QSR Evolution Conference Recap: Restaurants of the Future

Insights from the first-ever QSR Evolution Conference, including a look at the top emerging themes and trends driving the future of quick service restaurant brands

BY: Nicole Turner | Executive Vice President, Client Service

PUBLISHED: 9/20/2023

The inaugural QSR Evolution Conference commenced earlier this month, bringing together more than 800 restaurant professionals along with an impressive roster of industry speakers. The show offered unmatched expertise and insights over the course of two and half days, highlighting how today’s QSR leaders are building brands of the future, driving traffic and transaction, and delivering modern guest experiences that drive loyalty. 

Our team was on the floor to capture these key moments first-hand, and below are a few of the major themes we took home:

New Tech Takes Hold to Build Frictionless Guest Experiences. The convergence of storytelling and technology continues to be a top focus. With the push to be digital-first, restaurant brands are embracing new technologies in both the front and back of the house to improve guest hospitality and deliver best-in-class experiences. One area gaining traction is the use of AI. Frances Allen, CEO of Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, shared how the brand is leveraging voice AI at the drive through to help streamline operations and better serve guests. Steph Hoppe, CMO of Cici’s Pizza, also weighed in from a marketing perspective, sharing how the brand is taking advantage of AI to catapult creative ideas so they work harder and smarter. This approach helps QSR marketing leaders use marketing resources more effectively to deliver a compelling brand experience across channels. 

Next-gen Store Formats to Reach Digital Forward Guests. Both legacy and emerging brands are exploring new store formats to solve consumers' evolving dining needs and bring in new, digitally-savvy guests. Mike Kappitt, Chief Operating & Insights Officer at Subway, spoke about how the 58-year-old brand has revolutionized itself in the past five years to drive greater value and convenience for consumers. For example, the introduction of alternative formats like vending machines and value-based floor plans allows the brand to resonate with a more modern audience and opens opportunities to market differently and more effectively.  

Inspire Brands is another major player bringing innovation to store formats. Chief Growth Officer Christian Charnaux shared how Inspire Brands’ acquisition strategy focuses on brands that are complimentary by offering, which enables the company to co-locate its brands to target the same audiences and cover all evolving day parts. This unique strategy allows for multi-brand opportunities, including shared kitchens and resources while offering a one-stop-shop for modern consumers' breakfast, lunch and dinner needs. 

Trust and Loyalty are King When It Comes to Engaging Guests. While social media continues to play a huge role in marketing, guests are more conscious than ever about brand transparency, community, localization, and key cultural moments. Staying relevant to build loyalty and trust is paramount. Younger consumers in particular expect transparency from brands, from marketing all the way through to operations. They want to know how staff are treated and how and where brands are giving back.

Matt Smith, CMO of Milkshake Concepts, reiterated the importance of showing up on social media in a real and organic way to resonate with consumers. Don’t be the “Cool Dad” trying to keep up with the latest trends. Instead, know who you are as a brand and pick your spot. 

By leveraging real human experiences to elevate brand messaging in a way that resonates with consumers, restaurant brands can create authentic, meaningful content and build relationships that drive trust. This starts with a thoughtful balance of lo-fi content (think user-generated content) and hi-fi content (high production value) that together create authentic interactions at every touch point.

The Wrap

In today’s ever-changing QSR landscape, true synergy is achieved when traditional, service-based strategies meet modern, experience-driven innovation that demonstrates to consumers they’ve been, and will continue to be, heard. From new technologies to reduce friction in the guest experience to new store footprints addressing digitally-forward consumers’ biggest needs, modern restaurant brands are making strides in meeting today’s consumers where they are and building deeper, more meaningful connections with guests. 


To learn more about how MERGE can keep your brand ahead of the curve, connect with our team of experts.