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A Comprehensive Look at Restaurant Technology
Today’s operator has more tools than ever before. But some experts say technology can be bad for service.
Rob Hough

Today’s quick-service restaurant is wired—literally. From drive-thru order confirmation systems to online ordering, operators have more tech gadgets than ever before. And they plan to use even more of them.

According to the National Restaurant Association 2007 Forecast, 50 percent of quick-service owners will allocate a larger proportion of their budget to technology. The report says operators are using technology to deliver better value and to pass savings on to customers.

But some restaurant veterans question the industry’s fixation on so much technology. “We place a high premium on quality of service,” says Don Fox, chief operating officer for Firehouse Subs, a 260-unit sandwich chain based in Jacksonville, Florida. “Technology can work against that.”

Over the years, there has been a lot of technology overwhelming guests and employees, says Don Buonavolanto, vice president of restaurant operations for Buona, an 11-store quick-service restaurant based in Chicago.

“You go into most places and the order takers are not even making eye contact…They’re not even looking at the guest,” Buonavolanto says.

Fox, a former Burger King executive, believes that good training and good help are more valuable than technology. The problem with that theory is labor is very costly and good help is hard to come by, says Mark Godward, president of Strategic Restaurant Engineering, a Miami-based firm that specializes in restaurant efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

“With the possibility of minimum wage going up substantially, things are going to get even more difficult for the quick-service industry,” says Godward, who has worked with McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Burger King, and Yum! Brands. “In some cases, operators cannot fill all the positions that they have open.”

One labor-saving piece of technology is self-service kiosks, Godward says. According to InfoAmerica Transactional Kiosks, this technology saves operators anywhere from 15 to 50 hours per week in labor.

“The real benefits from kiosks are more transactions through the store by redeploying the labor from the front to the kitchen,” says Paul Knight, president of InfoAmerica.

Godward says Subway and Blimpie have had great success with kiosks, because their customers “know they can get in and out quicker by using order terminals.” Knight says kiosks range from $5,000 to $15,000 apiece.

“If you expect franchisees to spend 1,000 dollars, you better prove he can get back $1,001,” says Rob Hough, Atlanta principal for Technisource, an IT firm that represents FOCUS Brands.

Hough, the former chief information officer for Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits restaurants, knows not all operators will invest $30,000 in technology to make their store more efficient. But he encourages franchisees to at least buy an integrated point-of-sale terminal, which he says are effective tools for controlling cash. With a point-of-sale terminal, “I know if my employees are robbing me.” On many point-of-sale terminals, employees clock in by swiping a card or pressing their finger against a scanner.

“This guarantees that nobody is buddy punching,” says Jim Melvin, chief strategy officer for PAR Technology. “You have tight control over early punches…With 40 to 50 people working a day, that’s a lot of extra labor if everybody punches in early.”

Melvin says point-of-sale software tracks audit events, too. “We track a few dozen events that would be related to employee theft, such as a credit card used multiple times,” he says.

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