When most people think about vital restaurant equipment, they picture stoves, ovens, fryers, and pans. But with the Internet Age moving along at hyper speed, the computer server may soon become the most valuable piece of equipment in a restaurant’s inventory.
The development of point-of-sale technology that allows restaurants to capture reams of data on their customers’ spending habits has created storage needs that no amount of pantries or walk-in freezers can address. Many foodservice companies are also looking for easier ways to streamline systems and facilitate corporate communications and data sharing.
In light of this, more restaurant operators are paying close attention to cloud technology.
By now, most computer users have heard about the cloud, and most people who depend on the Internet for work and play have a general, if somewhat mystical, idea of what it is: an ethereal, boundless place where data lives in relative safety.
In fact, the cloud is a service that allows users to store data on remote computer servers and retrieve that data almost as fast as if it resided on their server at home or office. Cloud-based services also allow users to access software without installing it on their computers.
Behind all of the technological jargon surrounding cloud technology is a paradigm shift in how people and businesses use computers.
Newly Weds Foods, a purveyor of basic ingredients like batters and breadings, is one company that is already leveraging the cloud to streamline its operations. Based in Chicago, Newly Weds Foods has more than 2,000 employees around the world and, in the past, has struggled to get its far-flung workforce on the same page. But in early 2012, the company started using IBM’s SmartCloud for Social Businesses. The cloud-based platform facilitates collaboration between Newly Weds Foods employees, allowing them to quickly share information and ideas online and host e-meetings.
“It’s basically our own private Facebook,” says Bob Brindza, a computer analyst at Newly Weds Foods.
Brindza says the platform is a big improvement over the way Newly Weds Foods employees used to share documents.
“Using e-mail was very cumbersome, particularly when we had a threshold of the size of files that we could send,” Brindza says. “There were times when we had to send multiple e-mails overseas to get someone the information they needed.”
The inefficiency of the old procedures was expensive. Using the IBM SmartCloud, Brindza says, Newly Weds Foods has cut travel and meeting costs by 10 percent, even taking into account the monthly cost per user, which is $4 at Newly Weds Foods.
“The really big cost savings is on travel, especially with gas prices going up,” Brindza says.
IBM is not the only company offering this kind of service. Newly Weds Foods was using WebEx’s collaboration solutions before it started using IBM’s SmartCloud. Free service Yammer is another private social network that facilitates coworker collaboration by way of the cloud.
Google+ and Dropbox also offer some of the same cloud-based services as IBM’s tool. Rebecca Buisan, director of the IBM SmartCloud, acknowledges that those free services are indeed competitors to IBM’s service, but says SmartCloud is better for businesses because it offers “enterprise-grade” privacy and protection.
Declining to give an exact figure, Buisan says “thousands” of businesses are already using SmartCloud. She says it’s one of IBM’s top four “plays in strategy” for the years ahead, adding that “2011 to 2015 is all cloud.”
This is the consensus across the tech industry, with the big guns, including Apple, all vying to become king of the cloud.
The cloud’s ability to also store enormous amounts of data should send restaurants scrambling to secure a provider. These services are being introduced at a time when operators are collecting data on customers at an accelerating pace.
“With advances in point-of-sale equipment and the amount of information that’s captured, you have to have a centralized repository … to consolidate, assimilate, and analyze all that information,” says Jason McEachern, vice president of technology at Wingstop.
Based in Richardson, Texas, Wingstop is in the middle of a three-year project to build its own cloud. McEachern says the 600-store chain is not worried about the security of managed cloud-services like IBM’s SmartCloud—“I haven’t seen a lot of breaches,” he says—but it is building its own cloud because of concerns about access to data.
“Software as a service is a great model because you’re locked in,” McEachern says. “Once you stop paying, you don’t have access. So that’s where I get concerned, when people say, ‘Let’s shift everything to the cloud.’
“If you do it internally, you don’t have the ongoing cost and you have a lot more control of your environment,” he says.
Jonathan Marek is senior vice president at Applied Predictive Technologies, which offers software that helps companies more accurately strategize for the future. He says that whether quick serves build their own cloud or subscribe to a third party, harnessing the technology for data collection can help them grow—so long as they don’t stray too far from their roots.
“All this big data, all of these analytics, it still doesn’t tell you how to make something that people really crave,” he says. “You still need the creativity in the kitchen to develop food that people really want to eat.”