Not every idea scribbled on a bar napkin sees the light of day, but in the case of Piada, a fast-casual chain from Columbus, Ohio, the bar napkin was just the start.
Founder Chris Doody got the idea for the business after experiencing the street food on a trip to Italy. Seeing a chance to bring a version of Italian street food Stateside, he scribbled some notes on a napkin and opened the first Piada in 2010. “He was looking at the landscape, and he could see that a change that was coming,” says Matt Harding, Piada’s Director of Culinary/Corporate Executive Chef. What Doody saw was not just an opportunity to recreate the Italian street food experience at home, but also a chance to try out the fast casual concept, which was then only starting to get popular.
It obviously worked. Since 2010, Piada has expanded to 42 locations, from Columbus all the way down to Texas. They made Fast Casual’s 2018 Top Movers and Shakers list and was on Restaurant Business’ Future 50 list for 2017.
Like a growing number of fast-casual restaurants, Piada promotes fresher ingredients and faster service as part of its message. And as is the case with others, technology plays an increasingly bigger role in the chain’s experience and operations these days. In the case of Piada, however, it’s less about the tech than it is about how you use it.
Take delivery, which Piada offers via third-party services like Uber Eats and Grubhub. For the entire restaurant industry, delivery sales have increased by 20 percent over the last five years, and chains large and small have responded to the demand by aggressively expanding delivery services, usually through partnerships with third parties like DoorDash, Grubhub, and Uber Eats. Others, meanwhile, are busy altering their brick-and-mortar stores so they can physically accommodate more delivery orders.
Piada has stepped up, adding a second line in the kitchen for food preparation and installing shelves in the dining room on which finished orders can wait until their driver arrives. And as it turns out, Piada was delivery-ready from the get-go, having built extra space for those grab-and-go shelves into their restaurants back when the chain first launched. “We’ve always had the space,” says Harding. “I think what we had was an issue with constitution. We weren’t willing to staff it and manage it and make a go of it.” He adds that new locations will dedicate 25 to 30 percent more space for delivery operations.
Still, the in-house dining experience isn’t going anywhere, even at places like Piada, where speed is king. That’s one reason the company continues to focus on actual humans at the same time its developing its approach to tech. “I don’t think necessarily that every restaurant is going to go to kiosks,” he says, adding that, while kiosks make sense for a $3 sandwich, “if you’re getting a great wholesome meal and you’re paying $10, [people] are part of the cost of doing business.”
Piada’s other focus these days is people, whether they’re customers or employees. While Harding agrees technology can be used to grow the company and simultaneously take away some of the more “mind-numbing” tasks, he doesn’t see a future where Piada’s kitchen lines are manned by bots and customers exclusively order and pay for food via kiosks.
He surfaces a good point. As our need for speed increases, so does the general demand for quality, whether that’s in a friendly interaction over a cash register or fresher, healthier food. In the fast-casual world, reconciling those two very different issues is paramount for any chain hoping to stay at the front of the competition. If Piada can continue to hold that balance, we can expect to see them hanging in that movers and shakers list for some time to come.