Cutting the Cord: June 2007

By George Koroneos, Contributing Editor | June 01, 2007

The coming of the wireless age has been a slow one. Tech experts have claimed for years that we will soon be able to access the Internet from any location in the world, but stories of global wireless hotspots have been just that -- stories. Luckily, the food-service industry isn't waiting around for the wired world to catch up. Many restaurants have installed wireless handheld POS systems and mobile terminals for increased revenue and better service, and the results have been positive.

Fast-service restaurant entrepreneur Jerry Dal Bozzo loves catchy restaurant names. He presently owns the Dead Fish, Boboquivari's, and The Stinking Rose (the name is slang for garlic). But it's his fondness for state-of-the-art technology that is taking the guest experience to the next level.

When it was time to upgrade his POS system, Dal Bozzo turned to Micros (www.micros.com) to implement a wireless handheld solution that allows servers to beam menu selections directly to the bar or kitchen, in real time, directly from Symbol ( www.Motorola.com) handheld units.

"I really like handheld systems, because they make our wait staff better servers," says Dal Bozzo, who installed the units in every one of his establishments. Each restaurant has between 12 and 20 Motorola handhelds that wirelessly communicate to an access point mounted in the dining room. The transmitters send the signal to the kitchen, bar, and back-office computer system. "The thing I love about handhelds is that servers can take a drink order at the table, send it to the bar, and continue taking the meal order," Dal Bozzo explains. "The drink runner could be bringing the beverages to the guest before the server is done taking the food orders."

Are people still wary?
According to Dal Bozzo, food service companies have been apprehensive to implement handheld order taking. Either the units are too fragile and expensive to use in the fast-paced food industry, or operators are fearful that servers will spend more time staring at the screen rather than communicating with guests.

Dal Bozzo disagrees. "One of the issues has always been efficiency," he says. "On a workstation POS, servers can spend up to ten minutes typing in orders and can only handle three or four tables. With the handhelds, servers are trained to tap in orders quickly, doubling the number of tables they can handle."

Boe Trumbull, director of nightlife operations at SBE Restaurant and Nightlife Group, finds that wireless helps improve the server-customer interaction. "I really believe in wireless POS, but it's easier to implement in some venues than in other venues," he says. "If you go ahead and put wired POS terminals throughout the floor and you give them the option to use handhelds, they tend to want to go back to the larger screen because they feel more comfortable retreating out of the guest view. I don't want them to retreat from the guest view. I want to break the mold of the way service is presented to the guest."

According to Trumbull, having a solid software system makes all the difference in the world. "I find Menusoft (www.menusoft.com) to be the easiest software to interface with and it doesn't require any additional training because the handhelds function exactly like the terminals." He recommends that companies don't skimp on the hardware. "If you do not have the right hardware and it's not supported by a solid piece of software, you will think the solution is terrible," Trumbull says. "It took us four years to find the right combo of hardware and software, but in the end it is absolutely worth it."

Menu layout on the handheld is also an important consideration. Operators should work with their vendor to design a simple application that is easy to navigate. For drinks, consider making the menu alphabetical by cocktail or liquor, rather than by ingredient. Also, try keeping the number of drinks to a minimum. If a cocktail is only ordered five times a year, skip the handheld and just make the server ask the bartender.

For food orders, try using as few submenus as possible. Make a separate button for entrees, appetizers, salads, desserts, etc; then list all the meals alphabetically in each category. If a server has to scroll through more than three submenus to find a meal, you are better off making a new meal category.

When shopping for handhelds, operators should look for units that are light yet rugged. Add a card swipe and printer to the handhelds for a faster payment process, however, these tools also add more weight that the server has to lug around.

Wetting your wireless appetite
The Polo Beach Bar and Grill in Hawaii has been using wireless POS units for nearly four years. After an initial one-year trial period, server supervisor Kristine Hanka says that Micros worked out any bugs and made the units very user friendly. The handhelds are used by servers to take drink orders from guests basking poolside. "It's really beneficial to have that system available, since the pool is quite a distance away from the bar and pick up area," Hanka says. Three wireless access points are located through out the indoor and outdoor facility, allowing for seamless wireless connectivity and low drop off rates.

Is there any fear about having expensive handhelds so close to a large body of water? "We all understand that these are very expensive pieces of equipment and we make sure that nothing happens to them," Hanka says. "Guests also like seeing us using the handhelds. It improves timeliness and service. By the time the server gets across the pool, the bartender already has most of the drinks ready."

If all else fails
While the Polo Beach Bar needed wireless for mobility, Karu restaurant required it out of necessity. When the operators of this Miami-based fine dining, full-service restaurant installed the Micros 9700 last summer, the contractors were behind schedule hardwiring the restaurant. Rather than delay the opening the owners chose to use a wireless POS solution until the place was fully wired.

The 9700 is a Windows-based wireless POS unit. Unlike handhelds, the system is a full-sized terminal that can be moved anywhere in the building. "We initially ended up with it out of necessity," says Laura Ladu, controller at Arrso Restaurant Co., LLC. "The flexibility of wireless allows us to put the terminals wherever we want, and we can reconfigure a room any way we please. I don't have to sell my rooms based on where I can plug in a POS."

This was integral for Karu since the restaurant includes two massive venues that can be rented out for events. For maximum signal reach, Micros installed signal boosters and high-speed fiber cable to reach the farthest corners of the building. But what happens if the wireless signal crashes all together? "If one terminal falls out of the system or the communication fails, the only problem I have is getting the orders to the kitchen," Ladu says. "The registers will still keep track of the sales, and as soon as the signal comes back up, the POS can broadcast the sales back to the central unit." Karu also has back up dial-up phone lines for credit card transactions if there is ever a connectivity problem. "We have yet to be in that situation, but we are prepared for it," Ladu says.

Learning curve
Steve Brooks, director of mission control at Tumbleweed Southwest Grill, chose the smaller Motorola NC50 handhelds provided by Motorola (www.Motorola.com) for his casual-dining establishment, which features an outdoor terrace that would be difficult to wire for a terminal-size POS. The handhelds Brooks purchased are lighter, and easier for servers to carry tethered to their uniforms or belts, Brooks says. "We couldn't put a traditional POS system in an outdoor environment because the servers would be walking much further to get the food."

The pilot proved so successful that Tumbleweed has begun installing the handhelds in most of its 26 restaurants, and all of Brooks' employees have undergone training to make sure they know how to better use the handhelds without ignoring the customers. "We realized with the handhelds that there could be some impersonal service with the servers if we didn't train them how to use the handhelds properly," Brooks says. "It's a different way of serving that doesn't take very long to catch on, and the servers that catch on the quickest are the new employees. The longer they've worked for us, the tougher the learning curve."

Outdoor fun
Sure, tableside POS systems might get all the press coverage, but what about carside POS? Del Taco sprung for wireless touch pads that give employees the freedom to walk down a drive-through line taking orders directly from the car windows. "Our biggest need for wireless was outside the restaurant, in the drive through lane," says Dave Snyder of Del Taco. "It was very clear to us when we put in the Aloha ( www.radiantsystems.com) point of sale platform that it had to have some sort of line-busting device."

In all honesty, Del Taco had a little bit of fast-food envy. Just down the street, the local In & Out Burger had already successfully launched a wireless line busting application. Snyder and company went out for a cheeseburger and came back with enough information to build its own system. Del Taco is using a Toughbook Mobile Data Wireless Display by Panasonic ( www.panasonic.com) that features a 10.4 inch touch screen, pop-up keyboard screen, and signature capture. The unit weighs less than three pounds and runs on Windows CE ( www.microsoft.com). Outside the restaurant, Del Taco installed a Zumasys (www.zumasys.com) antenna with a Cisco (www.cisco.com) wireless router to feed the information wirelessly to the back office Dell PC ( www.dell.com) running Aloha terminal software.

The best part is that people waiting in line don't have to give their order to a muffled menu/speaker contraption -- they give it to a real person. Cars still have to wait in line to pick up the food, but the room for error when ordering is significantly reduced. Del Taco has installed 30 units at its restaurants and is presently using them only at lunch time when traffic is busiest.

"It's all about how you design your menu," Snyder says. "Because we use Aloha Quickserve, we have total control over the design of the POS screens, so we optimized our layout so the person using the line buster can quickly navigate through the menus and get the orders in."

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