Joining Azzurri from Sainsbury’s in 2019, Joel Robinson was brought in to elevate the conversation around digital at the group. After the wild ride of 2020, the IT and tech director considers the value of partnerships, building solutions in-house, and the holy grail of creating a single customer view.

For Joel Robinson, it makes little sense creating artificial dividing lines between click & collect, delivery, customer marketing, order and pay.

For him it is all digital and it all falls under his remit as IT and technology director at Azzurri Group, the Italian casual dining operator.

Having come into the industry from Sainsbury’s in 2019, he sees parallels in how retail has undergone a digitisation revolution, with hospitality just a few years behind.

His vision, consistent with other tech leaders, is to create a single customer view, which fuses together all the different digital touchpoints, with a transactional platform powering every channel to create a consistent user experience.

Overhauling a digital strategy to essentially make it more simple is not without its complexities however, and Azzurri has changed about two thirds of the partners it works with over the last 12 months.

“It gives you an idea of the scale of the transformation that we’ve made our way through,” he says.

“The single customer view, which ultimately knits together the view across all of different platforms, we’ve changed that entirely in the last 12 months.”

For its transactional platform, Azzurri opted to build this itself, Robinson citing the example of Amazon which as its own best customer is best placed to know what features it needs from a solution.

The order and pay solution has been rolled out across all Ask sites, with 50% of customers using the service, and it was set to go to Zizzi sites before lockdown hit.

“In terms of casual dining, we don’t think there’s anything out there on the market that is truly representative of a casual dining experience when it comes to digital order and pay,” he says.

“We have intentionally built a digital experience with Ask and Zizzi that matches the casual dining journey that a customer would be used to and expect, which is effectively the ability to order whenever they want, to add items and to pay whenever they want to as well.

“We’re not turning the casual dining experience into a delivery to the table experience, because we think that’s hugely problematic, it undermines the operating model that we have, it undermines the role of the waiter in delivering a great experience.”

The solution is a QR code based PWA (progressive web app) though guests can still order through a waiter and then add additional items on the app.

“There’s complete flexibility and it completely knits in with the systems that our waiters use, so we’ve created flexibility and matched the experience that we think our customers expect,” he says.

For click & collect meanwhile, Azzurri has partnered with Vita Mojo, a company Robinson again cites for user testing its products in its own food to go stores.

“Vita Mojo followed the same approach that we’re now following with casual dining, which is they were their first best customer,” Robinson says.

“They developed their systems in conjunction with running real sites. That’s a practice I am very approving of, because you build brilliant technology when you are as close as possible to your real customers, and by real customers I mean the actual users.

“The more distance you create between an engineering team that are building a technical solution, and the end users that actually use it day to day, the harder it is to deliver a really world class experience.”

In delivery, Azzurri works with all the big three delivery companies. While historically its been a challenge getting sight of granular customer data from these channels, he said there was now some movement on this.

He cites Deliveroo’s Signature as a good example of a white label solution which allows brands to keep delivery customer on their own websites and more consumer insights.

And he suggested some creative ways of getting customers to engage with the brand on loyalty even when accessing Azzurri’s brands via third parties.

“It’s a challenge but we’re working with the partners to move forward, while also looking at our single customer view and customer data platform, and asking what role does loyalty and CRM play in creating incentives for customers to identify themselves that have used those delivery platforms

“With Coco for example, if you order delivery via a third party, you’ll be able to enter a unique code from the receipt, which will then earn you loyalty stamps.”

Having been unable to get its click & collect offering with Coco di Mama off the ground, due to the lack of city centre footfall during lockdown, Azzurri has turned to another solution to keep the brand going.

With a network of Ask and Zizzi kitchens up and down the country, Coco di Mama has been expanded as a virtually delivery brand, initially just in outer London, then to commuter towns, and now throughout the whole country.

“It’s taking off, its selling really well, because it’s such a strong brand, and there’s been a lot of thought and time, blood sweat and tears built over the last two, three years on that proposition.

“It’s resonating as soon as it goes on to those delivery platforms. It fits a really great customer need, in terms of the proposition, the menu, the price point, the availability.

“We’re super excited to see how that evolves, but we’re still only three to four months into doing that I think we’re at about 40.”

Robinson cites the added value of being part of a restaurant group and its digital platform which enabled Azzurri to push out Coco to new consumers so quickly.

“A lot of the things that we’re doing within digital and tech from the Azzurri side, is about how we set up common technology platforms that will enable us to do things like this much more easily from a technical perspective.

“That’s a multi-year journey, we talk a lot internally about an Azzurri platform. The whole purpose of being a group is that we can provide those economies of scale, which means we can have a best in class platform that is available for all of our brands, and we can we can therefore leverage some pretty exciting opportunities in a much more agile way than we have you know historically perhaps been able to do so.”

Having built its own order and pay platform, could Azzurri become a technology supplier itself? Probably not, says Robinson, though the move demonstrates a strong digital capability, particularly to new owners TowerBrook, who will be pleased to see the group delivery innovative customer journeys.

“Our focus at the moment is primarily on how do we deliver the very best experience for our brands,” he says.

“We’ve got quite a long way to go on that journey, and quite an exciting vision for what that future experience looks like. What we’ve delivered today is 10% ultimately of what we want to do, and our focus is on getting that closer to 100%, and that that’s going to take us quite some time.”

  • This article is part of MCA and BigHospitality’s Hostech series