The Kitchen Gets Technical

By Tammy Mastroberte Contributing Editor | March 01, 2007

In the last few years, kitchen management technology has come out of hiding for many restaurant operators. Upgraded hardware and software, along with a decrease in price, are driving interest in technologies such as kitchen display systems, table management applications, handheld devices and more.

"As technology became more cost efficient and vendors systems evolved, the interest in the industry evolved, and it has become a worthwhile investment," says Bob Herbert of Quality Dining Inc., which operates 41 Chili's and 122 Burger King franchises, and is owner/operator of 10 Papa Vino's and Spaageddies Italian Kitchen's and one Porterhouse Steaks and Seafood restaurant.

Many companies continue to use kitchen printers to streamline their operations, which now feature new capabilities such as multiple languages. Epson's ( www.epson.com ) kitchen and receipt printers, for example, can print various languages in text mode. At Huke Lau, a Polynesian dinner theater in Chicopee, Mass., the Epson printers combine with Profitek point-of-sale (POS) from InfoSpec Systems Inc. ( www.infospec.com ), so kitchen orders can be printed in Chinese for the kitchen staff, and customer receipts in either English or Chinese.

While printers remain a viable option, many operators are now investing in sophisticated reporting systems and kitchen displays, and are tying kitchen operations into table management to optimize performance.

Tailored reports
New reporting capabilities allow an operator to track the time between the kitchen receiving an order and when it is served, as well as how long each station in the kitchen took to prepare it.

"Not only does it improve overall speed and efficiency, and eliminate errors and mistakes, but it also gives management more tools to help them recognize areas they may need to improve upon," explains Al Newman, director of training at Hungry Howies, based in Madison Heights, Mich., with 551 pizza franchise locations. "It provides them with much more information about what is going on at the location."

And this information does not have to be confusing, according to John Doyle, director of IT restaurant systems at Ruby Tuesday Inc., with 856 U.S. locations.

"In the information age, it is very easy to overwhelm operators with raw data," says Doyle. "They typically don't have strong technical or analytical backgrounds, so we provide exception-based reporting data to show them trends they need to make real-time decisions in their restaurants. We send them reports on a daily basis, and if they have a shift where the grill side of the kitchen ran long ticket times, they can go back and evaluate who worked the grill that shift and make any changes they need."

Kitchen displays
Compared to a $400 price tag on an average printer, the price of a kitchen display monitor -- ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 for an initial investment -- may seem like a lot to some, but to those operators reaping the rewards, "it's well worth the money," says Newman.

Beyond reporting, features such as staged preparation and a real-time view of the kitchen operation can be priceless. "Reporting is great, but the biggest bang for the buck — where it takes less than 10 minutes to see — is the instant reward of seeing how long things take in your kitchen," notes Quality Dining's Herbert. "With colored displays, you know how long an item has been in the kitchen, and it uses blinking colors to show if something has been in there too long."

Hungry Howies uses Revention Inc.'s ( www.revention.com ) POS and restaurant management system in 150 stores, and tracks orders from the kitchen to the cut-and-box station, and then to the delivery station or carry out. Using the reporting capabilities, managers can gain control over employees offering discounts and internal theft because of the reports and audit trail, says Newman.

At Quality Dining's 11 owned and operated restaurants, Micros Systems' ( www.micros.com ) POS and kitchen display system provides staged item preparation so all entrees for one table come out of the kitchen at the same time, according to Herbert. If a server enters an order at the terminal for five entrees, the order will not go out to the kitchen together, but will be staggered depending on prep time.

"The system sends back the longest item first, and the other stations won't know anything is coming to them until the system sends it out," he explains. "There is an expeditor station screen and he or she can see the entire check and know the first item went into station A, and the other items are pending. The idea is to maintain quality and have everything come out at once. This feature isn't available with older systems."

And if one monitor goes down, the information can be produced on the monitor next to it, and two stations can share, says Herbert.

"The kitchen displays take the guesswork out of the kitchen, and ultimately lead to a better guest experience," says Kelly Maddern, senior director of IT at Hard Rock Café, based in Orlando, Fla., currently rolling out Micros Systems POS and kitchen display system. "We piloted kitchen display in one of our locations and based on the results, we will roll it out at corporate-owned locations," she says. "We have seen overall improvements in the kitchen operation during the pilot, including improved efficiencies and a greater sense of urgency in the kitchen within each station."

Tying in the table
For many restaurant operators, the next logical step following kitchen display is to incorporate table management applications into the location to close the loop with a complete end-to-end solution.

With table management, a restaurant can track the time from when a guest is seated to when he or she leaves, and then how long it takes to get the table ready for the next guest. It can also provide a view of the entire restaurant, says Herbert.

"You can see how many tables are into their entrees or who started desert," he explains. "This allows you to judge wait times."

Ruby Tuesday, for example, rolled out QSR Automations Inc.'s ( www.qsrautomation.com ) Connect-Smart Kitchen (CSK) at the end of 2005, and added kitchen displays to its bar area in the first quarter of 2006.

"We didn't even know what we were getting into when we first rolled out kitchen display, but after seeing the ROI (return-on-investment), it was a no-brainer to extend it to the bar," says Doyle.

Now, the company is looking into table management. "We want table management to integrate with the POS and the kitchen display," says Doyle, "as well as with a handheld solution that communicates with the table management system to indicate when a table is cleared and ready."

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