Focus Brands International President Beto Guajardo shared his insight, as well as personal and professional lessons in business growth, during his keynote address which kicked off this week’s Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit taking place in Atlanta.

When Beto Guajardo reflects on his first job, at the age of 17, in the fast food industry he looks back with pride, with a smile, and with more than a touch of nostalgia.

That’s because working at a well-known hamburger brand provided a rewarding job experience, a strong connection with fellow workers and customers, and served as his career launch pad into the restaurant industry.

It was 1984 and he expected to be working the counter but found himself on the grill, and, he recalled, he became the “best damn griller operator you can imagine.” The job proved to be fun and he prided himself on his skills and ability to engage with both fellow employees and customers.

When he was moved to the POS, and working the drive thru, his goal was to make at least one customer laugh each day.

“Boy did I have fun. It was all ‘how can I help you?’ That’s how I was trained. You handed the order over like a gift. We had a connection and I was proud and still proud that’s where I started my career 30 years ago,” said Guajardo, president of Focus Brands International.

Based in Atlanta, Focus Brands International is a top developer of global, multichannel foodservice brands. With more than 1,650 locations worldwide, its seven highly recognizable brands are found in more than 60 countries and include Auntie Anne’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, Jamba, Moe’s Southwest Grill and Schlotzsky’s.

Guajardo shared his job tale during his kick-off keynote address Tuesday at the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit. The annual industry event, hosted by Networld Media Group, is taking place this week in Atlanta.

His presentation, “Restaurant Strategy and Execution in a Post-Covid World: The Evolution of Store Management, Footprint and Technology to Meet the New Reality,” was sponsored by Immediate, a company that helps businesses recruit, retain and engage employees by providing on-demand pay solutions.

Status check in the post-COVID environment

Guajardo said his first job experience is an example of what’s missing today in foodservice, in the post-pandemic environment, and is one of three strategy prongs brands need to focus on. The other two are the evolution of the store format and technology.

In his talk he asked attendees whether they watched the recent Olympics, and used the global competition as an analogy of what’s happening in foodservice, an industry that remains challenged by the ongoing COVID-19 and Delta variant spread.

During the Olympics, he noted, viewers saw amazing venues where contests took place, watched athletes working hard as well as great sportsmanship. What fans didn’t see were fans — people in the stands.

“I want you to hold this analogy in your mind. Imagine the venue is like our restaurants. They are state of the art, they have come a long way. I want you to think of the athletes as our partners, as our employees inside our stores competing to deliver the best experience they can and then I want you to think of the fans, our customers, and they were nowhere to be found,” he said during his one-hour presentation.

He noted that some of the most touching Olympic moments came after the closing ceremony via video clips of athletes returning, coming home and embracing their loved ones and friends.

“[That’s when we saw connection] human connection between athletes and their families who inspired them to do great things. Hold that analogy in your mind as we’re going to talk about store formats, technology and people and how that’s going to look in a post pandemic world,” he said.

The Focus Brands International leader then shared a few sobering statistics: 110,000 restaurants have closed since pandemic began in early 2020; the loss of 2.5 million jobs between February 2020 and the height of pandemic in December 2020.

“That’s a staggering number. Our dining rooms closed. People lost that experience, in the dining room, that we all look forward to — the experience to be together, share a meal. Now we’re still in the middle of it but we see change forthcoming on the horizon and it’s exciting,” he said.

Then he shared encouraging news — 230,000 jobs added in July, and 1.3 million since January.

“But we’re still 1 million short which means you’re still feeling the effects of walking into a restaurant with service levels just not being what you expected,” he said. “Even though we’re heading in the right direction something’s not quite right. It doesn’t feel the same … something is fundamentally wrong.”

The reason, he said, is that the “new normal” post-pandemic foodservice experience is not here yet.

“We have not achieved new normal. We’re still evolving to what that new normal is going to be.”

The ‘new normal’ ahead

He then shared insight on three keys to success in the new normal: the evolution of store formats, the use and adoption of emerging AI technology and a deep dive on connecting with people — both customers and employees.

“[That’s] the trifecta of delivering a great experience,” he said. “The future is going to be bright … and the experience is going to be amazing… and I want to take you on this journey but let me tell you what’s going to define that journey.”

One defining element will be the advent of technology that’s not only going to speed up production and boost the quality and consistency of food but provide nearly sci-fi capability in meeting consumer expectations and needs.

“We’ve got a lot of technology companies who are going to tell us how they can drive the experience… and some of it’s going to be great,” he said, alluding to artificial intelligence innovations that will one day provide granular insight on what each customer wants, when they want it and how they want it.

The store format of tomorrow

Guajardo expects today’s store footprint will morph into an environment dictated by customer and market demand — from how customers want to experience a brand as well as reflect the economic forces of rent and land availability.

“Building the wrong format at the right price is going to be the wrong formula,” he said, adding Focus Brands International is experimenting with dual drive thrus in which one serves drive up customers and the other handles third party delivery and mobile orders placed ahead of time by customers.

The technology impact

“Today we do have artificial intelligence helping to drive our algorithms to be more predictable about consumer behavior,” he said, adding the advent of “singularity” — defined as super artificial intelligence — will be a major disruptor in the post-pandemic era.

He predicts the power of perfect predictability will arrive in 14 to 15 years.

“I know that’s super sci-fi but if you read the science, are a follower of Moore’s law and understand how quickly we are evolving in our capability to have super AI … it will change how we interact with the consumer,” he said.

Such advancements will also propel perfect integration between the front of the house and the back of the house, involving everything from inventory management to POS to dynamic pricing.

“I think in the next few years we’re going to see that perfect integration — that will lead to efficiencies in operations, in service, in labor management. It’s coming and there are big companies working on it,” he said.

The customer and employee connection

While store format and technology will play instrumental roles in the post-COVID foodservice world, Guajardo clearly believes the connection to customers, and a brand’s connection, and commitment, to employees is the most compelling aspect to success.

No matter how much technology delivers, both customers and workers want and need the human connection.

“Connection for the employee is that they want to work for a company that is value oriented…oriented to their values… shares their values. Here’s what matters. If your employees are committed to the love of the brand because they feel an alignment with its values and then we let them down in so many ways, how can they deliver a great experience if they lose their pride to be a part of that brand?” he said. “We have an obligation to take a bigger step in helping people see their purpose.”

In reflecting about that first job, Guajardo said it was job satisfaction, his sense of belonging, and his sense of pride in doing a good job that created such a great work experience.

“We had connection and I was proud. But [today] I am seeing a sense of abandonment. We’re moving forward in many ways, [with] technology, but we’re stepping back in how we treat people and I want to see that change. I think we can do a better job. I think we can engage. I think we can offer respect and hope and purpose.

“But it’s going to take everyone in this industry to make the commitment to make that change. When it comes to people we need a new way to engage, a new way to create purpose. And I think when all that comes together this is going to be the best industry in the world.”

About Networld Media Group

Founded in 2000, Networld Media Group is a leading business-to-business (B2B) media communications company specializing in digital media, associations and events in the tech, banking, retail and food service industries. Online properties include,,,,,,,, and Annual events include the Fast Casual Executive Summit, the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit, the Bank Customer Experience Summit (BCX), the Interactive Customer Experience Summit (ICX) and the Self-Service Innovation Summit.

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