​Fast food chain Mad Mex ready to serve up insights from machine learning

With the company's IT backbone now stable, its CIO has big plans to leverage data and deliver more than just tasty burritos, through the use of machine learning.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor
Image: Supplied

Entrepreneur and foodie Clovis Young opened the doors to his first Mad Mex Fresh Mexican Grill on Sydney's Crown Street back in 2007. 10 years later, Mad Mex now boasts 60 restaurants in Australia and another 10 in New Zealand.

Growing up near Baja California, Young wanted to bring the culinary sensation of Mexico to his new home, but being a small business in Australia meant he became the finance department, the marketing team, and IT support, in addition to the CEO, managing director, owner, and head chef.

In his capacity as the IT team, he purchased a small business server and started making burritos. As demand grew and two more restaurants popped up, Young found himself outgrowing his small server, so in 2014, he took on a general manager of IT.

John Boyd joined Mad Mex from fashion retail, wholesale, and online distributor True Alliance, where he managed an IT team, implemented a company business intelligence solution, launched 10 online stores, and was instrumental in the development of the company's SAP ERP system.

"When I had eventually arrived, the demands of the business had far outstripped the infrastructure, far outstripped what we actually needed to function in a company that was growing that fast," Boyd told ZDNet.

"We still had to keep costs down and be nimble, so we pulled together a strategy and basically it was a technological transformation to get us to the point where we could enable the business to function."

Boyd, who shortly became CIO, implemented Microsoft Office 365 for email with an on-premises server. He then quickly decided cloud was the way forward, so embarked on a "huge program" and upgraded to cloud-based Office 365, implemented SharePoint for the company's files, replaced the finance system with Microsoft NAV, and implemented SQL 2014 business intelligence.

As Mad Mex was using Oracle Hospitality for its point-of-sale system, Boyd said SQL 2014 was perfect for pulling out valuable information.

Mad Mex is now starting to leverage marketing analysis reporting tool Power BI, which it is trialling with its executive team before rolling out. The upgrade should be completed by the end of August, Boyd said, which will also mark the end of the upgrade of just about all the software and hardware in the company's support office and restaurants, excluding a handful of physical servers which are yet to be sent to Azure.

"It's been quite a large upgrade path, moving away from the legacy systems to get us to the point we are now, which is being focused on the customer and going down a more customer-centric route, by looking at digital opportunities, CRM, etc -- and that's where we find ourselves now after a very intense three years of change," he said.

"We don't have a huge team, but the team that we have are focused on value-adding, rather than fixing. It's about being able to bring solutions and working with each department and the franchisees. We weren't getting the company to be decision-makers, rather administrators."

According to Boyd, the foundations have now been built, which means Mad Mex can focus on adding value to the organisation and ensuring it's giving customers what they want.

"The customer expectations are much higher than they previously were and there's far more choice," Boyd said. Ultimately it's about differentiation and mastering how Mad Mex can draw in customers, he added.

"There's so much choice that it's now boiling down to how the customer feels about the brand. You can't just open your doors and expect them to come -- those days are gone."

With the foundations built and a high degree of stability and standardisation in place, Boyd said Mad Mex is now interested in optimisation -- working out how it generates more sales and taking advantage of real customer insights through its technology investments.

Boyd said that this is where a technology solution becomes more of a "wow-factor".

"The audible gasps staff are giving from [Power BI] and the way that technology can really change people's roles -- that's really going to help me do my role better and they get engaged by it and excited by it, and I think that's the more fun part of IT," he explained.

Mad Mex also has plans to use Azure machine learning, which Boyd said isn't such a big jump for the organisation when taking a step back and realising it has data pouring in from everywhere.

"When you think about how much big data is coming from several different sources: Sales, Wi-Fi, Facebook, loyalty information, promotion -- there's so many different sources of information and the key is personalisation and differentiation," Boyd explained.

"Having an ability to identify trends and use predictive analysis to actually understand what the customer is going to do in-store, so you can determine different triggers to develop growth and ultimately get to that point where you can truly predict and understand behaviour. Traditional methods and analysis is great, but there's a higher level [with machine learning]."

Although Mad Mex is only 10 years old, being born at a time when digital was already on the lips of executives in larger organisations isn't as easy as one would assume. Boyd said a company full of people keen to give innovation a go means many ideas have to be spiked.

"There are so many ideas, but you can't act on every idea. As a smaller company, we have to be very careful with our choices when it comes to the spend that we have ... to ensure that we're delivering value for money as well -- spending every dollar wisely," he explained.

"Sometimes it can be a bit chaotic and sometimes failing -- you have to fail fast and there is experimentation and constant change -- it's not for everyone, there's so many balls juggling in the air sometimes."

Pointing to the innovation its competitor chain Domino's is churning out -- such as its autonomous delivery vehicle DRU and its successful drone pizza delivery in New Zealand -- Boyd said there's a never-ending thirst for IT, which is fast becoming a consumable, just like electricity and gas, in the fast food realm.

"There's always that cutting-edge differentiator that is just enough to draw people in and that is the label we're aiming towards," he added.

"Now that we've completed the upgrade, there's definitely a focus on getting digital really locked down and leveraging what we've put in place."

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