These days, it’s not uncommon to see restaurant staff take orders on an iPad or guests swiping their credit cards on a tablet reader. Mobile technology can integrate various facets of an operation. But what does a truly integrated, automated restaurant look like?
Nestled in the Little Italy neighborhood of San Diego, the Crack Shack represents a big step in that direction. The fast casual, which opened in late 2015, bills its 4,000-square-foot space as a fully automated, open-air venue.
With the press of a button on a cellphone or tablet app, Crack Shack’s upper management staff can monitor and change the music playing from speakers in at least three separate locations, switch what’s playing on television screens, and adjust the restaurant’s climate control, lighting, and various security systems. On top of that, management staff with full access to the system’s app can view day-to-day operations through security cameras placed throughout the restaurant, no matter where they are.
Zack Paradise, owner of Paradise InfoTech and designer of the Crack Shack system, which utilizes an ELAN g! and gSC10 control system, says tablets and other mobile tech have been a huge driver in the growth of automation in the workforce, especially for restaurants.
“What used to require a walk over to the rack can now be accomplished in seconds while standing right at a customer’s table,” Paradise says. “Almost every manager has an iPhone or Droid, so there isn’t a need for the owners to buy dedicated user devices just to control their systems.”
He adds that the explosion of iPad POS systems means that management has a control device at each and every location where orders can be taken.
When restaurant operator Michael Rosen and his partner, Chef Richard Blais (of “Top Chef” fame), conceived of the idea for the open-air physical space of Crack Shack, they realized they needed a way to secure the restaurant after closing time. The Crack Shack has no walls, doors, or windows surrounding its main dining area.
Paradise was able to develop a solution. Because of Crack Shack’s layout (only the kitchen and bar are under a roof), when the restaurant closes each night, motion detectors are armed.
If motion is detected inside the venue after-hours, security lights are turned on, the intruder hears a warning message, and a private security company with access to the video cameras checks to see if someone is on the premises, then dispatches a guard if necessary.
Outside of the security, the ELAN system also controls weatherproof speakers and subwoofers in the outdoor dining area. These speakers correspond to two sound zones—one of which is around a bocce ball court.
“While there are other systems to control just lighting, just climate, or just music, the real gains are seen when all systems are integrated together under one platform,” Paradise says.
Dan Pena, director of operations at Crack Shack, says the system presents a very efficient way for Crack Shack’s management team to check up on the restaurant. He says it helps him keep some peace of mind and eases the psychological burden of running a restaurant.
“It allows me to keep an eye on the business even when I’m not there,” Pena says. “I know on a Saturday when I’m at home with my kids, I can check out the cameras and see, ‘How long is the line, do they need me right now? Or do I get to spend an extra half hour ... with my kids?’”
The restaurant calls itself a chicken-and-eggs concept with menu items like the Señor Croque, a sandwich featuring crispy chicken, a fried egg, and miso-maple butter.
Because of Crack Shack’s AV system fluidity, microphones in the back of house grant chefs in the kitchen access to the dining-area speakers, which they sometimes use to tell chicken jokes to customers as they cook.
“There isn’t really a single part of the operation of a [quick serve] that doesn’t benefit from a control system,” says Bob Griffin, a spokesman for ELAN.
He adds that many restaurants are using similar systems to improve their operational profit margins, including some Buffalo Wild Wings franchisees.
Matthew Ellis, president and CEO of the firm Bluemotif Architecture, designed the Crack Shack venue.
“We designed the structure with security in mind,” Ellis says. “[Security] is a challenge with an open-air structure in an urban environment.”
Ellis adds that the security system complements practical touches, such as furniture in the dining area that is difficult if not impossible to pick up and steal, as well as roll-down doors to secure the interior kitchen and bar portions of the restaurant.
At the same time, the security system is not in customers’ faces, Ellis says, and the roll-down doors are painted with commissioned graffiti to blend with the hip environment. Those steps help Crack Shack have an open, inviting design—perfect for San Diego fair-weather crowds.
Paradise says the control system reduces the need for quick-service restaurants to have additional management staff on-site. Through the integrated technology, operators can monitor security cameras to gauge staffing requirements and ensure productivity standards are met.
At the same time, Paradise acknowledges that the technology can never truly replace an on-site visit.
He says an automated system also means managers can be more responsive, given the ability to change audio zones and lighting systems to customers’ preference immediately upon request.
Paradise does offer one mild warning: The price of building an automated system can “come as a surprise” for some restaurant owners.
Still, it seems this integrated technology approach, which was once relegated to more formal environments, is finding its way into limited service.
“While these were more fine-dining concerns in the past, they certainly cross over into the highly competitive fast-casual and quick-service spaces,” Paradise says.