Episode #31: Nurturing Human Connection During The Rise Of Automation With Lucas Liu

Lucas is the Co-Founder and CEO of INFI, a tech company that specializes in mobile apps, point-of-sale kiosks, and marketing services for QSR & Franchises. Lucas joined the hospitality industry in the most unexpected way – through a karaoke bar! Over the next several years, he found a way to combine two of his biggest passions of engineering and restaurants by forming INFI, where he and the INFI team could improve digitalization while nurturing human connection in the restaurant industry.

The customer and the customer’s customers are at the heart of everything Lucas works on. Whether it’s mom and pop restaurants or larger franchises, most restaurants have similar opportunities and challenges. They need to be busy. They need a website presence. They need favorable reviews. Restaurants should position themselves to be Key Opinion Leaders (KOL) or local influencers if they do everything right.

Lucas and INFI believe restaurants should stay focused on human elements, which includes creating great food and drinks and keeping customers coming back. If you’re looking for ways to become more than a transactional provider, this episode is a must-listen.

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About Lucas Liu

Lucas Liu is an experienced entrepreneur with a demonstrated engineering skill and history of success in the hospitality industry.

Expertise in product vision, team building, cash flow and brand management, leading and operating a high-growth startup company INFI to bring redefined IoT technology to hospitality businesses.

Nurturing Human Connection During The Rise Of Automation With Lucas Liu

How To Leverage Technology In The Hospitality Industry And Enhance The Human Experience

Betsy, I am so excited about this interview. We had an amazing time talking with Lucas and he is this amazing CEO of a technology startup, but he understands first and foremost humanity. He understands that technology is there to support and unlock the creativity of the human spirit, the ability to express, and he works with local businesses to help them do that.

He was so fun to speak with and learn about his business, but more importantly, how he approaches knowing his customers. To give you a little context, Lucas Liu is the Co-founder and CEO of INFI. That’s a technology company that supports local restaurants and franchises with not so much the back kitchen type technology but the front-facing customer technology. It’s a fascinating interview. It was fun to dig into the human element of what work they do. Our audience is going to like this one.

He has such a value add perspective. There was one quote that stuck out to you when you talked about it right after the interview was over.

He was talking about digitization and he said, “Digitization is no longer a plus. It’s a must.” I thought that was important, but what he went on to talk about was how, and I don’t want to give away too much of it, but it was about how digitization is not about taking jobs away from people. It’s about taking redundant work away from them so that they can be even better at servicing their customers. That’s the heart of this interview and I loved it. Without further ado, let’s meet Lucas Liu.

Lucas, thank you so much for joining us. We’re so happy to have you on our show. It’s great to have you here. We want to start off by learning more about you personally, and then we’re going to dive into the work you do, what your company does, where you see things heading, etc. If you could give us a little bit of background on you and how you got to this point in your career we’d love to hear it.

I came here in high school to the United States and I directly went to the University in Champagne. As an immigrant student and a foreigner, we do see a boom, a wave of new foreign students coming to the United States to study. A couple of my friends and I decided to go into the hospitality business, so we opened a karaoke bar in Champagne to start with. One of my partners saw the success and then he wanted to open more hospitality businesses in Chicago, which has a bigger market. We opened our restaurant and a karaoke bar in Chicago.

My passion is entrepreneurship and more bonded with my core of study. I studied Computer Engineering. I want to combine my hospitality skill and my engineering skill together. After I made friends in the restaurant businesses in Chicago, people started to ask about how they can improve their digitalization on the restaurant businesses. I do see a business opportunity here in which really fits my skill, interest, and passion, so that’s how I got into this kiosk startup.

I love how you combined your passion. I was poking around your website and reading some of the stories about the companies you worked with and I found it interesting you started out with the small mom and pop type restaurants specifically. It looks like you’re moving more into the franchise market. Is that correct?

Digitalization is a must, not a plus, to survive.CLICK TO TWEET

Yes, that is correct. We were allowed to serve the mom and pops because they’re definitely far left behind on the digitalization. When you talk about franchise, there are also the national franchise and the local franchise. Now I see the local franchise, even though their system is a little bit better than the mom and pops, but they do need a lot of help as well, so that’s why it’s more efficient to help the local franchise.

How would you describe your philosophy toward how you work with your customers? A mom and pop shop is a very different type of entity than the bigger franchises. How do and your company focus on your customers?

We have an interesting philosophy. It’s more towards the social media digitalization and etc. Basically, our local franchise, whoever is using our solutions, has certain criteria that fit. One, they’re busy and second, they have a good online presence, including websites, social media, and they have followers as well. They really care about their online review, which is Google review, Yelp review, and stuff. Combining all these, what we call that, they are like local influencers.

Those stores, they’re KOL, the Key Opinion Leaders, and whatever they produce, people enjoy that. The content they provide is their food, their drink, whatever they are providing. Their followers buy their food and drink. Those stores influence their followers of what’s good, what’s on trend, what they’re supposed to buy in the food businesses. That’s very interesting and what we’re doing is helping them to fulfill their digitalization side, which is a must if you want to pursue the KOL approach. If you are using the KOL approach, the more followers you have, what they’re trying to do is to make a benefit to those followers, and that they need tools. The first step is we use kiosks to digitalize their in-store experience and then we use online channels to digitalize their online experience and combine them together. That’s what the future of the local business will become.

That is so fascinating because it’s so much more than your technology. You’re talking about community, social media, and influencing market. I find that fascinating. Tony, I know you’re dying to jump in because of your background in hospitality, as well as this whole idea behind the influencing.

What I’m hearing at this point is that we used to look at the stores years ago. Stores and restaurants were a center of influence in their communities. As franchises grew, that fell away because it became, how do we commoditize things as fast and get things out as fast as possible? McDonald’s and others came in, but those small restaurants that are still out there, they have a loyal following a lot of times. I like that. I live in Nashville. Betsy lives in Dayton. I’ve even noticed around here there are some local franchises that are growing. There’s a Mexican one and Greek one that we go to, but they’re not very advanced on the technology side. They’re keeping things as low as possible on cost.

It’s interesting to see that there’s a market there for you to build. I would imagine that as these small companies are trying to digitize and move through that digital transformation, do you find that there are those that are resisting it and saying, “We want to do business the old way,” or are most of them recognizing that they have to do this in order to survive and have that experience their customers want?

It depends on the owner and on what type of feelings they want to create for their clients and the diners, but most of them, after the pandemic, realize digitalization is a must. It’s not like a plus. It’s a must to survive. Also, not everybody is going to become McDonald’s, no matter how good they do. Becoming McDonald’s is challenging. Those good small franchise, they also want to expand. They don’t want to expand as many as McDonald’s. They want to expand it and bring more to the neighborhood. That’s where the business opportunity for us is to help them to grow from 2 or 3 locations into fifteen locations and that’s already pretty good to the restaurant owners.

If you want to do that, digitalization is not costing money. It saves you a lot of time and effort, which saves you a lot of money. This is a basic theory. All companies do that. A restaurant cannot avoid using those types of tools and also, we are not developing all kinds of tools for the restaurant. We’re only developing the tools facing their customers to enhance their digitalization in front of their diners. We integrate tools together with the in-house management tools, the POS system, the back of house kitchen display system, and the other stuff. It’s a combination of people working together to improve the local businesses. It’s hard for one business to do everything for the locals. It’s basically impossible.

Lucas, with everything that’s been going on, I’m sure you’re hearing a lot of stories of struggle with your clients, with the restaurant industry being so hard hit during the pandemic. What are some of the things that you’ve been hearing and how they’re overcoming it? How’s the general level of optimism moving into the future?

Many restaurants are struggling. The very good thing this time was the government. The government is doing quite a good job for them. They gave them a lot of free money and that helped them survive. Many of our clients survived during the pandemic and the lesson they learned is everything has to be prepared ahead of time. The pandemic doesn’t go like this. It has a long period of time, which was not so bad, and then it goes up and also since we’re from Asia and the pandemic broke out in Asian countries, many of our owners should prepare ahead because they saw how bad being in the Asian countries was and they shouldn’t wait until the government shuts everything down, and start to take some actions. That’s more important.

For the entire hospitality business, many things are going to change, but in my own opinion, everything is going to go back to the same way as before because  hospitality business is more about human interaction. It’s not about you stay home and you can get everything online. It’s not like Amazon. It has to have a local store that supports a community. That’s who we are. We are human beings. We can’t live on the internet.

As a quick follow-up to that, my personal observation is that people are gravitating toward that restaurant thing like it used to be where it was the center of the community and we had this big-time off. People realize how important that is to run into friends at a restaurant or take your family and have a dinner out, or whatever the case may be, and the idea that people want to support the restaurant owners because it’s known how tough it’s been. There’s such a good thing happening in terms of the gathering place and the support for these business owners.

Human Connection: Digitalization is not costing money. It saves you a lot of time and effort, which saves you a lot of money.

People love their local businesses and also the diners, they understand the pinpoint of their local businesses and they are becoming more and more supportive. The relationship between the restaurant owner and diners enhanced through this pandemic. I hope they all have a much better future. That’s what I hope.

One of the things I love that I heard you say here was about humanity. We’re humans. We can’t rely on just technology. I want to dive into that for a minute because it’s refreshing to hear a technologist, the head of a technology company, say and recognize that. Based on your experience, I understand why, because you ran restaurants. You understand the hospitality industry. When we look at five-star reviews, I do that on a daily basis where I’m studying reviews and trying to understand what’s happening out there. What most people probably don’t realize is that in the hospitality industry to get a five-star review, especially for restaurants, there are only two ways to do it.

You’ve got to have either amazing food or amazing people. It’s one or the other, and hopefully both. If you have amazing food, people will still come and get your food because they love the food. Amazing people are what makes the industry shine. How does your technology support that human aspect of it? That doesn’t seem to make sense for a lot of people. They’re like, “Technology kiosks are going to get rid of all the jobs,” but that’s not what you’re saying here. You’re going something deeper.

There’s a balance. It’s very easy to express. People become more active and more friendly when they have the time. If I’m the owner, I tell my employee, “Your job is to smile. Your job is to service people.” He’s going to do a phenomenal job, but if I tell this guy, “Your job is to be a cashier. Don’t make any mistakes,” he’s going to focus on how to take orders and check on things. You might find good people, but you got a chance he might leave or something. With the technology, it’s more like you free up people’s time and let them focus on the hospitality side.

You hire a person to teach people how to use a kiosk and people are happy about it. It’s not like you leave a bunch of machines out there and you don’t care about them at all. You hire people and these people are going to stay around. If it’s not busy, they can do some in-house work, packing, product delivery, and orders. When they’re busy, he doesn’t need to take orders. He needs to go out there and help people on the kiosk, and this person can be much more effective and much more efficient than having 1 or 2 registers, which is more costly.

Let me give you another example. I went to a restaurant recently. They have a robot busboy to serve food, and with that, do you think the robot’s going to take the job of the busboy? No. The other servers, who are the busboys, are more actively serving water and chatting with you. You receive your check much faster and a water refill much faster. I feel like I got a much better experience. Leave the repetitive. What technology is going to do is replace the competitive, low-value works. Let’s leave those to the technology. For the interaction, let’s say you create an AI that can talk to people and become very hospitable. That’s going to take a while. It’s not going to happen in ten years. What we’ve seen is you still need people you do those types of things, and that’s going to be what I think the restaurant is going to be.

The hospitality business is more about human interaction.CLICK TO TWEET

Tony, to your point, I love the idea that a technology company is so focused on the human element. That’s so inspiring and also, I have to think it’s a huge, competitive advantage for you as a technology company, that you get the people side of things and you haven’t lost sight of that. In fact, you have such a focus on it.

That’s how you do business with local people. If you were dealing with a franchise, it’s different. They want to make sure there’s profit. They have other analytics to figure out the money and things like that, but the local, they don’t care about that 1% to 2% margin. They want to have a good environment and have people and be the local community point. That’s very important.

I want take on a futuristic look here. We’ve seen that there are robots that are in kitchens now. We see a lot of that stuff has been on the path and it’s going to get here eventually. We’re going to see more automation in the restaurants and I think to your point, put those in the lower skill jobs, the repetitive jobs, where we can use technology for that advantage. Do you foresee that the restaurant industry is going to change from the perspective of becoming more human than before and maybe getting back to more of that humanity or do you think the technology and the robots are going to be primarily in the larger restaurants for now and the small restaurants won’t get that for quite some time?

Since I grew up in Asia, all those kitchen robots are becoming more and more popular over there. What they do is also replace the repetitive work. In Chinese food is you do walks and they create a robot that can walk. A human doesn’t walk. When it comes to the garnish, design, and philosophy, that’s where the human comes in. You free up the head of the kitchen, the chef, and then he’s going to put more focus on how to improve and be more creative. If you tell the chef, “Your job is to make sure the food has good quality,” and he needs to focus on the walk like, “I have to walk back twenty times on each dish.” In the future, he can push a button and the walk is going to do that twenty times repetitively. I think it’s much better than he’s doing that on his own. That’s a combination of human creativity, human interactions, together with some robots that can handle the repetitive work. I think that’s going to be the future of the restaurant businesses.

It’s like walking into a bakery now where they’ve got the big industrial mixers. It’s the same principle there.

It’s the same principle as the coffee machine. You’re not expecting people are grinding the coffee all the time in the coffee shop. If you see that, then this person is pretty much overwhelmed doing that and he loses all the other interactions.

I love it because the way you’re talking about the technology, it’s freeing us up to be more human, be more creative, and discover new ways to express ourselves, which I love that idea.

That’s what I think the future is going to be.

Tony, that’s the heart of what we’re talking about is using technology to enable more human interaction, which is not how most people think about technology. People think, “You’re going to replace somebody” but it helps enhance the human experience.

That’s what we want to do. You replace somebody. It sounds harsh, but you have to stand on both sides. You have to stand on the restaurant owner’s side. They have a hard time finding laborers and training people. They have a temper and lose their cool in the daily operation. You free them up and then they focus on the same thing. The owners are very cool people. They can hang out with you, service you, and you make friends with them.

This reminds me of a quick story. Our little local family pizza bar place that we started going to many years ago, we built such a community of friends there. We were hanging out and some of them have become some of our closest friends. The owner was always out talking to people and helping build that community. At one point, the restaurant changed hands and that owner left. The new people came in and you never saw them. It was the same food. To your point, Tony, it’s either the food or the people. It was the same food, but the atmosphere changed because the owner wasn’t out there making sure that people felt great, calling everybody by name, and all of that. It was sad and then that group started to splinter off a little bit because there were other places where you did get that experience. Ultimately, the restaurant shut down. It was a sad ending to that, but it shows how important that is. If you can have well-trained people and technology to support the ability for the owner to do that, then that’s absolutely key to their success.

You got it right. Once it goes to the big chains, they have their own playbook. For the locals, they have to have their supportive team.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, Betsy. Did you have anything else to ask right now?

This is a great discussion. I’m looking forward to our audience reading this because it’s so timely for where we are right now.

The big takeaway for me is that there’s hope for these small businesses and local community businesses, especially in your case, the restaurant hospitality industry. I look forward to seeing what your company does in the future. What are any of your big plans or anything you’re willing to share where you’re headed as far as with the company?

Human Connection: Robots handle repetitive work.

We are going to spend a significant resource into improving the products and also, we’re going to create a department cross connecting all the owners and all the local resources. It’s not to see if they can help each other. They definitely help each other. It’s to make it more formalized and structured. A very quick example. I have a Mexican restaurant owner and he wants to enhance his branding. He wants to find his printings to create his own packaging and that stuff. That stuff is very popular in China. It’s very easy and cheap, but he doesn’t know how to find it. I’m like, “All my Asian restaurant owners know how to do it.”

They can do it together and when they’re shipped together with the same shipment, it’s cheaper. The more they ship, it’s cheaper. They are eventually going to get a deal on doing similar things together. I feel like helping those communities it also helps us because when we help those, they open up a new restaurant faster and they are going to use our product. It’s cheaper than to find new restaurant owners. It’s easier to grow inside and keep doing marketing on the outside. We’re going to spend some resources there as well.

We at Congruity Group have a B2B customer engagement assessment and there are eight modules to it. One of the modules in that is value add. How can you give your clients and customers something that goes beyond the products and services you sell? That’s a perfect example of how you can be more to them than a commodity supplier or somebody that is transactional. You’re thinking on their behalf and how we can add additional value that isn’t the core business. I love that you said that.

Thank you.

We have covered a lot of ground here. It’s been an awesome interview. Thank you so much, Lucas, for being with us. I appreciate it. Our audience is going to have a lot of feedback for us on this. Is there anything else you want to add? I’ll give you the last word as we head out.

Helping communities also helps us.CLICK TO TWEET

We’re currently focusing in the Bay Area. We want to grow our business into California, especially the Bay Area and South California, the LA area. If anybody knows some good resources down there and can help our business grow, it will be very helpful. We’re trying to hire a good CTO. Even though I’m a technology person, the more I get into this, I feel like a good CTO with good experience always can be helpful. If anybody reads this message and think they have a good technology background and want to help the restaurant business, shoot me an email.

Thank you, Lucas. We appreciate your time. As Tony said, this is going to be a highly valuable episode for our readers and we look forward to watching your progress.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.

Betsy, I love this interview with Lucas. First of all, tapping back into my roots in hospitality, I love anytime we have an opportunity to do that. The piece that struck me, and I asked some questions around this because it was so fascinating. We’ve got a deep technologist who understands the value of human connectivity, especially in these local and small businesses. I couldn’t get enough of that because he really does know his customers. He knows his customer’s customers. That’s the part that fascinated me about this interview and how he looks to help those community businesses grow by bringing more of that human touch in addition to the technology.

You could hear in his voice and you could see him light up when he was talking about his customers. “I have a customer this and my customer that,” and he feels that connection with his customers. He does really know his customers. I loved how that passion came through and yet he’s a technologist. I have hope that a lot more technology companies read this episode and understand how critical that is. I have so much confidence that he’s going to crush it in his market because of his focus on the customer.

With that, Betsy, this was a phenomenal show and I can’t wait to do our next show. We love to know and get your feedback. If you want to reach out to us, we are always happy to hear from you.

Thank you so much for being here and we’ll see you next time.

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