In the Store | July 2013 | By Keith Loria

Beyond The Tablet

Quick serves use innovative technologies to improve business both in the kitchen and the front of the house.

McAlister's Deli uses a table tracking system to improve restaurant operations.
A table-tracking system at McAlister’s Deli allows employees to know exactly where a guest is seated when delivering food. McAlister’s Deli
Bookmark/Share this post with:
Email this story Email this story
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

In an age when, according to Pew Research Center, one in three Americans owns a tablet and most adults use the Internet on their cell phones, it’s no surprise that businesses of all shapes and sizes are bringing in technology to bolster sales.

Innovative technologies are nothing new at quick-service restaurant brands, with many concepts employing digital menuboards, kiosks, iPads at the table, and other ways of letting customers tap into technology while inside the four walls.

However, many brands and operators are thinking even further outside the box, adding innovative technologies in the kitchen and at the front counter to help drive profits, smooth operations, and create a top-notch customer experience.

Walker Thompson, vice president at Web-based software provider WhenToManage Restaurant Solutions, says cutting-edge technologies can help a quick-serve restaurant not only save money, but also create a more efficient business.

“If you would talk to a general manager about how much an operation costs in labor and material, what we found in our industry was a lot of people didn’t have a good answer for that,” he says, adding that technology can provide a visual representation of this sort of data and quantify these costs.

Thompson says one example of this technology in play at many brands is restaurants whose chefs are using technology to track recipes and ensure that food costs are in line with company expectations.

In an attempt to keep its kitchen staff from having to memorize recipes and food preparation policies, Taco Bueno added tablets managed by mobile device management company AirWatch to push recipes to its line cooks.

“We initially rolled out iPads to the restaurants last year, and we used them for checklists for quality assurance so we’d be ready for rushes,” says Tim Collins, Taco Bueno’s senior director of information technology.

“It was very hard to get compliance on paper, so we decided we would have a third party build an app that could house the checklists so they can be seen immediately by the corporate office with photos and notes,” he adds.

In the past, the quick-service brand would send recipes and manuals out to restaurants and operators in hard-copy form, and the materials quickly became outdated.

Once the AirWatch platform was built and installed, Taco Bueno added all of its recipes to the app, including videos that could be used by kitchen staff to help create food in a consistent manner.

“Our kitchen staff tells us that having this info at [their] fingertips makes a huge difference in the everyday running of the restaurant,” Collins says.

“As an example, we added a new bean procedure this year. Beans have become an art form, and it was different in every store,” he says. “We made a series of videos explaining exactly how they should be made, and now we have consistency way better from store to store.”

The system also pushes marketing materials to the tablets that can be printed in the units to keep posters and menus up to date.

Jesse Gideon, chief operating officer and executive chef of Alpharetta, Georgia–based Fresh To Order, says the concept uses a proprietary intranet that has all recipes, manuals, and specifications on a computer in every kitchen for instant access and updates for staff.

“We’ve been testing kitchen display systems in different ways for about three years,” Gideon says. “We had done the old-school method of recipe books, and any time you had something new, you would remove a sheet and add a sheet.

“We realized the productivity of this was extremely inefficient,” Gideon adds. “Now we have recipe computers in all the stores that allow everyone to be updated with recipes and specifications instantly.”

The brand also uses online ordering that is interfaced directly with its POS systems to enable guests to order and pay online. Guests then show up at the restaurant, give an employee their name, and collect their food. In terms of operations, Gideon says, the process is seamless, acting as a typical walk-up, to-go order.

But the kitchen isn’t the only place for the most innovative technologies. McAlister’s Deli recently began experimenting with a table-tracking system, which enables food runners to know exactly where a guest is seated, replacing the less effective table tents it used to employ.

“We were looking at how to deliver the food quicker and more efficiently, and what we landed on was a [radio-frequency identification] system that has a reader under each table,” says Frank Paci, CEO of sandwich concept McAlister’s Deli. “Now, when you hand the customer a coaster [and] the food is ready, you can see exactly where they are sitting.”

Paci says the system helps keep track of how much time lapses between the point at which the initial order is taken and the time the food is delivered to the guest, allowing a franchisee to study each unit’s time management.

The system can also be used to gather data about what tables are being used most frequently, as well as where a guest goes after placing an order at the counter.

Though kitchen and front-of-house technologies like those used by Taco Bueno and McAlister’s Deli offer many advantages, nothing has helped quick-serve restaurants smooth operations in the past few years more than the tablet.

Kevin Brown, CEO of the Alabama-based Chicken Salad Chick chain, says the company recently migrated to an iPad-based Revel POS system.

He says employees are now so familiar with the ins and outs of an app-based solution that the time it takes to complete POS onboarding has drastically decreased.

“Operationally, it gives us much more flexibility and ease of order processing, including credit card transactions at offsite venues,” Brown says. “Making it easier to process orders offsite translates to quicker order processing, more tickets, and ultimately higher revenues.”

Whether it’s using the iPad-based system to take an elderly customer’s order in lieu of making them stand in line behind other guests, or e-mailing a receipt from the system to a customer who has placed an order over the phone, Brown says, his concept is able to offer its guests a better overall experience through the use of the POS program.