Always On

By Dianne Lorden
  • Contributing Editor | September 01, 2005
  • Many multi-unit restaurants are lining up for high-speed access to keep their businesses competitive and their customers happy. The incentives to go broadband, such as speedier credit card processing, improved inventory management, increased security and streamlined polling and home-office communications, are as varied as the network solutions.

    Restaurant companies weigh many factors when selecting a network solution. Beginning with the geographic distribution of locations, IT staff, bandwidth needs, future growth plans, restaurants also must consider the physical characteristics of the locations and, of course, budget.

    As access to cheaper high-speed connectivity improves nationwide, more and more restaurants will continue to migrate to DSL, cable and other platforms. According to the recent Restaurant Industry Technology Study, "Driving Restaurant Productivity," 55 percent of restaurants now use DSL connectivity for at least some of their locations, far outdistancing other connectivity options.

    Given the difficulty of finding a single connectivity type that works for every location in every geographic area, more and more restaurant companies are finding solution providers that knit together various solutions with a single point of contact for support and service. Even the VSAT satellite companies are getting in the act, transitioning from solely offering satellite connectivity to a broad range of options.

    Dishing up satellite

    Satellite offers high-speed connections that don't depend on the quality of existing wiring or lines in the physical area of the remote locations. It's widely available, since all that's needed is good southern exposure. Its multicasting capabilitiesÃ.‚¬"the transfer of data from one sender to multiple receiversÃ.‚¬"means headquarters can send a file with 1,000 destinations once, and it will get to everyone. This translates into a savings of time and data. Border Foods is a locally owned, Twin Cities-area franchise of quick-service restaurants, including Pizza Hut. Since the rollout of the Hughes Network Systems (hns.com) Direcway broadband satellite solution, polling is much faster, says Barry Zelickson, senior vice president of operations of Border Foods.

    "The initial drive was getting online ordering," says Zelickson. The Hughes system links all 80 of its Border Foods locations, allowing Internet patrons the flexibility of ordering anything, from deep dish to stuffed crust, either when they're hungry or in advance for later delivery. They can pay online or at the door.

    "Any time I can get someone on the Internet to order, I'm not tying someone up on the phone line," says Zelickson. "That's a huge win. Seven to 10 percent of our business comes from our Internet ordering." Making Human resources applications and training materials available online, he says, is also important.

    The Hughes system helps big operations like Pizza Hut take polling success from 95 percent to above 99 percent, when they switch from dial-up. Credit-card transactions that took 30 to 45 seconds by phone take about five seconds using broadband. Other applications include hosted labor and food management.

    Down to earth

    While DSL grows in popularity and availability, it is important to realize that all DSLs are not created equal. ADSL (asymmetric), for example, is comparatively inexpensive and doesn't require a dedicated phone line, but the outgoing bandwidth is not as broad as the incoming. SDSL (symmetric) has a farther reach and the same speed in both directions. In addition, IDSL (integrated) and HDSL (High bit-rate), are gaining availability. All deliver high-speed bandwidth via copper phone lines.

    In general, terrestrial network options like DSL and cable can offer more outgoing bandwidth than satellite because the size of the dish at the location determines the bandwidth, but very small aperture terminal (VSAT) dishes are especially useful in remote locations without other connectivity options and are growing more popular as a back-up option.

    The Pasta Pomodoro restaurant chain had its own network that linked 45 company stores, mostly in California. Local phone companies provided the DSL, and it worked fine, says IT director Allen Rice. But the company wanted all the stores on a single-source broadband connection. "Different sources had to deal with different issues, depending on the location of the restaurant and that was always a problem.

    "It was our decision to find a single provider," says Rice. So, over the last year Pasta Pomodoro rolled out a Netifice Communications (netifice.com) VPN using SonicWall (sonicwall.com) equipment. "The VPN solution we selected has been extremely stable. The biggest thing was the ability to do remote support from any location to any other." They also use their bandwidth for faster credit card processing, e-mail between headquarters and the restaurants, and to run a company intranet.

    With 18 locations to manage, Aki Endo never had enough time. As chief financial officer of WDI USA, a franchise of eateries that includes Tony Roma's and Capriccio's, Endo coordinates restaurants in Los Angeles, Guam, Saipan, New York and Hawaii. WDI had been using accounting software that was independent at each location.

    "It was an administration and management issue. I had to manually go to the servers and download the information; if I had a question about a transaction, it would take a lot of time and was frustrating," says Endo.

    Virtual private security

    WDI turned to SonicWall and its partner Calsoft Systems (calsoft.com) for a new VPN that consisted of a DSL/microwave blend in the remote locations, and a T1 Internet connection at the L.A. headquarters, with a SonicWall integrated firewall. It offered broadband everywhere, with single-source support. Endo is pleased with his blended solution. Fast, secure file transfers and software licensing consolidation have saved time and money. And there's plenty of potential for expansion. "We all have laptops. I'm afraid of losing that information. I'd like to have it backed up."

    Four or five years down the road, he'd like surveillance cameras at the remote locations. "If someone says he slipped, we can clearly see if he slipped or if it's a scam," says Endo. Video surveillance would also allow viewing of each site, even from a laptop, to check on employee productivity or dining room capacityÃ.‚¬"all in real time.

    The days of dial-up polling are finally drawing to an end. As prices drop for all types of broadband connectivity and more restaurants are turned on to managed broadband and VPN services to handle all their locations, they are realizing that they can have real-time access to data, secure high-speed credit-card transactions, better corporate communications with room for growth.

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