Back to the Future

| September 01, 2006

Restaurant operators are constantly faced with satisfying an increasingly diverse — and demanding — consumer base. Challenges include language barriers between worker and patron, time-constrained customers, increased competition between quick-service and fast-casual and beyond. How do these and other challenges affect the industry overall? How do restaurateurs do what is necessary to keep customers coming back? The answer, perhaps, lies in technology and how we use it to our advantage.

As operators, we have been challenged with a multi-lingual workforce for a long time. To battle language barriers, operators are using voice synthesis technologies that allow workers to wear headphones that recite customer phrases in English or the appropriate language.

Dashboard dining is happening now — people are eating in their cars. QSR does drive-through very well. Fast casual and casual have a different twist on it. Both segments provide a great customer service experience by not making patrons leave their cars. Video displays and message alerts can be sent by sensors in parking spots to servers so that he or she isn't tied to one terminal.

Kitchen display systems have been around for a while. It is a technology that is changing and improving. It's easier to segment into the various stations in the kitchen, and it's allowing customers to get their product effectively, efficiently, and with fewer mistakes.

Wireless ordering for servers has been successful in many restaurants, both chain and independent. For it to succeed, you have to have server buy-in. Without that, it is prone to failure. You've invested a lot of money and you want to make sure it's going to work for you. The positives are that your servers are spending more time with your customers improving customer satisfaction and tips.

The first impression of a restaurant used to be when you opened the door and walked in or when you pulled into the parking lot. It's not anymore. For this changing demographic, customers are making their decisions right from their desk, laptop or their Blackberry, and now a cell phone where one can easily get the same access and information about restaurants that one could get before on their personal computers. We have to capture these customers. We need to entice them.

Many companies are now offering Wi-Fi, a technology we're all going to need to consider embracing as we move forward. We have to be ready to respond as an industry, especially in casual dining, because in casual dining we want customers to enjoy, but we don't want them lingering too long because we need table turns to keep fluid. So it depends on how we market it to people.

Where do we go from here? We need to keep looking at the changing environment that we work in, as we always have, and be open to the ideas and technology that's out there to support us.

Roberta P. Chmielnik is the manager of food and beverage practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP. This column was adapted from her address at the POS Summit in June 2006.

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