Uncertainty Clouds Canadian Restaurant Industry, But There’s Zero Doubt About the Value of Tech & VARs

Insights and highlights from Restaurants Canada 2024 and the RSPA Canadian Community Networking Event in Toronto

By: Jim Roddy, President & CEO at the RSPA

I just returned from my third Restaurants Canada (RC) Show, held April 8-10 at the Enercare Centre in Toronto, which provided me with a perspective of the Canadian restaurant market across the past three years:

  • 2022 = Crawl: Surviving restauranteurs, bruised and battered, were finally beginning to emerge from COVID
  • 2023 = Walk: While the U.S. was back near a pre-COVID brisk pace, the Canadian restaurant market was still playing catchup and nursing persistent wounds
  • 2024 = Run, but with a slight limp: RC Show 2024 boasted the largest expo hall and strongest attendance I’ve seen to date, but many at the event were still not hitting full stride yet

Among the observations I heard were that new restaurants are smaller, still stung by COVID. A longtime, highly successful, usually highly upbeat VAR told me, “We’re holding our own,” and cited the burden of paying back loans from COVID. A vendor told me their top Canadian VARs are having “really good” years in 2024, but most others are still struggling comparatively.

Other solution providers said they have utilized this period of hospitality uncertainty to expand their business, transforming from a restaurant focus to also play in retail, grocery, and cannabis. 

While the restaurant space in Canada is seeking to hit its stride, the tech part of “restaurant technology” continues to grow exponentially. Restaurant operators are more reliant on tech than ever before with online reservations, online ordering, and delivery not slowing down. That message blared from the RC Show main stage among the clattering of cooking demonstrations and gobbling of food samples.

Among the RSPA members exhibiting at the RC Show this year were Armagh POS Solutions, Cluster POS, Givex, Global Payments, Helios/Quetzal POS, Matrix Integrated Solutions, PAX, PayFacto, Shift4, and Techryde. RSPA VP of Member Services Ashley Naggy and I visited their booths plus we met several companies outside our association in the Tech Pavilion to see what they were offering. Those techs included:

  • AI-powered restaurant assistant
  • Analytics
  • App development
  • Customer engagement via text message
  • Label printers
  • Loyalty
  • Menu boards
  • Mobile device mgt
  • Online ordering
  • POS software
  • Robotics
  • SMB-focused digital signage
  • Outdoor living furniture (Wait – I might be a step outside the tech pavilion.)

From a channel standpoint, the most active vendor this week was Shift4 who is launching in Canada. Shift4 sent approximately a dozen staff members to the RC Show, hosted a well-attended VAR and ISV reception Monday night, and held a special off-the-show-floor partner informational breakout at the Enercare Center Tuesday afternoon.

Of course Shift4 is interested in resellers, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear smaller ISVs with no or little channel experience also valued VAR partnerships. Those most interested were ISVs just far enough beyond the startup phase to realize the limitations of their direct salesforce. They see value in resellers; they just need guidance in how to find them and work with them.

Don’t miss the retail IT channel’s #1 trade show, education conference, and networking event July 28-30 in Las Vegas! Visit the RetailNOW 2024 website and register today.

The value of restaurant IT trusted advisors was stated most clearly after I left the RC Show to help host the RSPA Canadian Community Networking Event the evening of April 9 at the nearby Henderson Brewing Co. Henderson founder and owner Steve Himel, interviewed by Top Retail Expert, podcast host, and RSPA Board Advisor Michael LeBlanc, told the 100+ attendees that customer experience is his top focus.

“Starbucks was groundbreaking because it gave you an experience,” Himel said. “They invented that culture. We wanted to embrace that same model – to share that moment with your friends. The whole idea was for us to become a community center.”

When asked by LeBlanc specifically about technology, Himel responded enthusiastically. “Our tech is incredibly important,” he said, now standing instead of seated in his stool. “Because we get 10,000 people through our building every week, we need to churn people and we need our tech to speak to all our other tech. We do mail order, we do home delivery, we do beer-to-go, and we do pints at the tap. That excludes the wholesale business to bars and restaurants. All that tech needs to speak to each other absolutely perfectly.

“And, to be honest with you, our tech doesn’t speak to each other as well as it should. What trumps (integration) is ease of use by our staff. At the end of the day, that’s what we need to honor. The technology we chose was the easiest to use and most seamless to our staff. … I’ve got a line of people 12-deep at my bar, and somebody in that line wants to buy their beer and go sit down. If I lose that customer, they’re never coming back. I can figure out the back end some other way – I can make the tech talk to each other with help from a really smart person in my office, but I would never get that customer back. That’s the choice I made.”

Successful VARs and ISVs know how this story could end. It’s a bright-flashing-lights example of what business author Jim Collins calls “the genius of the and” which is the opposite of “the tyranny of the or.” If a creative, knowledgeable solution provider collaborated with Himel and his team (especially that smart person in his office) they could craft a solution for his brewpub that features both seamless tech and ease of use.

That’s the opportunity for high-initiative, innovative VARs and ISVs today – in Canada and beyond.

Don’t forget to register for RetailNOW 2024, July 28-30 at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. It’s Where The Industry Meets!

Jim Roddy is the President and CEO of the Retail Solutions Providers Association (RSPA). He has been active in the retail IT channel since 1998, including 11 years as the President of Business Solutions Magazine, six years as an RSPA board member, one term as RSPA Chairman of the Board, and several years as a business coach for VARs, ISVs, and MSPs. Jim has been recognized as one of the world’s Top Retail Influencers by RETHINK Retail, a Leading CannaTech Influencer by The CannaTech Group, and is regularly requested to speak at industry conferences on SMB best practices. He is author of two books – The Walk-On Method To Career & Business Success and Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer – and is host of the award-winning RSPA Trusted Advisor podcast. For more information, contact JRoddy@GoRSPA.org.