Ming-Tai Huh’s Insightful Journey with Square

Small Business Canada

In an engaging discussion with CanadianSME Small Business Magazine, Ming-Tai Huh, a James Beard–nominated restaurateur and tech visionary at the forefront of Square‘s restaurant division, shares his profound insights into the transformative role of technology in the restaurant and retail sectors. With a rich background that bridges the culinary world and tech innovation, Ming-Tai Huh elucidates Square’s pivotal role in aiding businesses to adapt and thrive through expansion, the integration of AI and automation, and enhancing customer experiences. Drawing from the “Future of Commerce” report, he highlights the optimism among Canadian business owners towards growth and the burgeoning demand for AI to address staffing challenges, streamline operations, and personalize customer interactions. His narrative underscores Square’s commitment to simplifying commerce through a comprehensive ecosystem of tools, thereby empowering sellers to focus on their passion while leveraging technology for operational efficiency and growth.

Ming-Tai Huh is a James Beard–nominated restaurant owner and technology executive – he currently serves as the Head of Restaurants for Square, and he is also a Partner at Cambridge Street Hospitality Group with six restaurant concepts (and more) located in Greater Boston. Ming recognized the need for better restaurant technology when he opened his first restaurant in 2012, and he founded a loyalty software and hardware startup before later joining Toast to lead consumer product development. After working at Toast for seven years, Ming joined Square in 2023. He is a proud resident of Cambridge, MA.

Based on the “Future of Commerce” report, how does Square support businesses planning to expand through new locations or offerings?

We’ve seen that many Canadian business owners have been in survival mode for the past few years, and are now finally feeling optimistic enough to consider growth strategies. In fact, in our survey, Canadian restaurateurs unanimously said they are looking to expand this year. This may mean new locations for some, but most – 89 per cent – will start by experimenting with items outside of their core offerings like meal kits, subscriptions, events, and more.

Retailers are also interested in expanding, with 61 per cent planning to do so in 2024. To better compete in today’s marketplace, retailers are offering more choice and flexibility to reach new and existing customers. For example, 42 per cent are implementing faster and easier channels to communicate with customers while 41 per cent are offering customers more ways to pay such as Buy Now, Pay Later options like Afterpay.

Square has always focused on helping sellers better manage their operations with our ecosystem of software, hardware, and finacial products. These are all designed to take the complexity out of commerce to save sellers time and help them grow, ultimately allowing sellers of all types and sizes to see us as a trustworthy partner for their business needs.

The report shows a growing demand for AI and automation in services. What are some of those findings?

Our most recent report found that Canadian restaurateurs report an average of 19 months since they’ve been fully staffed, and all surveyed restaurateurs in Canada believe AI could solve some of their staffing challenges, particularly solutions like food prep robots (44 per cent), voice ordering technology (42 per cent), predictive ordering and inventory management (40 per cent), and food prep and delivery management (38 per cent).

But restaurateurs are not only investing in AI to address labour challenges – more established automation tools are also on the agenda in 2024. Fifty six per cent of those surveyed plan to increase their spending on technology and automation tools in the next 12 months while three out of four consumers want restaurants to invest in at least one area of automation when restaurants are not fully staffed.

Given the report’s insights, how is Square enabling restaurants to implement AI in small, impactful ways?

Without a doubt, we believe AI and automation will fundamentally reshape the future of commerce. Specifically, Generative AI has the potential to increase ease of use by 10x and decrease costs to businesses by 10x. It’s also very clear from the findings that consumers are looking for a tech-forward approach from restaurants. What many people don’t realize is that when working with partners like Square, businesses are already taking advantage of this type of technology like having the ability to send automated welcome messages to new customers, access to advanced reporting to make better decisions and menu management.

While automated messaging tools have dominated the industry conversation, there are so many more ways to leverage AI to automate both your front of house and back end operations. Some of the use cases our sellers are currently finding success with include things like using generative AI language models to predict next actions sellers may want to take based on a conversation with a customer – like sending a coupon, inserting an invoice, providing photos of a product, etc. Or using AI functionality to swap out the background of product photos to display items in front of different locations, settings, or situations. At the end of the day it’s about helping the seller save time to focus on what they do best while letting technology take care of the rest. 

With the report indicating a split in retail expansion priorities, how does Square assist retailers in balancing online and physical store investments?

Square has always been about ensuring that businesses never miss out on a sale, and we’ve evolved to help our sellers meet their customers wherever they are. Whether in store or online, Square has an entire ecosystem of tools and services to help operators run and grow their businesses while making sure everything works in a seamless way, keeping rates transparent and not locking sellers into contracts and solutions that don’t work for them. These may sound obvious but it’s some of the reasons why sellers switch to us from competitors out there. 

There are myriad ways we do this, from our turnkey website builder and social sales integrations for online sales, to our free-to-get-started point of sale solution and Tap to Pay functionaility to start receiving payments directly from your smartphone without the need for additional hardware. No matter where, when or how a business is looking to make a sale, Square has the solution to make that happen quickly and easily.

How does Square’s platform enable beauty businesses to adapt to the reasons consumers switch providers, such as long wait times or the desire for more personalized experiences?

The survey found that 54 per cent of Canadians have preferred providers for their beauty and personal care services, though 58 per cent have switched due to factors like overly long wait times.

Features like Square Appointments can make it far easier and faster for customers to book services without the hassle of calling and being put on hold, while Square’s marketing and loyalty tools can help providers retain or woo back their customers with discounts, special offers and more. We can’t cut hair or give massages ourselves, but we can certainly help those offering those services the tools they need to deliver the best service possible.

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