Restaurants developing an appetite for tech

Tablets, apps and automation are revolutionising a traditionally labour- intensive sector

Some 20 million transactions a month go through Ziosk’s tabletop tablet system. photograph: matt rainey/new york times

Some 20 million transactions a month go through Ziosk’s tabletop tablet system. photograph: matt rainey/new york times

 

An idea came to Ronald M Shaich, chief executive of Panera Bread, as he was driving his children to school about four years ago: What if everyone could order lunch the way he did?

The Shaich household’s morning routine included a call to the manager of the nearest Panera location to order lunch for Shaich’s son (Asian sesame chicken salad with half the normal amount of chicken and twice the wonton strips) and daughter (various salads but with dressing on the side).

The family then hopped in the car, stopping on the way to school to pick-up the lunches. “It suddenly occurred to me that this was a wonderful system for the CEO, but what about the other eight million people who order from Panera?” says Shaich.

“Everyone else got in line to get to the register, then got in another line where they had to play a game called ‘Go find your food,’” he adds. “For drinks, they had to go to another line, and if they wanted any kind of espresso drink, we sent them to a fourth line.”

So, the corporate chieftain who once declared that “the food business is not a technology business” has spent $42 million on updating Panera’s technical infrastructure. “The goal is to eliminate friction points so that customers have a better experience,” says Shaich, “because if they have a better experience, it will help our business.”

Restaurants have been late to the tech party and many are now scrambling to incorporate tablets, apps, computerised kitchen equipment and data analysis capabilities. In the US, Applebee’s is trying out online ordering and tablet payment systems, while in Asia, McDonald’s has been testing what it calls the Happy Table, an interactive table that “plays” with children using mobile devices.

Computerised service

“These things have helped our customers expedite and control their experience more, which in turn is good for our business,” said Wyman Roberts, chief executive of Brinker International, which operates Chili’s, and Maggiano’s Little Italy.

But Roberts also notes that incorporating technology carrys risks. Even in a world increasingly run off tablet devices, using apps like Uber that increase customisation, consumers can still be put off by technology they perceive as annoying or unable to deliver on what it promises.

“If I get a promotion for a new appetiser or a coupon over my app, the restaurant that offered it better have the supplies in inventory and a kitchen system that can produce it when I want it,” says Scott A Rosenberger, leader of Deloitte Consulting’s travel, hospitality and leisure practice. “The reality of it is that there is tremendous potential upside, but execution is a challenge.”

“While the growth of couponing and online check-in and ordering is expanding rapidly, we don’t think that’s really where the future lies,” Rosenberger adds. “The research says overwhelmingly that the future lies in offering games, awards, entertainment and other ways of keeping me engaged without being creepy and digging too far into my privacy.”

Chili’s has teamed up with Ziosk, a company that offers a tabletop small tablet with a menu, ordering options, games and a payment system. Austen Mulinder, chief executive at Ziosk, says roughly 20 million transactions a month take place over the company’s system.

Roberts of Chili’s says about a quarter of their customers answered a survey about their experience, providing feedback. The system is so sophisticated that it can ask different questions to customers based on their orders, soliciting opinions on a new special or dessert item. A customer who has a coupon can opt to switch on a camera that will read it, or use the camera to upload a photo to Facebook or Pinterest.

Revenue-sharing

Similarly, Panera has found its investment in kitchen technology as beneficial as the tablets and apps it offers consumers. Color-coded screens deliver orders to the kitchen staff: a red stripe over an ingredient means leave it off, a green stripe indicates an addition. Other colors signify an order is for takeaway.

The orders roll in from kiosks in the front of the store where customers peruse a broader menu than can be displayed on boards above cash registers.

Customers can add or subtract ingredients, save their preferences for the next visit, swipe credit cards and move on to pick up their meals. “Most of us are creatures of habit; we order the same thing,” saysHope Neiman, chief marketing officer at Tillster, which has built technology programs for Chili’s, Taco Bell and Subway. “Remembering how a customer likes his favorite meal helps create stickiness among guests – and that’s what this is all about, increasing retention, frequency and average check size.”

The new system has helped the Braintree location reduce errors in orders, which could run as high as six out of every 10, in that way increasing profitability, says Chris Hogan, its manager. It has allowed Hogan to reduce workers at the cash register and add them to the kitchen.

Panera’s customers can also order directly from their tables, using their mobile phones. Those meals can be delivered to the table, eliminating the lines that concerned Shaich.

Panera has installed the new technology in about 20 company-owned restaurants around Boston and Charlotte, North Carolina, at a cost of about $125,000 each, the company says. “Profits are up in all of them, and orders have increased,” notes Shaich.

– (New York Times)

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