FoodFirst Looks Forward to What Role AI Will Play in Restaurant Technology and Services - comSpark Podcast

Kathleen Chugh - Columbus Tech Power Player Honoree

Kathleen Chugh

Previously SVP of IT for FoodFirst Global Restaurants 

Now Chief Information Technology Officer for Nando's PERi-PERi USA



Marilyn Finfrock

Senior Account Manager



To listen to the podcast, click here!


SVP of IT for FoodFirst, Kathleen Chugh, discusses the role of artificial intelligence and business intelligence in the future of the restaurant industry.


Hello, and welcome to the ComSpark podcast, where you will get to meet today's technology thought leaders. To learn more, visit


MF: We're here today with Kathleen Chugh, who is the Senior Vice President of Information Technology at FoodFirst Global Restaurants. FoodFirst Global Restaurants, with a mission to provide good food for the planet, is an organization based in Columbus, Ohio, with approximately 9,500 employees. My name is Marilyn Finfrock and I am with Flexential, formerly known as Peak 10 + ViaWest, and I will be your guest moderator today. Let's get started. Kathleen, how long have you been the CIO?


KC: I've been at FoodFirst for the last 11 years. When I started, we were actually Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, and we just recently became FoodFirst just a couple months ago.


MF: Excellent. At what point did you determine that the CIO position was for you?


KC:  Well, when I was working at Wendy's prior to FoodFirst, I was in a senior director role and, where I was in my career, I decided that I wanted to take it to the next level. I had a mentor at Wendy's who also encouraged me that I was kind of ready try it on my own, and I looked at different opportunities and settled with the Bravo Brio Restaurant Group as my first CIO position.


MF: That is good. Over the course of 11 years as CIO, how have you seen that position as CIO change?


KC:  Yeah, the technology is so fast and so furious right now. My organization is guest-facing, so we have a lot of customers, consumers, and the technology in that area has changed so much, from apps to using iPads within the restaurants to do online reservations, online ordering. So, a lot of technologies that enabled the guest, but also a lot of technologies that enabled the management team to be more efficient over the years. That’s from a restaurant perspective. From a corporate perspective, technology has changed the way we look at data, with big data and BI, and really using data to make our decisions.


MF: So, with the technology, and if I am an IT leader, what is it that I need to prepare for, for the technology's forever changing? What is it I, as an IT leader, need to make sure I'm doing?


KC:  I think staying on top of what's going on within the industry, getting involved with organizations locally, being in a technology group – that way you're up to speed on it. I’ve also been involved with the Ohio Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association, and really talk with my peers in technology about how we're using it within the restaurant industry, and we’re really learning from each other. So, making sure you're involved within your industry and any organizations can help there, as well as sometimes looking externally, outside your industry. So, looking for me, at retail, they tend to implement technology sooner than restaurants, so if I can kind of watch and look at it like maybe what a Macy's or somebody else is doing, I can then maybe learn and adopt it to the restaurants a little bit quicker. So, not just staying so narrow within your organization and within your industry but looking at other industries as well, because some adopt a lot sooner than others.


MF:  By looking at other industries as well as within your own industry, have you adopted projects for 2018?  Or, better yet, what are the top priorities you see in 2018 and forward, based on the technology as it's ever changing?


KC: I think one of the things that, at least for our organization, is to really enhance that guest journey, that consumer journey, consumer experience. Our age demographic currently is a little bit older than the Millennial or somebody that's younger, but really being able to hit all those touch points in different channels where we can kind of engage our guests. I mean, we're doing stuff socially today, etc., but just really kind of enhancing that. But one of the things that I see as being a disruptor that we need to kind of keep an eye on – so it's not an ‘18 thing, but down the road – is really AI, artificial intelligence, and how that starts to play within the restaurant industry. You can see that some of the progressive, more advanced pizza chains are actually using OnStar and things within cars to actually place your online order.  So, I really feel that artificial intelligence and online ordering are really going to start to kind of collide a couple of years from now. We use Open Table today for our guests to make reservations, and it has an Alexa skill, which is artificial intelligence. So, I could be at home making dinner and go, “Oh, I need reservations for Friday,” and just start talking to Alexa and end up making a reservation for Brio Tuscan Grille and Polaris just by talking to Alexa. I feel that that's going to really take off and then people are going to start realizing other ways they can utilize that within the restaurant industry.


MF:  And that's good to know because what you're doing is, you're taking technology to the next level that allows the convenience for the user to utilize it without even realizing they're using the technology.


KC: Exactly. They may not even know that Alexa skills really exist. They just know they can talk to Alexa. So, they're thinking, “Wow, this is convenient, I can do that. It's great.” They don't know it from the technology perspective, they just know it from the “I want it for convenience” perspective.


MF:  Of course. It carries forward into the restaurant with the iPads they can just touch and “this is what I want” type of thing. Okay, excellent. When you think about technology, what do you find over the course of the next three years that will be important? I realize it’s forever changing and changing at a fast pace, but what do you see, how to utilize technology?


KC:  I think the artificial intelligence that we talked about, that’s something that I think every industry needs to keep an eye on and see how they can utilize it. Some are using it to kind of become chat bots on their websites to provide help desk, so there's another way to potentially use it – not for guest-facing as speaking, but more as, you know, on a website. And those that support consumers or guests really need to look at that and keep an eye on that and figure out what goes into their technology roadmap. And then, business intelligence – I really feel that AI and business intelligence are going to collide a couple of years from now. I mean, people do reporting and dashboards and things like that today. And we've talked about big data for years. But really being able to have someone who's not technical, who might even be just like a CEO walking in and talking to their business intelligence tool and saying, “I want to see yesterday’s sales at this restaurant from 11:00 to 11:30, and show me how many lasagnas were sold,” and just talk through it and have it spit back the results to a person. I feel that's something to watch and it really could start taking off in a couple years.


MF: And that individual would not even realize he or she is utilizing the technology through the interaction from an artificial intelligence perspective. That’s excellent. When you think about Central Ohio, why spend so much time participating in the community, at events? I realize you indicated that it's good to learn from each other and even outside the industry. Why Central Ohio?



KC: You know, Central Ohio to me is like a Silicon Valley of the Midwest. When I moved here 23 years ago, I didn't know much about it. I got transferred with a previous employer and I thought it was going to be a resting stop for just a couple of years, and I ended up having my family here. My husband and I love it and have placed some roots here. But the technology has really grown within Central Ohio, and really all of Ohio. We have a lot of large organizations here that tend to need a lot of IT, and that bring in…we also have a lot of innovation going on, which is exciting, a lot of collaboration, a lot of people trying to get some funding from the government. So, people are starting to realize that we're a little hot bed here, you know, so we're getting some grants and we're getting some things that people are able to utilize. So, the attention is now on Central Ohio, and you know, all of Ohio is like, “Hey, we have some strength here in technology,” and then they're hoping to have us help them learn through some of the grants and different things that they're doing. So, it’s an exciting place, an exciting place to work, especially within the technology industry.



MF: That's very true, because many people don't realize that Columbus, Ohio is truly a melting pot, particularly for the restaurants to try new recipes.


KC:  Exactly. It’s surprising how many restaurant chains start here in Columbus, and then, like you’ve mentioned, other restaurants will actually come and do testing here – market tests and things like that – just because we have a great university here. Then a lot of the people want to come and stay, and that keeps our age demographic at a nice age to really come in and do a lot of market tests.­­


MF:  Excellent. Who do you rely on for advice?


KC: I have a couple of people that I rely on. One has been my mentor for the last, probably 18 years or so, and we touch base a couple times a year. If we have a question, you know, it gives me time to run something past him. He’s the one that really kind of pushed me out of my comfort zone and said, “Okay, you're ready to fly,” when I was thinking about leaving Wendy's. I needed it. Sometimes you just need someone to give you that little push. Also, through the Ohio Restaurant Association. I'm on the board there, and the CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association has been another person that I really utilize as a mentor to just discuss things with and get a different viewpoint. Being the only person in the position of CIO at FoodFirst, I don't have a technology peer I can run anything past. So, you have to look externally and have those external relationships when you're the first in that top role and you have nobody else that has that experience, just to discuss some things with. So, like I mentioned earlier, I use a lot of people within my industry that I might know or share similar vendors and systems, and we might get on a call and talk about some stuff.  But it's also good to have some people locally that you're looking to more for that overall kind of guidance rather than on-site specific technology.


MF: That's perfect. Thank you. Anything else that you want to provide to our IT community that you feel is important to make sure we're aware of? The artificial intelligence, the utilization of it, looking at that and how we can bring technology closer to the user without the user even realizing that they’re utilizing that technology…


KC:  I think there are certain vendors that are starting to really make that their specialty and their core focus area, and I think, just reaching out to some of them and having conversations and starting to talk to them and say, “Hey, how could I utilize this within my industry? Help me understand.” Because sometimes people can't think outside that box. They’re like, “Oh, that was pretty cool, I liked that” or “It was easy, but you know, I build widgets, so how could I use that for my widget company?” So, talk with people that are specialized in AI, and it may help you take a different vantage point and understand how you could potentially apply it within your industry. Or they can tell you how some of your peers might be already looking at it, and that sparks, “Maybe we are a little bit behind the 8 ball and we need to look into this a little bit more.”


MF: Excellent. Good to know. Well, thank you for your time. This has been Marilyn Finfrock and Kathleen Chugh. To learn more about us, visit Goodbye. Until next time.


To learn more about sponsorship opportunities for 2019, contact Michelle Ziegler at