that everybody else has been doing over the last 30 years based on how restaurants used to operate.
The last two or three years have been a dramatic shift in every industry. I think maybe restaurants have been the most dramatic because most of them are forced to close down their dining rooms over the last two or three years for certain periods of time. And out of most industries, they probably had to have the most rapid innovation, whether they liked it or not.
We are where we are now. So really trying to make sure that we don’t lose the hospitality and the real personal connection. And I really appreciate your musing at the beginning, because I think that goes back to the real emotional connection that people have with food and restaurants. And it’s generally around an experience around family, friends, a big event. And it’s really important for me that technology doesn’t eliminate that passion and love for restaurants. It should amplify what our industry’s been amazing at for the last 30, 40 years.

Jeff Standridge:
So I’m going to diverge just a little bit because I see your background there and the couple of musical instruments looks like. And so you actually have a degree in music or studied music in college, correct?

Ben Pryor:
Yeah. I had this dream to be a band director, and I don’t know if showing my age here, was really inspired by Mr. Holland’s Opus. I had an amazing—I don’t know if you remember that movie. I had an amazing music career in high school. We actually won the Grand National Championships at the Bands of America competition when I was in high school and wanted to take over the world and inspire young people to love music, worked in restaurants and hotels while I was going to college, did my student teaching and had this really adult moment of, “Oh my goodness, I don’t really want to do this as a job for the rest of my life.” But I want to take that passion for really inspiring and educating young people, which I was doing as a leader, within the restaurants and hotels I worked in. Really kind of flip that on its head and have music just as a pure passion.
So I’m still a partner in a music studio here and that’s actually where I office out of. I do a lot of piano, keyboard, organ work for a variety of artists, do some studio session work. I actually still get to do something I really love, but then the education piece, I grew up through the restaurant industry utilizing that skill by developing teams on the operations side of the house.

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah. I’m probably going to get chastised for going way off script here, but that’s all right. So your band instrument was what?

Ben Pryor:
Jazz piano was my primary and then French horn as well.

Jeff Standridge:
Okay. Yeah. So, I actually was an all-state euphonium baritone player. Played in a military band for the better part of 20 years, went to college as a music major on full scholarship until they realized I wasn’t particularly talented. And so if you were to see a depiction of my musical career behind me, it would be two instruments, a baritone and a trombone. Well, I take that back, and a third instrument, I taught myself to play one song on a ukulele for my daughter’s rehearsal dinner, right? So it’s a good used ukulele for sale. It’s only played one song. It’s just played it 4,000 times.
And so they figured out I wasn’t particularly talented, so I couldn’t be a music major. So I have this theory that there is a direct correlation between musically inclined people, music majors, and people who are successful in the technologies, strategy, innovation, computer programming, database administration, and what have you. And so we don’t have to dig into that. Maybe that’ll be a topic for another day.
So tell us, if you will, if you were to identify the top three business problems that SpotOn solves for its clients, what would that be?

Ben Pryor:
Yeah. As I mentioned our primary focus is small and medium sized businesses. And throughout my career, I’ve actually worked for some of the largest enterprise brands in the restaurant space that are national, or actually global brands, and I have opened my own small restaurant with some friends many years ago and kind of everything in between and my last organization that I mentioned, where I was a SpotOn client, we had 25 full service restaurants across five states.
So I was kind of right in that nice sweet spot of a really nice size business, but we weren’t having to worry about our locations in Dubai or China or overseas. So, I’ve experienced every level of that. And I would say to summarize kind of where SpotOn sits, we really want to figure out how do we provide what these large enterprises have by throwing bodies at an issue.
So they’ll have an entire supply chain team in-house or a 45 person technology team, fully in-house of these larger enterprise restaurant brands, even mid-market brands, like the one that I ran, and especially small businesses do not have that luxury.
And so they end up just making decisions a lot of times based on price because it’s what fits into their business model. And they don’t really think long term strategically about how are we growing our business? How can technology be an aid? It’s viewed more as just this unfortunate expense, I think, by most operators and at SpotOn, I think we’re really trying to figure out how do we make it fiscally responsible to lean into some really quality technology and not try to sell somebody everything under the sun that they may or may not need for their business?
So we really focus on flexibility, because as I mentioned at the outset, we service food trucks, we service the local Mexican restaurant down on the corner by your neighborhood, the Chinese carry out restaurants, we’ve got everything in between. And all those concepts don’t necessarily need the exact same technology. So we try to be as flexible as possible and let people pick and choose kind of in an a la carte manner of what makes sense for their business.

Jeff Standridge:
Got it. So let’s talk about how you go about innovating in this space. So, first of all, maybe before that, what do you see as the intersection between strategy and innovation or innovation and strategy? Let’s start there. And then I want to talk a little bit about how you go about innovating and executing strategy within SpotOn?

Ben Pryor:
Yeah, it actually kind of goes back to the questions you asked about my music career. It’s really interesting. I would not consider myself a really bleeding edge innovator in the sense of like, “I’m going to invent something.” I think a lot of people hear innovation and they think invention or somebody that just wakes up one morning and says, “Hey, I just dreamed up this new way of doing things.” There’s a lot of famous examples out there especially in technology that get wrapped in this innovation bubble.
So strategy and innovation for me is this way of, and I’ll use a music term since I’ve got one behind me here, I use this phrase synthesizing a lot. So I do sound design in my spare time, which is really fascinating for me, which is essentially creating something that already exists. It’s a sound wave, but making minor adjustments to create something really amazing and new.
And that’s really how I view where I think restaurant innovation should be heading, in my personal opinion, which is let’s make what has already been an amazing thing for hundreds and hundreds of years or thousands of years, you could argue, which is feeding people and making those human connections.
How do we make that even better and easier for the people that work within those restaurants? And so when I think about innovation, it’s very much incremental and thinking about things from a real human-centric place. A lot of the innovations that a lot of your audience has probably heard about recently is around robotics. So there have been a lot of stories recently about some of these larger chains leaning into cooking robots or hosting or serving robots. And it’s funny because having spent 30 years in the restaurant industry, I really think about what’s the list of a hundred things that I really hated doing in all those jobs I’ve had over the years in restaurants? And greeting people at the front door, cooking food, and serving them food are not anywhere near that top 100 things I hated doing, but yet that’s where a lot of the innovation tends to be happening within the restaurant space, because it gets a lot of PR and attention and financing. And it’s really interesting.
So I take a very different approach and think about innovation from a strategy perspective, to me, means as a restaurant, what do I want my customers and my team to really feel about working here or dining here? And thinking strategically, how do I get from where I am today to that place while still making a decent amount of money? Because nobody went into the restaurant business to get stinking rich. They did it because there’s some other reason, that’s a family tradition, there’s family recipes, it’s a real emotional connection. It’s something other than making a really ridiculous amount of money.
And so I think if we start from a place of how do we make the team member and customer experience that much better? What’s my strategy to get me from point A, B, and C? And then innovation can look different depending on what type of restaurant or service style or food it is. And I think that’s what gives me a little bit of a unique perspective. I’m definitely not anti robot, but I lean way more on the idea of I know, because I was one of those people, why people love working and opening restaurants. And I want to make that a better experience, not eliminate some things that already make that a great experience by robotics or automation or some of these other strategies, I guess you would call it.

Jeff Standridge:
So you talked about how the front office or the front of house, if you will, and the back of house in terms of cooking and preparing food and serving food is where a lot of the financing, a lot of the innovation occurs. In your experience, what do you think is one of the coolest innovations you’ve seen in the restaurant or hospitality space and what was it?

Ben Pryor:
I would say the thing that’s the most interesting is probably something that most restaurants don’t have today, but something I’m really interested in, which is around supply chain. So I think many of us over the last couple of years have had probably more exposure to supply chain than we ever realized we would in our lifetime.
We heard about how things got from this country to this country, how they’re all sitting out in the ocean and why can’t I just have that show up at my doorstep in a cardboard box instantly? And that’s never been more true than in food. So there’s a lot of technology kind of intersecting with food and growing food that I think is really fascinating. So going back to the democratizing technology conversation, these large enterprises have entire teams that are really focused on supply chain intelligence and traceability of food.
And now with blockchain and some other technologies, there’s actually a lot of really interesting things happening around purchasing fresh food, disease-free food, some things that aren’t necessarily in the genetic modification bucket, but more in, I can now understand as a small business, a chef run operator of a single restaurant. When I go to buy this case of lettuce, I can actually watch where it’s picked and I can see where it stops along the way before it gets to me. So there’s a lot of visibility happening for small businesses that were never available before. So then they can be authentic about where the food is coming from and really understand that.

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, I’ve heard of even traceable products in terms of coffee beans and fair practices, trading of coffee and being able to trace from a cup all the way back to where it came from and which farmer and what have you, which is fascinating to me. I also know that, and we’ve talked a little bit on the edges of this democratizing access to technology, one of the very first venture investments I ever made was in a company that said, “All of these restaurant chains and franchises have access to all of this great profitability dashboarding that does plate costing and food costing and labor costing, and allows you to break down every day and look at how the dollar gets spent across a restaurant operation, but single mom and pop operations don’t have access, or even small chains, don’t have access to that kind of technology.” That would’ve been in 2015. Has that changed considerably since then?

Ben Pryor:
Yes and no. So using a SpotOn example, we’ve got a really powerful reporting suite that is included within the technology package that we sell. So at a really basic level, that amount of reporting data is fantastic and is great for small businesses. The challenge, which I think you’re speaking to, is the data is available. Most small business operators don’t know what to do with it. So there’s definitely innovation happening. SpotOn is participating in some of that. And in general trends within the industry around taking a lot of data and making it actionable for a small business operator.
So saying, I would recommend you not send this, buy one, get one free meat pizza to this person that is a loyalty customer of yours that you know is a vegetarian. So that’s one example where small business is now getting a little more marketing and loyalty intelligence and more recommendations versus just these business intelligence platforms that are highly flexible, that are really built for a CFO that wants to sit there and lean on their data analysts to create custom reports.
That vision, I think was sold to restaurants in that timeframe, you’re talking about 2015 BI tools and dashboards were all the rage. A bunch of small business operators signed up for these things and they’re not sustainable because they don’t have a team of people making all the inventory adjustments on a daily basis or purchasing substitution adjustments in these platforms. And so it’s bad data in, bad data out.
So SpotOn is really taking the approach of trying to make those as simple as possible and surface really simple recommendations of, “Hey, do you realize that a massive storm is coming and maybe you shouldn’t schedule these six extra people tomorrow because of that.” So things as simple as that that an enterprise would kind of laugh at, that’s really, I think, where small business can make up significant amounts of margin just by having a little bit of forecasting intelligence surfaced for them in a really simple way.

Jeff Standridge:
Gotcha. We’re talking with Ben Pryor, he’s the head of innovation and strategy for a restaurant and hospitality. It’s SpotOn. Ben, if any of our listeners want to make contact with you or SpotOn, where can they find you?

Ben Pryor:
Yes, I’m very active on LinkedIn. You can search me there. SpotOn.com is our URL. We actually, speaking of the margin deal, we actually just released a small business margin calculator at spoton.com/pointsofprofit. You can enter actually your own data in there if you want to understand how employing different technologies can impact your bottom line and really pull back some margins.
So I would encourage any small business operators that are listening to check that out. It’s completely free to use. You don’t have to sign up for anything and really understand if I add this one piece of tech, could I potentially not have to schedule one more person on a Friday night? And that would equal X amount of bottom line profit for me as a business owner. So definitely encourage you to check it out.

Jeff Standridge:
Very good. Thanks again, Ben. We appreciate you for being with us. You can find Ben at SpotOn at spotOn.com or you can find him on LinkedIn. And that is Ben Pryor, P-R-Y-O-R. Ben, thank you so much for being with us today. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

Ben Pryor:
Same, Jeff. Thank you.

Jeff Standridge:
This has been another episode of the Innovation Junkies podcast. Thank you for joining.

Jeff Amerine (Outro):
Feedback from listeners like you helps us create outstanding content. So if you like this episode, be sure to rate us or leave a review. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest growth in innovation strategies. Thanks for tuning in to the Innovation Junkies podcast.

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