Nando's technology director explains using cloud to digitally disrupt its own business
Nando’s technology director, Richard Atkinson, describes how the restaurant chain is using cloud to get closer to its customers and build stronger ties with its 14,000-strong workforce
The way the phrase “Cheeky Nando’s” has effortlessly slipped into common parlance in the UK is the type of feat most restaurant marketing departments would have to spend a lot of money trying to achieve – and with no guarantee of success.
In Nando’s case, the phrase has been organically popularised by fans of the South African chicken restaurant chain’s take on Portuguese cuisine, predominantly through social media, over the past several years.
There have been numerous national news articles, Tumblr posts and Buzzfeed stories devoted to explaining what the phrase means to mystified Americans, who struggle to see what could be considered “cheeky” about consuming a plate of spicy chicken and chips.
Former Just Giving CIO Richard Atkinson, who joined Nando’s as technology director at the beginning of 2016, agrees it is hard to make sense of the “Cheeky Nando’s” phenomenon, but is a good indication of just how much affection people have for the brand.
“The market research I see and the way people tweet about Nando’s as though it’s their brand is lovely and fantastic,” he tells Computer Weekly.
“The Nando’s experience is probably a more social experience than some of the more convenience [dining] offerings, where you just want to get in, order, eat and get out again, I suppose. It is mind-blowing.”
The affection customers naturally have for the brand is an area Atkinson is keen to build on, as long as one important caveat is met – it has to enhance the dining experience, not detract from it.
“Nando’s isn’t just about chicken and chips – we have a much higher purpose than that, which is around changing lives together”
Richard Atkinson, Nando’s
Expanding on this point, he cites examples – without naming names – of other restaurant chains that have introduced self-service kiosks or applications.
“I am intrigued by how we can use technology to enhance the humanity and experience, but when you look at the restaurant industry and [how it uses] technology, is it in the service of the customer or is it making the operational burden easier for the restaurant?” he asks.
“It’s almost desensitising the customer from the brand experience and we don’t want to go into that space. Instead, we’re looking for opportunities where we can use technology to enhance the humanity because it’s a less straightforward set of answers.”
Fixing up and making good
The company’s current priority is what Atkinson terms “fixing the plumbing”, as well as re-architecting parts of its IT estate and customer-facing applications to provide a more joined-up user experience.
For example, customers previously required two different logins to access the Nando’s loyalty card scheme and make use of its takeaway service. That has now been streamlined.
“The business has [previously] gone after functionality without thinking about how we do it, and we’re doing a lot of refactoring, reorganising and re-architecting to address that now,” he says.
Many of the customer-facing services the company offers previously fell under the remit of Nando’s marketing department, and have gone on to become important revenue-generating channels. That is why Atkinson and his team are intent on refining and expanding their capabilities.
The team is also exploring ways to capture business from customers who might not be so brand-loyal to Nando’s through partnering with Deliveroo, allowing people to order food from its restaurants, with the latter party responsible for ensuring it ends up at its intended recipient’s address.
Appetite for digital disruption
Overcoming such challenges is what attracted Atkinson to the restaurant industry in the first place, he says, because – despite the emergence of companies like Deliveroo and Just Eat – it is a sector that is still pretty ripe for digital disruption.
“That mantra about people running a manufacturing business and then waking up the next day and discovering they are a software business – I was looking for [opportunities] where that is yet to happen,” he says. “So I thought: restaurants.
“I chose Nando’s, in particular, because it is family owned and takes a long view [of the business], which is a great environment in which to develop technology.”
Before Atkinson’s appointment, the company had recognised that technology needed to become a more strategic part of the business, so it created the role of technology director.
“Technology leadership at Nando’s is quite a new thing,” he says. “The technology team was very talented, but had been quite perfunctory and didn’t have a voice around the boardroom table.
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“So I am very thankful that Nando’s recognised technology as a strategic issue, and created the role so I subsequently joined the board, which means the team is now taking part in the right conversations.”
This process has paved the way for the company to ramp up its use of cloud technologies from the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS). It has also given it the confidence to do away with an on-premise datacentre, whose days were numbered anyway, says Atkinson.
“It was a server room on the back of a restaurant in west London, within metres of chip fryers and grills cooking chicken, which is not an environment conducive to setting up a datacentre,” he recalls.
The facility was well designed, with diesel generator back-up and three-phase power, but decommissioning it was an important step.
“This was the end of the beginning, the end of chapter one,” he says. “The team knew its days were numbered, but they just needed the confidence of a leader to encourage them to shut it down and approve their plans.”
Building out the tech team
Working with AWS helps with the boardroom conversations about technology that Atkinson mentioned, by freeing his team from having to discuss the “nuts and bolts” of infrastructure.
“We are in strategic conversations in the technology team right up to where ideas happen,” he says. “We don’t join the party halfway through the night, when all the ideas have happened and you’re just being asked to implement them.
“AWS deal with the nuts and bolts, so we spend our time with the business looking at technology.”
The Nando’s technology team is currently about 50-strong, but is set to grow as the company looks to expand its digital capabilities by recruiting software architects, engineers and product managers, says Atkinson.
“Customer experiences in Nando’s need to reflect our own insights about our business, and the changing expectations of our customers that are being shaped by their interactions with other businesses, like Amazon.com, which are fundamentally changing the way people think about ordering stuff,” he says.
“How do we get some of that thinking into our business and not just follow the obvious track of people who move from restaurant operator to restaurant operator?”
It is the company’s 14,000 staff – known as Nandocas – who are likely to have benefited most from some of the technology changes Atkinson and his team have pushed through.
“The experience of taking an order at the till has got massively quicker and we’ve built an app for internal consumption,” he says.
The app is bespoke, designed to fulfil an intranet-type role and open up the lines of communication between staff and the company as a whole, with the help of AWS.
“Nando’s isn’t just about chicken and chips – we have a much higher purpose than that, which is around changing lives together, and AWS is helping us to connect with Nandocas more meaningfully,” he says.
For many of the company’s staff, Nando’s is the first job they get straight out of school, says Atkinson, and the company is committed to ensuring their working life gets off on the right foot.
“We hire people into our restaurants on the basis of attitudes and behaviours because, with very few exceptions, we can help with the skills side of things,” he says. “They are hard-schooled on food hygiene, health and safety, and concepts of information security, which is now an essential piece of training.
“I expect that in a few years, you could come to Nando’s as a school leaver and, within four years, have a degree, most likely some kind of hospitality-orientated degree. I like to think that a lot of the foundational skills they will gain here will be useful to them no matter where the Nandoca wants to go in life.”