Communications and Technology

Communications and Technology

The challenges of running a restaurant often include a generous side dish of business hurdles. Highly competitive markets, constantly diminishing inventory (because of sale or spoilage), the broader economy and shifts in consumer taste represent just a few morsels owners might find hard to digest.

Like every business owner, restaurateurs must ultimately make everything work to the bottom line. Without a solid management infrastructure, the eatery most likely will go belly-up. Technology has played an important role in helping those in the industry stay organized.

To address the restaurant industry's changing information demands, software companies have released new programs and hardware designed to help restaurants become more automated. From integrated point-of-sales (POS) systems and table-management software to Web ordering and reservations, technology has become fundamental to the restaurant industry.

Screens and Servers

A steady increase in wireless and Internet-based innovations has dramatically changed the face of the restaurant industry. Waitresses are swapping out pens and notepads for electronic ordering kiosks that speed up the process and ensure fewer errors.

Most restaurants today use a centrally located, computerized point-of-sale (POS) system. These devices, which feature a large touch-screen, allow the server to place an order efficiently without leaving the dining room floor. POS systems often include features that update the restaurant's accounting software with line-item sales data from that particular day.

Touch-screen ordering improves efficiency by displaying orders in the kitchen directly as they are placed, reducing the amount of time servers have to spend entering orders. POS software also reduces potential errors from paper order slips being misplaced or servers' handwriting being difficult to understand.

In addition, POS systems provide hostesses and supervisors with integrated reservations, waiting lists and guest paging functions, as well as a visual representation of which tables are occupied (and how long a party's been at a given table).

By paying attention to table utilization and subtly encouraging stragglers to settle up, restaurants can boost revenue by increasing the number of times a table turns over during an evening.

Some POS systems vendors also offer customer relationship management (CRM) functions that allow restaurants to identify and reward loyal patrons with discrete discounts or priority seating during busy periods.

Faster Ordering, Payment

A number of establishments have also deployed wireless ordering devices that enable the wait staff to record orders on portable devices and submit them directly to the kitchen. This can reduce the number of trips servers have to make to order kiosks and increase amount of time they can devote to patrons.

In some segments, pay-at-table tools are revolutionizing the way restaurants close a tab. Instead of waiting in line or for servers to close a check, wireless technology lets patrons settle their bills quickly and efficiently. The wait staff can access a table's ticket with a click on a portable device.

Whether the patron uses credit, debit or cash, the pay-at-table terminal processes the information and prints out a receipt in front of the customer.

Pay-at-table devices do much more than merely trim the amount of time it takes for a transaction. Since patrons using credit or debit enter the information themselves and never hand over their cards, these terminals can reduce the risk of fraud or identity theft.

Some high-end establishments are extending the idea of wireless technology by using tablet PCs to display wine lists, instead of printed sheets and leather binders. While the idea is mostly a novelty, it could become more common if device costs fall considerably.

Digital Inventory Solutions

Many restaurateurs kick off the workweek with a few hours fumbling through refrigerators and pantries. During this time, they take count of needed products and track expiration dates, checking off inventory orders as they go.

To minimize culinary confusion, more and more restaurant owners are turning to inventory tracking and purchasing applications. These computer programs are in part designed to clear the lines of communication between the dining establishment and food distributor.

Most suites contain functions that allow managers to enter and track vendor invoices for everything purchased. This not only makes reorders simpler by showing how quickly certain amounts of product moved but also helps owners keep a close eye on price trends.

On the other side of the food chain, many vendors now offer electronic inventory ordering via the Web. Through these systems, restaurant management can view order or delivery status, customize order templates, change orders and more. The restaurant usually forms an account with the food distributor, interfacing all inventory data.

The system then uses a combination of sales history, current inventory, sales projections, and special events to help the owner calculate and generate the appropriate order amount. Once the eatery manager approves a delivery, the information gets entered into the restaurant's account for future tracking.

Managers no longer need to fill out inventory paperwork or place phone calls to the vendor when ordering supplies. Instead, a few clicks of a keyboard – whether attached to a desktop computer or wireless device – gets the purchasing job done.

Inventory control software is designed to help track supplies and reduce duplicate purchases, over-buying and food waste. Although these programs don't eliminate the need to take a weekly inventory, they can help control and curb losses. Most inventory software includes features that track vendor invoices and keeps a history of each transaction.

Some IT companies even sell food cost software that recalculates the price of menu items and recipes based on cost increases of vendor ingredients. This software also conducts detailed expense reporting for supplies and services.

Leading software solutions designed for restaurants include Restaurant Pro Express, Restaurant Professional, ParTech and Fishbowl.

Diners Embrace Online Ordering

A growing number of restaurant consumers are using the Internet not only to view menus but also to place orders directly online.

Online menu presentation was the first step in accepting orders on the Web, and it remains a popular option for local and chain restaurants alike. Some restaurants rely on customers making their choices and calling in orders for in-person pickup or delivery, while others (especially those that cater to business lunch orders) have been successful with printable order forms that customers fax in.

More sophisticated online systems allow customers to place orders directly over the Web, with a few national restaurant chains releasing smartphone apps that allow people to find the nearest store or to place a pickup order.

Many of the latest online ordering systems are easy to set up and maintain, often boosting a restaurant's profitable takeout business significantly.

Booking a Table

Even restaurants that don't offer takeout services are shifting online, setting up reservation systems that help customers book tables without the need for a staff person to answer the phone during busy hours.

Many online reservation features automatically generate confirmation and reminder emails to guests. Some even allow customers to cancel a reservation or change the party number via the Web.

Aside from helping to eliminate double bookings, online reservation systems offer a number of benefits. For one, they let customers book a table when the restaurant's not open, offering greater flexibility and convenience to patrons.

Staff Scheduling and Management

Several online scheduling applications are designed to help restaurant owners track their employees' work schedules. If a worker requests a schedule change or time off, managers can review the request either onsite or remotely. Workers can trade shifts, and their timesheet data is tracked online (and can be exported into payroll applications).

Scheduling this kind of data via a Web application is a lot easier and more efficient than trying to track it manually, and reduces the chance of an employer being affected by employees punching the time card of another employee or similar scheduling schemes.