Going Mobile

By George Koroneos • Contributing Editor | October 01, 2007

The food-service business has caught the WiFi bug and operators aren't thinking twice about adding a wireless access point (or two) in their establishments. Although many food service providers are using the service simply to entice guests with Internet access and a meal, some progressive companies are cutting the cord on traditional tech and going mobile with everything from hosting services to the point of sale.

Your thoughts, please

Take the traditional comment card, for instance. Typically, when a server delivers the check to a guest, they tuck a survey into the folio wallet or credit card tray and the customer can either fill it out at the restaurant with a pen, or call a phone number when they get home. Too bad no one ever answers these things. For bd's Mongolian Barbeque, paper cards weren't enough. The create your-own-stir-fry concept chain was adamant about finding out what guests thought about its service, so the company installed an electronic comment card solution aptly dubbed The Informant by Long Range Systems (www.pager.net).

The LRS solution resembles a traditional credit-card tray, except the tray has a numerical keyboard with additional buttons for "good," "best," "poor," "yes," and "no." It also sports a digitized screen that lists the questions.

The very first question the system asks the guest is, "Would you like to complete the survey?" If they say yes, it goes into a series of questions about the quality of the food and service. "Interestingly enough, more than 92 percent of our guests agree to take the survey," says Deb Fratrik, chief operating officer at bd's Mongolian Barbeque. "It's a very modern, hip tool, and people pay their bills on it with the attached credit card reader."

Questions on the survey can be changed as frequently as every two weeks, but bd's Mongolian Barbeque typically runs a survey for approximately 30 days. One of the questions asked at the beginning of the survey process is, "Based on your experience today, will you return to bd's?" If the guest answers "no," a signal is wirelessly sent to the manager's pager notifying him or her of the upset customer.

"That gives the manager on duty time to get over to that table and really engage with the guest and find out if they did have a bad dining experience, and what they can do make it right," Fratrik says. "We all know that such a large percentage of our guests don't verbally complain when they are in the restaurant. They just quietly go away and never come back."

After the data is collected, it is polled from the 31 individual restaurants nightly and the survey summaries are available to be viewed at the corporate offices the next morning. The Informant also breaks down information by customer and server so individual staff members can be reprimanded rather than the whole staff.

The units are tethered wirelessly through an access point that is connected to the back office system. Units are returned to a base station that charges the systems when they are not in use.

The restaurant chain also installed a new pager system by LRS that eschews the traditional vibrating, glowing pager for a cell phone pager. When a guest's table is ready, a text message is sent to the cell phone telling them that their table is ready. The guest then has the option to press one to be seated immediately, press two for 10 more minutes to make it back to the restaurant, or press three to cancel the table. If the guest doesn't have a text-enabled phone, they receive a traditional pager.

Hostess with the mostess

While electronic comment cards are a great way to top off a guest's visit, some companies are designing mobile tools to make the start of a dining experience a breeze. Lazlo's Brewery & Grill is using Panasonic Toughbooks (www.panason ic.com/toughbook) in conjunction with a digital seating system from NTN Software Solutions (www.ntnwireless.com) called ProHost to manage guest seating and wait times. When the guest enters the restaurant, the head host controls the seating of the guest and makes sure the seating is distributed between the servers.

Before Lazlo's installed the system, the company relied on a traditional pen and clipboard to seat guests. "ProHost works a lot better, because we can track our waits and interface with the pagers we give to guests," explains Terry Krichau, programmer for Telesis, Inc., the holding company for Lazlo's Brewery & Grill. "Before, we had to have guests come up to the host desk and submit their party information, but with the handheld, the greeter can go into the lobby and meet the guests, so that patron information is collected right away."

The restaurant presently uses five Panasonic Toughbooks that wirelessly communicate through access points to two wired terminals. The handheld units are roughly 10-inches by six-inches and are lightweight. The default menu screen shows a list of the guests in order of who is to be seated next. Buttons on the main screen allow the host to easily add data for new guests as they arrive.

"Our guests love the system -- they think we're really high-tech," Krichau says. "It's been invaluable having this system, because now we can go paging throughout history to see what our average wait times are, and we can collect information about the guests to do market analysis about repeat customers."

The biggest challenge the restaurant faced was getting the wireless system to work correctly and getting the signal to work consistently. According to Krichau, if a system were to fail, the restaurant would only lose mobility. The basic functions of the systems still work without an Internet signal.

Rebuild through mobility

Friend's Coastal, located in Madisonville, Louisiana, was badly battered during Hurricane Katrina and required a full restoration to get up and running. The place was completely flooded and needed half a million dollars in renovations both to the physical and IT infrastructure. "The POS system that was there before was ruined, as well as the floors, the kitchen -- everything," says Richard Taubin, managing partner at Friend's Coastal. "So we basically started with a clean slate."

For the new POS system, Taubin and his partner selected Digital Dining by Menusoft (www.menusoft.com), a wireless solution that features Motorola (www.motorola.com) handheld POS units and remote payment collection. "The people ordering from the outdoor deck can now get their orders faster, and it saves a lot of time when you need to get orders from 1,000 people a day," Taubin says.

Digital Dining is particularly valuable when used in conjunction with ping waiting, Taubin says. This is a servicing method where the main waiter greets the guests and takes the orders, and then a back-up waiter brings the drinks and food. Using the handhelds, the back-up waiter could feasibly be bringing drinks while the main waiter is still taking meal orders.

"The guests are usually surprised because the drinks arrive, and the waiter hasn't even left the table yet," Taubin says. "You want to turn tables as fast as possible to bring in more people, but at the same time you want the guests to have a good time with good service."

A card swipe on the handhelds allows the server to take payment in front of the guest without having to take the card away from them.

One back office computer server connects all the handhelds to a wireless access point, and a second server handles basic terminal services on the handhelds. The servers run redundant so that if something were to fail, all the POS systems can still run on the second server. "An added bonus with the handhelds is that we can include ingredients with the menu items and pictures of the meals," Taubin says. "If guests want to see ingredients of particular menu items, for example in case of allergies, all the information is right on the handhelds."

Some critics say that handheld POS units distract the wait staff from the guests, and diminish the one-on-one experience. Taubin disagrees, explaining that the guests are intrigued by the systems and are excited by the speed in which their meals are delivered.

"We wanted something that was stable and we've been up and running for a year and three months. Aside from the electricity going out, we have not had any problems at all," says Taubin. "We are extremely satisfied with the handhelds and I think they definitely added to our customer service and ROI."

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