Inside Wendy’s in-house tech innovation lab

Want a Wendy’s cheeseburger? In most parts of the country, you can already purchase one using mobile payment on your phone. In some places, you can even get it using a beacon-based ordering system. And soon, you may be able to order a burger using your car’s connected devices.

Wendy’s food is poised to get even faster, as the chain launches a technology hub to steer innovation in Columbus, Ohio — home of its flagship franchise.

“90º Labs,” which opened for business Tuesday, is intended to be an open, collaborative environment where the brand will fast-track consumer-facing technology and digital experiences, encouraging technology initiatives such as mobile ordering, mobile pay and other digital experiences for its restaurants as well as consumers.

“Our goal is to create an agile working environment, with a dedicated cross-functional team, that will enable us to take greater advantage of rapidly evolving technology in all areas of our business,” Emil Brolick, Wendy’s’ CEO and president, said.  “The labs will be an important asset in Wendy’s continuing transformation, as we work to drive growth by making our restaurants more inviting and by giving consumers greater access to our brand through technology.”

The 8,200-square-foot facility with a 90-person capacity will initially house about 25 information technology and operations personnel, who will work closely with employees from Wendy’s Support Center at its Dublin, Ohio, headquarters. They will focus on spurring innovation in mobile technology and on strengthening support systems like optimizing business intelligence and internal communications technologies.


Wendy's new tech lab
Wendy’s new tech lab

“In the last three to four years, a lot of brands have realized that they have to make the experience easier for customers,” said Brandon Rhoten, vp of digital experience for Wendy’s. “But this requires programmers, developers and UX designers, people that not only build but also iterate on and maintain technologies.”

Wendy’s has been investing heavily in digital in the past few years. It rolled out mobile payment last year and has also been testing mobile ordering, beacon-based ordering, self-order kiosks, a loyalty program and even voice-ordering while customers are in their cars. The company projects spending $40 million on tech-related initiatives in 2015.

Wendy’s is hardly the only fast-food brand with a tech-first mindset: Domino’s has been leading efforts since 2010, even bringing digital ordering in-house. Starbucks employs beacon targeting to help coffee lovers avoid long lines at their nearest outlets. Outside of restaurants, GE has been pioneering technology innovation through various in-house teams and labs for years.

A group of people work at Wendy's new tech lab
A group of people work at Wendy’s new tech lab

A substantial number of millennial consumers rated loyalty programs, free Wi-Fi, mobile ordering and mobile payment as important or very important amenities in fast-casual and fast-food restaurants, according to the 2015 Consumer Brand Monitor ongoing survey by Technomic. Fifty percent of millennials said they favored loyalty programs, 45 percent said they valued free Wi-Fi, and 36 percent said they preferred mobile ordering and mobile payments at such restaurants.

“Consumers are definitely responding to technology, but none of the burger chains are connecting with consumers from a technology standpoint,” said Jackie Rodriguez, senior manager at Technomic. “It absolutely makes sense for Wendy’s to form such a lab, which can serve as a testing or a proving ground to incorporate all the multifaceted aspects of the digital experience.”

Technology isn’t the only cue that Wendy’s is taking from Silicon Valley; the lab’s interiors include a simulated Wendy’s restaurant, digital boards, moveable “stand-up” work stations and writable surfaces. Plus, Wendy’s is also hoping that the location will help in attracting future talent.

“We’re trying to create a workspace that feels just like a Facebook or a Google, because that’s very functional for the kind of work we want to do,” said Rhoten. “We also hope that Ohio State will be a feeder school for us, from where a lot of young talent can kickstart their careers at our lab.”

A writable wall at Wendy's new tech lab
A writable wall at Wendy’s new tech lab

Wendy’s also plans to use the lab’s insights and capabilities to better segment and programmatically target its consumer base. The more it can track its consumers’ eating and spending habits, the better it can customize loyalty programs, offers and ad targeting.

“We have consumers that love our burgers, but those that also love our salads,” Rhoten said. “We’ve been using the same media to target both those segments, but we need to target better.”

Image courtesy: Jay LaPrete

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