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CIO interview: Celia Pronto, chief customer and digital officer, Casual Dining Group

Casual Dining Group’s chief customer and digital officer, Celia Pronto, is overhauling technology, consolidating IT and improving collaboration across its 300 restaurants

Casual Dining Group (CDG), UK-based operator of mid-market restaurant brands, is placing digital transformation at its top priority as it positions itself for growth. 

The company, which operates about 300 restaurants nationwide under the Bella Italia, Café Rouge, Las Iguanas and La Tasca brands, announced a cash injection of £30m for further expansion last month, and developing a digital strategy across all its businesses is key. 

Leading that strategy is CDG’s first chief customer and digital officer, Celia Pronto, who joined the business in 2016 with the brief to position the restaurant business at the forefront of digital development and technology, much as companies in other sectors are doing. 

“If you look at airlines, hotels and car hire, they all do digital really well,” Pronto tells Computer Weekly. “But when you look at restaurants, the sector is most definitely behind the curve when it comes to digital adoption.

“Everything that I look at is geared at how we can build a digital platform to support our brands in the best possible way. But this is never about creating a ‘cookie cutter’ approach to digital and just slapping a logo on the front of it.

“The [digital] platform also needs to be scalable as we are quite an ambitious business. In the same way as we acquired Las Iguanas and La Tasca in 2015, we may well acquire others in future. So we need to ensure we’ve got a robust digital platform that enables us to plug in any new acquisition very quickly.”

In terms of project deliverables, CDG’s digital strategy has begun by focusing on driving an internal culture change, shaking up how people work. This touches not only its 700 office-based staff, but more than 8,000 people working at its restaurants. 

“I firmly believe that digital transformation cannot start unless it starts with your people, so you’ve got to begin by thinking about your culture and changing how people work,” says Pronto. 

“This is never about creating a ‘cookie cutter’ approach to digital and just slapping a logo on the front of it”

Celia Pronto, Casual Dining Group

“If you start from your people, the rest of it falls into place. More specifically, how do people collaborate, how they communicate, how they share and how they troubleshoot.” 

To enhance those areas, Pronto worked with Facebook to get CDG onto a beta of the social network’s Workplace collaboration tool, in what it claims as the first such trial for a large restaurant chain in Europe. The results were noticeable, she says.   

“Workplace has genuinely transformed our business. It has changed everything from how we train our people, because we now no longer have to send out written manuals for training. We can send out videos of how to cook certain dishes. We can ask them to cook those dishes and post those videos on Workplace, which gives us a QA process. 

“We also use it for recognition of our staff, because it’s great to be recognised by 8,000 or so of your peers so publicly.”

Workplace for troubleshooting

CDG is also using Workplace for troubleshooting. If, for example, staff have issues around processing a certain promotion on a till at a restaurant on a weekend, this will get posted on the collaborative platform, enabling answers to be obtained quickly.

This compares with the old way of doing things, when team leaders or managers would have to alert the head office about the issue on Monday via email, and then wait longer for the problem to be resolved.

“You no longer have this feeling of ‘we are the head office’ and ‘we are the staff who work on-site’,” says Pronto. “It feels a lot more collaborative. Workplace genuinely transformed how we work as an organisation.”

Other current projects to improve work processes include one around labour scheduling. Pronto says this is particularly important given restaurant employees’ flexible and part-time working schedules, combined with varying business peaks.

“We have some times of day when we’re really busy and other times when we are less busy,” she says. “So getting labour scheduling correct is absolutely critical, particularly in terms of hitting your bottom line.”

A bespoke tool linking to CDG’s human resources (HR) platform, supplied by Fourth, aims to support and enhance such processes. Pronto says managers require a lot of training to run staff rostering on the platform, but the effort is already paying off.

“We find we are getting real traction behind that system and, more importantly, we’re getting real gains from an efficiency perspective from our staff,” she says.

Customer-facing projects

As part of the digital programme’s customer-facing initiatives, CDG overhauled its web infrastructure and consolidated its set-up across two platforms, one supporting its larger business and another underpinning the smaller brands. Agile methodology was brought in to replace the previous waterfall methods, so that continuous improvements could be made. 

“Every week we have new releases on our websites,” says Pronto. “That could be anything from bug fixes through to changes to some of the interfaces, through to testing certain navigation paths. We are continuously optimising and changing.”

 The company has also replaced three disparate customer relationship management (CRM) platforms with a single platform, home to more than three million customer records. The new system, by specialist supplier Fishbowl, is also linked to CDG’s electronic point-of-sale system, its websites, its Wi-Fi set-up and analytics platform, which enables a single customer view.  

Apps are also being re-engineered, for example the one supporting Spanish restaurant chain La Tasca. According to Pronto, the app has evolved from providing basic information, such as generating membership numbers used for discounts, to proving functionality such as table booking, updated menu viewing, a restaurant finder and in-app offers.

CDG is now evaluating whether to roll that app out across other brands. 

“The big thing to me when I’m looking at apps is making sure they are a genuine customer utility and that there is value in having the app occupying space on their phone,” says Pronto. “So we’ve really been spending a lot of time understanding what the benefits might be for the customer and how to make sure we put something in front of them that’s compelling.

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When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) use at CDG, a Facebook Messenger chatbot is being trialled at South American restaurant chain Las Iguanas. Here, says Pronto, the idea is to allow guests to order drinks from the bar and pay for them via the chatbot, automating orders during peak times. 

“Particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, when the restaurant is really busy, we tend to get a very big queue of people at the bar trying to order drinks,” she says. “What we want to do is to avoid queues [for drinks] and allow our staff to spend their time processing and getting drinks served, rather than taking orders.

As well as the work around the chatbot, there are other AI-based improvements on Pronto’s radar. There is potential to apply the technology in other work around enhancing customer services and to areas such as human resources, from staff recruitment to engagement, she says. 

Another important work stream for CDG’s digital team concerns analytics with QlikView and Google Analytics, so the company can get insights around how the digital channels are performing and their impact on the bottom line. One example is understanding how someone’s response to a piece of online marketing translates to actual spend at CDG restaurants. 

“We’ve got a really good measure of that already, which is really hard in a business like ours, to get that link between online and offline,” says Pronto. 

Going forward, another area Pronto wants to explore further is augmented reality and how CDG can serve information for guests at the point at which they are looking for it. Examples would be information on allergens, calories and food provenance. 

Overhauling partnerships

One of the first actions in CDG’s digital plan involved supplier rationalisation, because each of the group’s brands tended to have its own suppliers for everything from development to hosting. As well as consolidating platforms in areas such as customer relationship management (CRM), the company is now working with two main development partners for digital – Adactus and Thoughtworks. This exercise is already bearing fruit, says Pronto.

“What the rationalisation also means is that partners are not only far more integrated, but they also collaborate much better because there are fewer of them and they know a lot more about our business,” she says. 

“And that’s really helpful to us because we can have some really honest conversations with our partners. As we share our vision with them, they are actually part of helping us shape it.”

A partnership that is also working well in CDG’s digital transformation is that of Pronto’s team with the wider IT organisation. IT is a key stakeholder in the process, responsible for core areas such as systems integration, but decisions around digital strategy, suppliers and infrastructure are all owned by Pronto’s team. 

“I think part of that was also recognising that the IT team do a really fantastic job of understanding the restaurant systems, and that’s really their background,” says Pronto. “What they may not be experts in is digital transformation and digital systems.”

“If you’re doing digital transformation, you can either come at it from a technology or a customer perspective”
Celia Pronto, Casual Dining Group

Since the digital journey started, the IT team has adopted some of the new approaches, such as agile development, says Pronto. Conversely, support from senior IT management has been key to digital success. 

“My CIO and I get along really well and he has been incredibly supportive,” she says. “He has been really helpful when we’ve hit some stumbling blocks with some of the integration issues, and has been fantastic at unblocking those. So we absolutely live in harmony.”

CDG has created the new role of chief digital officer and a department associated to the technology function to lead the transformation, but is this a decision that every organisation wanting to digitally overhaul its business should take? According to Pronto, there is no single answer.

“I believe that if you’re doing digital transformation, you can either come at it from a technology or a customer perspective,” she says. “And frequently, if you come at it from a customer perspective, your background probably hasn’t started in technology.”

Pronto’s says her career started in “very traditional marketing” and shifted focus to digital in 1999. “I moved into digital and technology very much at the start of it,” she says. “And then, in the last 12 years, I moved into digital transformation. So my starting point is the customer and the end-user; then I think about the technology to enable it.          

“For CDG, it made sense to bring in somebody who came from that customer perspective as we are a brands business and very customer-focused. But I’ve come across many other businesses that have gone through a similar process and it’s been led by CTOs incredibly successfully – so it really does depend on the capabilities and motivations of each organisation.”

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