Menu innovation and marketing may be critical for differentiating brands and driving traffic, but it’s equipment and related technologies that represent the real secret weapons for creating thriving, profitable restaurant companies with measurable competitive advantages.
That’s a belief that Peter Cryan, vice president of equipment innovation and automation at Inspire Brands, has nurtured and lived by throughout his 30-plus-year industry career. Acted on with a highly analytical, collaborative approach to problem solving, skilled team building and a penchant for challenging the status quo, it’s a belief that has served him and the brands he works for well. The Inspire Brands portfolio includes more than 32,000 restaurants under the Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Rusty Taco, SONIC Drive-In, Jimmy John’s, Dunkin’ and Baskin-Robbins brand names.
Now leading Inspire Brands’ Equipment Innovation Team, Cryan is proof positive of the opportunities the industry offers to grow professionally and achieve great things. His start wasn’t notable — a 15-year-old kid washing dishes and bussing tables. But he continued to hold crew member, management and eventually multiunit management positions throughout high school and college. When college didn’t work out for him, restaurants still did. By 2003, he was named Atlanta area supervisor for Arby’s and a decade later he transitioned into the corporate role of operations integration manager, steadily increasing his passion for and expertise in applying equipment innovations and technology to improve operations and profitability.
So much so, that in 2011 Cryan was asked to take on a new role at Arby’s, that of manager, equipment and new technology R&D – Operations Systems. Then a department of one, he established a vision, embraced a strategy of incremental change and over the years moved up to director and senior director positions. Not long after Inspire Brands was born in 2018, following Arby’s acquisition of Buffalo Wild Wings and Rusty Taco, he moved up again, leading equipment and automation innovation across the conglomerate’s portfolio.
As a VP, Cryan now heads a 16-person team working both in the field and in Inspire Brands’ 15,000-square-foot Innovation Center, where equipment, technology and design are continually tested and refined. He credits his ability to transition into leadership roles to being around other great leaders throughout his career and to his approach to team building. “I always try to bring on good candidates with skills and experience that I don’t have,” he says. “I’m not intimidated by that. I know that helps me to learn and develop.”
Cryan and his team’s efforts at Arby’s have seen the nearly 60-year-old chain transform its operations from ordinary and status quo to exceptional and pioneering. He’s led the chain’s implementation of smart kitchen technologies, for example, working with manufacturers to enable connectivity and Internet of Things solutions across multiple equipment brands. “We’re an industry leader in smart kitchen implementation,” Cryan notes. “As a result, at Arby’s, we have reduced our annual energy costs by more than 30% in corporate stores. That’s a big initiative in our other brands now, too. The energy savings are huge, but we’ve also realized big improvements in the amount of time managers have to spend on admin tasks, such as recording times and temperatures throughout the day, and in HACCP compliance in general because it’s now all automated.”
Cooking platforms and processes have changed, too, netting improved efficiency, lower build-out costs, energy savings, faster service and better product quality. A marquee example: switching from slicing beef to order to utilizing a heat-and-hold system that enables preslicing.
“Historically, whenever a roast beef sandwich was ordered, we’d slice that beef to order. It would be hot on the slicer, but by the time you’d do the 12 to 15 slices each sandwich takes, you’d lose 25 degrees,” Cryan says. “Now, we use a cook-and-hold platform featuring multiple, compact ovens instead of one big convection oven, and we cook throughout the day. Before a peak period, we’ll slice an entire 10-pound roast and hold it in a heat-and-hold cabinet, which maintains temperature and quality. We get better yield and a hotter sandwich, served faster. We increased the beef temperature by 20 degrees and throughput by 20 seconds per sandwich.”
Other Cryan-led modifications delivered cost, quality and operational benefits: a custom fry dump yielding crisper, hotter fries that’s less expensive and more energy-efficient than the previous model used; electronic HVAC monitoring and automated, variable-speed hoods; sensored automatic fryer filtering; and slicers designed to preserve product temperatures during use. For Buffalo Wild Wings, a robotic wing frying system is currently in test, part of his team’s work to introduce more kitchen automation. Dubbed “Wingy,” the system promises to improve efficiency and safety while freeing employees for guest-facing functions.
“We started a lot of these things at Arby’s, but we’re working on kitchen equipment efficiency and finding solutions that work not just for one brand but to extend the benefits of new platforms and approaches across the brands,” notes Cryan. “We work with manufacturers as partners and don’t ask for exclusive solutions. We do have unique needs, but if they’re able meet our needs, they can incorporate those modifications into products that can benefit other operators, too.”
Cryan adds that, on a macro level, the industry is overdue for a sharper focus on operations and kitchen innovation. “The big focus for so long has been on menu innovation and development, and that’s really important,” he says. “But, with a few exceptions, operations has remained fairly resistant to change. Most restaurants have long been understaffed, but the pandemic ripped that wound open and exposed the artery. We’re fortunate that all of our brands are up in sales, but we also know that a lot of revenue has been left on the table because of staffing shortages. We’re not alone in that. So, we all need to be sharply focused on redesigning kitchens, incorporating the IoT, integrating connected kitchen equipment and automation to replace mundane, repetitive tasks. Everyone’s starting to use smart technologies at home; why aren’t we in restaurants? It would make us a lot more efficient and make it easier to attract talent. It doesn’t have to be all-encompassing, but we can find solutions that work here and there until it all comes together to enable us to do a lot more with a lot less.”
Married for 30 years to his wife Cristina, Cryan is the father of seven girls. Outside of work, he enjoys boating, Harley rides, good bourbon and the occasional cigar. Passionate about his career and embracing innovation, he says his greatest on-the-job satisfaction comes from seeing solutions that he and his team have worked hard on make a difference.
“I could be visiting an operator out in a small market in the Midwest and seeing how much he or she loves what we’ve rolled out, hearing about how it has improved their business. That’s so gratifying,” Cryan says. “And seeing my team have that same pride and satisfaction in what we’ve achieved makes it that much better.”
Asked & Answered
What percentage of your time do you keep unscheduled (not counting when you are sleeping)?
Probably 20% to 25%. It’s important for us as leaders, and for our teams, to have unscheduled time to be creative and handle inevitable issues that arise.
What’s the most important lesson you learned that you still use today?
Always test and validate. It’s not enough to talk to someone in the field telling you something is working OK. Follow up, visit and make sure.
If you could go back in time five or ten years, what decision would you make differently?
I have consistently learned from my mistakes and really don’t have much regret because I know they’ve made me wiser and a better leader. However, I do regret some of the decisions I didn’t make that I should or could have. We can discuss those over a cigar and bourbon.
How do you stay inspired?
Seeing the work my team is accomplishing pushes me to want to work harder and do more. My faith inspires me every day, as do my girls [his seven daughters], who may still see me as their hero and make me want to be one for them.