Hot Tips & Takes: How Emerging Restaurants Can Survive and Thrive in 2023

How can a young, growing restaurant brand succeed in today’s climate? Ask Sam Oches.

As editor of Nation’s Restaurant News and host of The Takeaway podcast, Sam Oches has a lot of insight into the competitive restaurant industry. His experience with owners and industry leaders makes him a goldmine of information for emerging restaurant brands. 

We sat down with Sam to talk about how the pandemic affected emerging chains, what a recession could mean for these restaurants, and how to succeed no matter the climate. According to Sam, it’s all about authenticity, patience, creative problem solving, and building a strong community to lean on. Read on for the full interview!

What are the biggest concerns and challenges that emerging restaurants face today?

Like most every other restaurant, it’s definitely challenging to find labor and employees to staff their restaurants. And of course, emerging brands also are dealing with supply chain issues.

When your goal is to expand, you need real estate. The restaurant industry is so competitive and on top of that, the real estate market is insane. Major chains are much better prepared with massive systems and teams to navigate around these challenges, like helping them sign leases or finding potential employees.

When you’re up against those chains as an emerging brand, it’s harder to rise above all of that noise. It’s harder to get that lease, hire that person, find that supply if everybody else is doing it, and there are bigger chains that you’re competing with to do so.

How are emerging chains tackling these challenges?

Emerging brands tend to be led by entrepreneurs, so if you have a small-scale restaurant company that has multiple locations and a desire to grow, typically the more ambitious and entrepreneurial founders are still in charge. Because of that, a lot of these emerging chains have the ability to get very creative around problem solving.

Forced creativity has been a theme ever since the start of the pandemic, and I certainly hear it these days, too. When you have limited resources at your disposal and you’re forced into making certain decisions, you’re forced into thinking more creatively to get around these challenges. Larger brands can just say “Here’s some money to throw at this and fix it,” and that leads to less diversity of thought and creativity.

Emerging brands are also unique in that they usually still have attachment to their original ethos and image—which can come across as much more authentic than a lot of these major chains. This is often an advantage, particularly in recruiting people or even getting the attention of a landlord, that these emerging restaurant chains are able to act creatively and purposefully to create an image and mission that might appeal to somebody a little bit more subjectively than a major chain.

What are some of the big tech trends that you’re seeing?

Tech reaches all corners of our industry, especially in the past few years. We now expect to see digital ordering and kiosk ordering, but restaurants are exploring automation, like developing AI to automate the ordering experience or in the kitchen.

For an emerging restaurant chain, of course, it’s much harder to be able to afford a lot of these tech gadgets. Some tech used to be very specifically targeted to the major chains because they’re the only ones that are going to be able to afford it.

The pandemic was sort of this great democratization of technology where more tech vendors opened up their services and tools for emerging restaurant chains because suddenly everybody needed technology to survive. It was kind of a nice moment when tech companies really stepped up to the table.

What are some common mistakes that emerging brands should avoid?

I think a big mistake would be to get stars in your eyes. It’s easy to say, “I want to have 500 locations in five years,” and get intoxicated by the idea of getting big. I can’t tell you how many restaurant companies aren’t around anymore because they got too distracted by that big number.

That’s not to say 500 locations in five years is impossible, but growth is something that has to happen more organically. It’s exciting when people want to write you a check, own part of your company, invest in your company again, or maybe franchise, but not all of those things will be good for your company. You have to be more discerning—especially early on. 

Another one is growing into another market too early. I’ve known people who open in one city originally, and then another city far away has an opportunity for them and they just take it. If you haven’t scaled your team yet, you’re living in an airplane, having to manage those two markets.

From what I’ve seen over the years that I’ve covered this industry, you’ve got to scale at a more intentional pace, and that includes scaling your team and scaling your systems, so by the time you are ready to jump into another market, you can then appropriately scale into that with people in place to be able to handle that for you.

How has the pandemic affected these emerging brands? 

In the early days of the pandemic, we thought that all the emerging chains were going to close because they didn’t have the resources. But that wasn’t true, partly because everybody kind of supported them and gave them the solutions to get through the crisis. Also, again, the technology that allowed them to facilitate an off-premises experience really bolstered a lot of restaurants.

The pandemic certainly strengthened the resolve of emerging restaurant chains. With such a strong economy before the pandemic, the industry was robust and full of opportunity, so the pandemic was their first really big challenge to test their concept. If they got to the other side of the pandemic, which most of them did, they came out stronger than before because of their own personal resiliency. They were able to prove that they work even in crisis.

Also, the pandemic completely changed the consumer mindset. We were already heading in that direction of digital experiences, and it made that change happen rapidly—which is a very good thing for restaurant brands. For one, digital ordering allows them to collect a treasure trove of data. It also allows them to create a faster experience, build out loyalty programs, and better communicate with their customers. Emerging restaurant concepts tend to be more tech-forward anyway, because if you’re starting a restaurant company today and you’re not using tech, what are you doing?

The pandemic, in many strange ways, has been good for emerging restaurant chains because it expedited the American consumer’s digital restaurant experience and expectations in ways that these emerging chains can very perfectly meet. Of course, the challenges were the same ones that everybody else went through, but I think the resolve they’ve developed will benefit them long term.

What’s next for brands that survived the pandemic?

We do have to caution because we’re going into a recession. The last recession was actually very good for QSR and fast casual because of the trade-down from casual dining. When more Americans seek a value option, they’re going to seek a value option from a lot of the emerging restaurant chains in the fast casual category. Also, a recession could really lighten up the labor woes that are going on right now, and they won’t have such a hard time recruiting and building their workforce. For now, we just have to wait and see what the recession does for this category. 

Still, if I look into the future, I would say an emerging restaurant chain with an exciting product, a great brand, and well-established systems and teams can really shoot for the moon. I mean like go national, and strategically scale your concept to every corner in every community if you do it the right way. 

However, there will be losers, too. It’s sort of survival of the fittest, and big chains are growing too. This just goes to show the importance of having to really double down on your systems, your operations, your teams, your brand, and your product, to make sure they can rise above the rest.

Do you have any advice for today’s emerging brands?

It’s a very hard job to run a restaurant, and I say that as somebody who’s never run a restaurant. I would say first, check yourself. Make sure you’re ready for this journey. Be prepared to spend a lot of your life just really scraping by and hustling, grinding, doing what it takes. Everybody thinks how fun it would be to own a restaurant—but it’s not for the faint of heart.

I would also suggest getting to know others in the community. Having the support of your peers and your community will make it a lot easier. At Nation’s Restaurant News, we’re doing a lot around community building and bringing together these communities of emerging restaurant brands because not everyone understands the value of getting to know the people next door and around the corner and then working together to support their brands.

Yes, they might be your competitor, but more than anything else, they’re your peer. And so that’s my suggestion: find those resources available to you that will help you run your business better. It can be media (Hello, Nation’s Restaurant News—come subscribe!). But it also can be the person across the street or in your neighborhood or your community.

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We know how important same-day payments are for veterans of the service industry who are accustomed to quick cash — and we’re now seeing that same demand expand into other industries as well. 

Kickfin co-founder Justin Roberts joined MasterCard’s InConversation Webinar series to discuss why immediate payment disbursal is key for the restaurant industry and the gig economy as a whole.

Watch the webinar here or read our recap for the highlights: 

People live paycheck-to-paycheck

Not just some people are living paycheck to paycheck. Most people are. 

That’s right: around 64% of U.S. consumers are just getting by. Even more shocking, 51% of consumers who earn over six figures are still living paycheck to paycheck, despite their higher tax bracket. 

It’s a major reason why employees need access to their earnings sooner rather than later. The pressure of watching your bank account slowly drain in the two weeks between payday is putting a lot of pressure on people, leading to a much greater demand for instant payments than ever before. 

Instant payouts are now table stakes

A PYMNTS study found that people of all ages prefer to be paid out immediately, as well as some other interesting statistics:

  • When given the choice, 68% of respondents said they would opt for an instant pay out
  • 40% of gig workers surveyed were willing to pay a fee for an instant disbursement
  • 81% of respondents were willing to switch jobs to an employer that offers instant access to earned wages and tips

It’s safe to say instant payouts are becoming the expectation for today’s modern workforce. But not all instant payouts are created equal.

Consumers are much more likely to engage with an instant payout system if they aren’t required to share their bank account and routing numbers and can access funds with just their debit card credentials. Why? It’s faster, more convenient, and feels more secure. 

Instant payouts and tip management: a perfect use case.

Instant payout innovation has come at the perfect time for the restaurant industry, which is struggling more than ever with the hassles and cost of cash.

If you’re in the restaurant biz, then you know: Most consumers pay with credit cards these days, not cash. That means there’s rarely enough cash on hand to pay out tips at the end of a shift. But employees still want and need instant access to their tip earnings.

Enter: instant payouts. Offering employees the option to receive their tip earnings directly to their bank of choice, the second their shift ends, can go a long way in improving employee satisfaction and ensuring their financial security.

But instant payouts are more than a work perk for employees. The operational benefits for employers range from reduced administrative burden and significant time savings to stronger compliance and streamlined reporting.

Modernizing your tip management strategy: 5 best practices 

There are three key components to your tip management strategy: 

  • Tip pool policy: How are you divvying up tips among your staff? 
  • The payout method: How are you distributing those payments?
  • The systems and tech: What are you using to facilitate those payments?

Under the current circumstances, restaurant operators are under immense pressure to bring their tip management into the future. 

5 best practices for tip management 

Based on our experience working with restaurant operators across the country, we’ve found that these five practices are the perfect recipe for building a successful tip management system.  

  1. Determine the right model and method for your restaurant, based on your location and tech stack
  2. Get a written tip policy (and get it legally approved
  3. Solicit employee feedback in a structured way
  4. Leverage technology for efficiency, accuracy, and compliance
  5. Don’t over-complicate (but do over-communicate!)

Tip management solution must-haves

When seeking a new tip management solution, make sure you carefully vet each system to see if it really meets your needs, or if it’ll be just as frustrating as cash. Here are a few suggestions for what should be on your checklist: 

  • Instant payouts
  • Direct to bank of choice
  • Availability of employee funds
  • Payroll option 
  • Integrations 
  • Simple implementation + onboarding process 
  • Around-the-clock customer service 

Big emphasis on strong customer support teams. Restaurants and bars don’t have “typical” business hours, so neither should your tech support.

Bar Louie automates payouts with Kickfin 

In a recent case study, we took a deep dive into our partnership with Bar Louie, a chain with over 60 locations that took advantage of our new integration with Toast. They made the switch from cash payouts to Kickfin’s instant, direct-to-bank payouts and haven’t looked back.  

Two-minute tip-outs

Before Kickfin, managers spent an average of 45 minutes per shift working through Bar Louie’s complex tip out policy and counting cash. The tip pooling rules were important to them — it’s what makes the entire staff feel like they’re getting their fair share. 

Using the Kickfin0Toast integration, Bar Louie was able to automate the tip pool calculation process and send tips straight to employees in under two minutes – a potential annual savings of 15,000 labor hours across all locations.

>> See more customer success stories 

Do you want to see these kinds of cost-saving results at your business? Let’s talk. Get a demo of Kickfin and see why restaurant owners and employees alike trust us to manage their tips.

Kickfin’s best-in-class tip calculation tool has some exciting new bells and whistles.

If you’re already using Kickfin’s tip pool calculator, then you know how much time and hassle you’re saving by automating everything. (And if you’re not? Head over to our tip pooling software page to see how it works!)

As we partner with more restaurants to bring their tip management into the future, we’re continuing to innovate our product so we can address their biggest pain points.

In this case, that means enhancing our tip pooling features so you can auto-calculate tip amounts even for the most complex or unique tip pool or share policies.

Check out a few of our latest features that will make tip calculations easier than ever.

New Release: Splitting Large Party Tips 

If your restaurant often hosts large parties, you know that the tip share can get confusing. Say one server is taking care of a party of 40 with a bartender assigned to only make drinks for that party. Meanwhile, the server has a few other two-top tables that are getting drinks from the main service bar. At the end of the night, how do you ensure that the large-party bartender gets their fair share of the tip out (without spending an hour on your phone calculator)? 

Kickfin can now automate that process for you, alleviating questions from your event bartender and saving time and effort on the part of your managers. 

Seamless Integrations 

Kickfin is partnering with your POS system to integrate seamlessly with your existing restaurant tech. Already, we’re serving Toast customers through our integration — and your POS just might be up next. 

Kickfin integration users get access to new product features first, like our new tip-out transparency tool. Your employees can log into their Kickfin accounts and see exactly how their tips have been split between team members, offering them full transparency into your tip policy in action.

Manager Tips 

We’re always listening to feedback to improve the Kickfin experience, and this one goes out to all of our restaurant partners who asked us to streamline the manager tip reallocation process.

>>Learn more about managers & tipping laws

In most cases, managers are not allowed to earn tips since they are salaried employees. But we all know that managers often step in and take care of tables to help servers get out of the weeds. Well-meaning guests will most likely leave a tip, not knowing that the manager technically can’t accept them — so where does that money go?

Kickfin now features a default pool, where tips “paid” to a manager are automatically redistributed to tipped staff based on your restaurant’s tip policy. 

Improved Labor Data Accuracy

We all know how easy it is for an employee to forget to clock out after a long shift. And sure, they aren’t going to get paid for a 16-hour overnight shift, but when payday comes around, those extra hours create a nightmare for your payroll team. 

With Kickfin, all employees are required to be clocked out in order to finalize payments — so you’ll catch the labor data mistake long before your payroll team has to sort it out. 

Even Better Security 

We’re committed to protecting you and your employees’ hard-earned money, so we’re adding an extra layer of security for certain transactions. You can now enable double approval of payments that meet certain conditions:

  • First payment for new employees
  • Employees getting their first payout in X number of days
  • Employees receiving more than X payouts in a 24-hour period. 

With these extra guardrails in place, you can always be sure that the right money is going to the right person. Reach out to our support team to configure your custom security measures.

Using Kickfin is a win-win for operators, managers, and employees alike. Restaurateurs save on cash delivery and labor costs, managers shave hours off their workload, and servers have the same instant payment that they’re used to — without the hassle and uncertainty of cash. 

Want to learn more about Kickfin? Let us show you the ropes with a demo

You heard it here first: 2024 is the year of integrations. 

In an effort to make Kickfin even more user-friendly and adaptable for our partners, we’re working with restaurant tech leaders to integrate our tip management solution with their existing systems. 

First up — Toast! A trailblazer for cloud-based restaurant management technology, Toast is a favorite POS system for restaurants, food trucks, and bars. You probably know them best for being the first to create handheld POS devices, drastically changing the entire restaurant ecosystem. To make life easier for their customers, Toast partnered with Kickfin to create an integration that makes tip pooling, tip distribution, and calculation smoother. 

As restaurant tech innovators ourselves, this partnership is the perfect fit for Kickfin. 

Our goal at Kickfin is always to save time for managers, prevent loss for operators, and create more financial freedom for hospitality employees through pioneering technology that digitizes many of the analog processes that the restaurant industry is built on. 

As a member of the Toast Partner Ecosystem, we’ll be able to deliver our product to Toast customers and modernize their tip management systems with ease. Using technology that they’re already familiar with, Toast customers can reap the benefits of Kickfin with minimal ramp-up upon implementation.

“No two restaurants split tips the same way, but invariably, it takes too long and involves too much risk,”  said Justin Roberts, the co-CEO of Kickfin. “This integration allows for the utmost customization with a near-zero learning curve — truly the best of both worlds for restaurants that want to save time, reduce labor costs and make life easier for their team.”

And one of their partners is already enjoying the ROI with Kickfin. Bar Louie takes great pride in making tip distribution equitable for all of their employees, so they rely on a complex tip pooling system to ensure fair pay. Prior to using Kickfin, managers at each of their 60 locations spent 45 minutes at the end of every shift to make calculations and divvy out funds to all of their servers. Now, they’ve streamlined their tip-out process with Kickfin — and managers are doing the same work in less than a minute! That’s an annual average of 15,000 hours saved across their entire chain. 

>> Hear more Kickfin success stories

After implementing Kickfin, managers can spend their time on what matters most: delivering excellent customer service. That means more table touches, more support for your staff, and more time to focus on server training. 

With managers spending more time on the floor (instead of counting cash in the back), you’ll see better customer reviews, better service, and increased sales — all from digitizing your tip-outs with Kickfin.

We’re excited about our new partnership with Toast and the opportunity to make digital tipping a reality for their customers. For restaurants who aren’t using Toast, don’t worry! We look forward to providing similar integrations across the restaurant tech industry.  

Want to see these results for yourself? Find out how to become a Kickfin integration partner or check out a demo of our platform.

No growing pains here! 

We’re thrilled to announce that Inc. listed Kickfin in their list of the top 10 fastest growing companies in the Southwest. (In fact, we earned the #1 spot in the software category and were listed as #9 overall!) We’re honored to be included alongside innovative companies that are making a big difference in our region. 

Inc. measured Kickfin’s growth from 2020 to 2022 — which wasn’t an easy time for the restaurant industry, to say the least. In spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, restaurant concepts across the country embraced Kickfin’s technology. 

As a group, the 2024 Inc. honorees averaged 136% growth and created 17,606 new jobs over a two-year period. Individually, Kickfin grew by a whopping 1,304% (yes, really!).

We want to recognize and thank both our amazing customers and the Kickfin team for being part of our success story and allowing us to be a part of theirs. 

Our Customers

For years, restaurants manually calculated and paid out cash tips — despite the increasing hassle and liability those old-school methods entail. It’s not because operators are tech-averse; there simply wasn’t a good way to automate the process that didn’t create new friction or require new workarounds. 

That’s precisely why we developed Kickfin. Of course, we’re proud of what we built and the team behind it (more on that below). But we owe a great deal of our success to the customers who trusted us enough to give Kickfin a shot — especially those early adopters who are now some of our longest-standing customers.

There’s a leap of faith involved when you partner with a vendor and layer in new technology, particularly when it impacts something as important and sensitive as how you pay your people.  We don’t take that lightly, and we are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve each and every customer who’s been on this journey with us.

>> Hear from our customers about their experiences with Kickfin

Our Team 

Every person on our team wholeheartedly believes in our mission and vision for the future. In short: we’re here to make the tip management process insanely easy for everyone so that paying out your people is (almost!) as great as getting paid. 

As backstory: Our co-founders, Brian and Justin, came up with the idea for Kickfin while dining out together and noticing that an armored car was dropping off cash. They asked why a restaurant would need a cash delivery when most patrons pay by card; the manager explained the cash was needed to pay out tips at the end of the shift. The inefficiency (and expense, and risk…) of that process was a lightbulb moment for Brian and Justin.

They set out to build a team who not only understood the problem, but could think critically and creatively about a solution — and bring it to life. 

From sales and marketing to product and support, every Kickfin employee has had a hand in the growth and success of our company, thanks to their passion for our purpose and their commitment to being best in class.

We’re proud of what we’ve achieved thus far, and we’re excited to continue collaborating with our customers, innovating on their behalf, and taking Kickfin to the next level together. Onward and upward!

See Kickfin in action!