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Strolling down the aisles of food, beverages, equipment, and more at the annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show—aka, the NRA Show—most attendees are looking at the booths, often stopping to chat with the exhibitors.
Plenty of others, however, are walking while gazing down at their smartphones, checking on meetings, receiving business updates, messaging, and reading and sending emails.
iPhones, Androids, and other devices seem to be everywhere in America these days. More than 100 million U.S. consumers use them.
"Phone users want computers in their pockets," said Kevin Restivo, senior research analyst at market intelligence firm International Data Corp., last month when the company reported that smartphones were 51.6 percent of mobile phones shipped globally in 2012.
As the smartphone market grows, developers of mobile phone applications are looking at creating products that will help restaurants gain and maintain the loyalty of diners, improve their guests' experience, and oversee and improve operations.
The best part for operators is that the customers are responsible for the most expensive part of the technology: the phones.
Nearly four-dozen app developers are showing their wares at this year's show.
Take, for instance, HearTV Zone, an app that allows individual customers at restaurants and bars to use their smartphones to hear the audio from the TVs that are showing sports, news, and other programming.
"I'm sure there have been times you've been in a restaurant and there's something being shown on the TV and you think to yourself, "I wonder what they're talking about," says Amre Morsy, president of HearTV Zone. "We can give you that capability."
The business was developed by TV Ears Inc., a Spring Valley, California–based company that is know for its top-selling wireless TV listening devices used in the home.
Operators can buy a HearTV Zone audio box, which allows wireless audio for up to six channels, for about $300, plus a $20 maintenance fee per channel. There are no contracts, and the box, which is serves as a Wi-Fi hotspot, is easy to install, Morsy says.
Customers will be able to download the HearTV Zone app from the App Store or Google Play starting this summer.
A number of other companies have developed applications that allow restaurants to garner crucial information about their guests and develop loyalty programs for those customers.
AppSuite, based in Boca Raton, Florida, created a content management system that operators can deploy on iPhone and Android without facing any development costs.
The app can display menus and photos, give directions to the restaurant, integrate with social media, use popup notifications of upcoming events and special offers, push out text notifications, and allow the guest to make reservations.
"Operators spend so much money trying to get new guests when they should be looking to turn existing guests into loyal customers who will visit many more times," says company chief executive Jim Daleen. "It's more cost effective."
Another loyalty app, developed by AppGenie of Sacramento, California, provides plenty of information about a restaurant, and can include virtual coupons and loyalty cards.
"You don't need to physically punch a card any more on a visit," says company president Uriah Deckard. "It's all done electronically."
A number of companies at the show are in the business of managing waiting lists, including sending out text messages to a mobile phone to alert customers that their tables are ready. BuzzTable goes a step further.
It has developed an app for iPhone and Android that allows guests to see their approximate place in line, while highlighting the restaurant's top dishes.
The restaurant gets information about the customer downloading the app and real-time feedback from the customer.
"Let's say you are unhappy with the service you are getting," says cofounder Mike Cerrone. "You can go to Tell Us What You Think (on the app) and make a comment. That is being monitored by a manager who will immediately take care of the problem."
WhenToManage, of Norwalk, Connecticut, developed apps that give managers the ability to oversee various restaurant operations—point-of-sale reporting, employee scheduling, and inventory management, among them—in real time from their smartphones or tablets.
"You used to have log books and big Excel sheets to track all this," says Walker Thompson, vice president of sales and marketing. "We give you the ability to do this and not be tied to a desk or a personal computer."
A separate app links users to a private social network for the restaurant, allowing managers to engage employees.
Finally, there is paying for a meal. That's where a company like Xpress-pay.com comes into play. It gives restaurants the ability to allow guests to pay for their meal directly from the credit cards encrypted in their smartphones.
"The bill comes with a QR code on it, and the guest just scans it, and the electronic version of the bill comes up," says Thomas Butting, an account executive. "You log into your account and pay the bill. It's that easy.”
By Barney Wolf