As a quick-service restaurant operator, one thing that can hurt your business the quickest is the customer frustration that results from a long line that moves too slowly. With Wake Forest-based FastQSR, quick-service operators can avoid this dilemma before it gets out of hand.
It all started one day more than a decade ago when Rob Meng, who has a background in IT, was sitting with his wife in line for the Autobell Car Wash in Garner. They were waiting five cars back, but the line wasn’t moving.
Since they knew the manager themselves, Rob’s wife looked at him and asked, shouldn’t there be a way to let the manager know?
After doing some research, Meng discovered that no business existed that had found a way to keep track of lines for operators. From a conversation with Autobell’s owners, it was clear that these operators wanted to know about the problem so that they could fix it in real time.
Meng wanted to take on the challenge himself, so he launched a startup he called AutoMotion. He tried sonar, laser, video, analytics technology and more and finally came up with a solution to identify line delays in two Autobell locations.
After expanding to 15 locations, Autobell saw increased revenue and number of cars served for the locations using Meng’s technology. It was official: Meng had cracked the code on utilizing his data for operators to use as a productivity tool.
Now AutoMotion serves all 90 Autobell locations, helping them make around $3.4 million more a year in revenue. But Meng had also set his sights on a new vertical in another industry known for frustratingly long dining room and drive-thru lines: fast-food restaurants.
Thus he launched a new parent company called FastQSR—”QSR” is the industry abbreviation for quick-service restaurants—to attack the new market. (AutoMotion is currently a subsidiary of FastQSR that still operates under that brand name for the car wash market, though it will be formally folded into FastQSR under a new brand name called FastCW over the next year or two.)
With optical sensors deployed across stores, FastQSR has a large field of view of lines. In both the food-service and car wash industries, FastQSR can notify the team in real time if a problematic line occurs. But it also collects and analyzes data so the businesses can see recurring trends and ultimately increase revenue over time.
For instance, FastQSR’s heat maps can identify times of the day in which delays keep repeating. This allows operators to address potential schedule mismatches, something that is increasingly happening as Covid changes the daily rush hours.
“Their normal schedules don’t match up anymore,” Meng said. “You have a lot of drive-thru restaurants (and) car washes that are still operating on the same schedule from 1990, just static schedules where they have always operated that way… And what we find is that those don’t work with the environment that we’re in now. They need to be more flexible.”
But with FastQSR, operators can be more aware of when their busy times are and adjust accordingly. Installation costs about $2,000 with ongoing fees of around $200 a month.
“If there are delays in line, then only bad things happen,” Meng said. “You upset the customer, they don’t think that you’re a convenient option anymore, and so they don’t come back as often. All those things impact revenue.”
Most of these businesses have already spent money on video camera systems but tend to only use them retroactively if something has gone wrong, Meng said. FastQSR can piggyback off those existing video systems to open the door to more revenue with its delay metrics. That also makes it an easier sell for busy restaurant staffs.
“They don’t really have time to take on new projects,” Meng said. “So the way we do this with data as a service or software as a service, we take the burden off of their IT and operations team so that they don’t have to worry about another project.”
FastQSR launched in 2020 and expects to see rapid growth in 2022, from deployment in 100 locations to more than 1,000. Meng said the company has signed a large contract with International Car Wash Group (which is a part of Driven Brands) and will soon deploy at all 300-plus of their locations. FastQSR is also in discussions with three large fast food brands, some of which have 500 to 900 locations, and has entered a proof-of-concept pilot with Zaxby’s.
FastQSR is adding to its team as well, hoping to grow from its current four to 12-16 fulltime employees in the year ahead.
Naturally, the pandemic disrupted millions of restaurants across the country, closing dining rooms and dampening business due to virus concerns. Since FastQSR targets these businesses, it’s clear to Meng that the full power of FastQSR’s people-line data has not been realized in the market.
“We actually think our delay metric for people in line is more revolutionary than our delay metric for cars in line,” Meng said. “But Covid has obviously made it very difficult for people to be in line and dining rooms are just now opening up. So we think once that goes back to normal, we will have a huge brand awakening around our people product.”
RIoT accelerator helped spur growth
Being based in the Triangle has lent several advantages to forming Meng’s startup, as he said there are so many entrepreneurs willing to talk about their missteps and successes. The RIoT Accelerator Program (RAP)—the startup participated in RAP’s Cohort VII last year—was especially helpful in FastQSR’s growth.
“That was huge for our business and huge to get our startup really focused and on the right track,” Meng said. “It’s just a great entrepreneurial community where everyone wants to see your business succeed, and they’re just really willing to give their time and their experience to you to help you get off on the right foot and just make things happen.”
When Meng looks ahead to the future, he’s focused on scaling up, accelerating from deploying in less than 10 new locations a month to 50-60. He wants to move forward with intelligent growth even as the startup grows by more than 10 times this year.
“That kind of explosive growth in one year has its challenges, but we’re really focused,” Meng said. “We really think that we can meet those challenges, and we’re really excited about what 2022 into 2023 holds for us.”