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The restaurant industry is on the precipice of foundational changes: the proliferation of hybrid models, the integration of automation and artificial intelligence technologies, and — that’s right — the introduction of Dutch crunch bread, a delicious Bay Area favorite, to other markets. “Dutch crunch is going to the next big thing,” joked Aaron Noveshen, CEO/Founder of The Culinary Edge. “You heard it here first.”

In a recent episode of RestaurantSpaces’ LinkedIn Live show, DISRUPT, we caught up with Noveshen about Starbird, his “super premium fast food” brand known for its health-conscious fried chicken and innovative flavor pairings. He ran us through Starbird’s nimble embrace of off-premises service, its plans to expand throughout California and beyond, and the future of the drive-through experience. 

The Good Kind of Ghosting

Starbird didn’t just survive the pandemic — it thrived, with 35% sales growth over 2020 and 75% growth over 2019. Noveshen attributes that success to the brand’s omnichannel strategy, with nine brick-and-mortar facilities in the Bay Area, ghost and dark kitchens focused on the off-premises experience, and licensing agreements with San Francisco International Airport and Levi’s Stadium. Los Angelenos will get a taste of Starbird courtesy of a ghost kitchen set to launch later this year. In 2022, the fun will really begin when Starbird opens its first franchises. 

Thanks to this hybrid approach, Starbird is able to enjoy quick growth with a relatively light investment. “Both ghost kitchens and franchising are our asset-light approaches to growing a business," Noveshen told us. "They're not going to take huge, huge sources of capital from us. We'll continue to invest capital in building our own restaurants because the returns are fantastic there, but we want to be able to reach as many people, at the right pace, as we can.”

Going Big by Going Virtual

Then there are Starbird’s virtual brands — Starbird Salads, Starbird Bowls, Starbird Wings, and the plant-based Gardenbird — designed to boost brick-and-mortar sales by meeting consumers where they live: online. “It's about digital real estate," Noveshen explained, noting that 85% of Starbird's transactions are handled digitally. "It's about consumer acquisition in a world where people are ordering and buying food from their chair, from their office desk, from their couch.” 

Since each brand’s products are assembled in the same kitchen, the virtual restaurants allow Starbird to seamlessly scale up its sales per square foot. "We do upwards, some weeks, of 20% of sales through our virtual brands in our brick-and-mortar restaurants," Noveshen said. "Scalability is what's going to make this be profitable and functional in the future.”

Artificial Intelligence, Real Delicious Food

One thing looms large in Noveshen’s vision of a more frictionless fast-food future: the drive-through. "Being captive to a line and a traditional door slamming in your face and being caught behind a lot of auto exhaust, that is not a frictionless experience," he said. The key to a better world may lie in artificial intelligence — specifically, voice recognition and automation. 

Starbird_Location Walnut Creek 2

“A lot of decisions are made in drive-through within five minutes of going there — these are not planned events," Noveshen said. "It would be much better to pick up the phone… and you say, 'Hey Siri, I want to order a cheeseburger and French fries with a medium diet Coke at X brand.’" 

The AI could then ask what you want with your meal — and sure, maybe even try a few upsells — and send you on your way. “To me, that's really going to be the game changer when it comes to pure convenience of drive-through,” he predicted.

With an eye on Sweetgreen's acquisition of the culinary automation startup Spyce, Noveshen is also interested in exploring how robotics can transform the restaurant experience. "I'd be super excited to work on how to make food from robots delicious," he said, batting away concerns that automation takes the human element out of restaurants. "We've been using technology and robotics of sorts, kiosks and digital POS systems that help remove errors. Anything that is technology based to help accuracy, to help learning and to help the growth of people, I'm interested in.”

There’s one other menu item in Noveshen’s long-term vision for Starbird: a little thing called joy. "We're all about creating smiles, we're about creating positivity in people's lives every day" he said. "Our goal is to grow the Starbird vision and get Starbird in the mouths of people all around the country — starting here in California, and then heading east from there.”

Follow us on LinkedIn to catch live episodes of DISRUPT.

Steve Manning

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Steve Manning is a journalist based in Idaho. When he's not writing, he can usually be found at the theater or taking his dog on a hike. If he could only go to one restaurant for the rest of his life, it would be Al's Place in San Francisco.

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