Fast and Fresh

By George Koroneos | July 01, 2007

"The fast casual segment" Panera, Corner Bakery, Au Bon Pain, etc. "have always been a cut above in food quality," says Dan Dominguez of Einstein Noah Restaurant Group. "I think the fastfood places have struggled for the last couple of years and are now playing catch up to fast casual." But things aren't all roses for fast casual either. With strong competition amongst providers, as well as heat from the fast-food sector, fast casual providers have plenty of their own hurdles to overcome. For the smaller chains and mom and pop shops, the only way they can survive is by proving that they are as fast as the QSRs, but that their menu is solid enough that it's worth spending a few bucks more.

Leafy Decisions

When Jon Michelson opened Leaf Salad in Austin, Texas, three months ago he had two goals ¬ to serve healthy food and to serve it up fast. "We chose to go fast casual because it's a style of dining that people in our target market are comfortable with, and we were looking to do something that isn't being done in Austin right now," Michelson says.

As Leaf Salad was gearing up for its grand opening, the owner searched for a POS system that was easy and fast, and included a touch screen. "Fast is what we do," Michelson says. "We need to be quick." To speed things along, Menusoft (www.menusoft.com) streamlined the equipment so that cashiers only have to tap one or two buttons to process an order. The shop has 12 salads and each salad has a button on the screen.

Michelson says fast casual is gaining steam because of the current environment. "Fast casual places seem to be healthier. It's also a little more expensive than fast food, but it's not as expensive as going to a full-service restaurant," he says.

Take-Out Mexican

The common consensus among smaller fast casual operators is that efficiency is priority ¬ both in service and technology.

When Tinga opened up in Montclair, New Jersey more than five years ago, there were plenty of full-service family style Mexican restaurants in the area, but there is also a growing number of competing fast casual locations, including Baja Fresh and Chipotle. Co-owner David Fishman decided to stir things up by establishing a fast casual restaurant with a focus on take-out ordering.

What sets fast casual apart from family and fine dining is the lack of a traditional wait staff. In most cases, food is ordered at the register and guests wait for their food, or a runner delivers their food. At Tinga, runners also refresh drinks and clean up tables. "The service style takes some getting used to. I think as more and more companies open fast casual locations nationally, it helps us all," Fishman says.

Fishman's Montclair space (he owns three more in the area) is especially small, making it a prime target for fast-casual design. "The concept from the beginning was never to be a full-service provider," he says. "We wanted to sell a quick, casual meal that can feed a family of four at a reasonable price point."

Tinga's technology was dictated by its size and the need to move food and take out fast.

Fishman and his partner Dana Crowe worked with RPower (www.rpower.com) to create a hybrid system that is tailored to make the line move fast. The touch screen has one menu that shows all the available food in a simple layout, and an integrated credit-card swipe tethered to a DSL line provides fast transactions.

Bagels On The Mind

When you think fast casual, you usually don't think of breakfast.

The Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, however, made its name in bagels but has since established itself as a fast casual company serving full menu breakfast and lunch items. For more accurate orders, Einstein has installed a Radiant kitchen display system (KDS) after years of passing handwritten orders from the waitstaff to the kitchen. Additionally, the group incorporated handheld ordering tablets for line busting.

The KDS is wirelessly tethered to the handhelds and as soon as the server takes the order, it is beamed to monitors in the kitchen area. "Fast food places were the leaders in this technology, but we found that it is perfect for our segment and is a growing trend in the fastcasual world," Dominguez says. "It's not unusual for us to have lines, and one of our challenges was how to speed things up." The KDS system, in conjunction with the portable ordering devices, has done the job, speeding up the lines and allowing for more accurate ordering.

"We used to do everything by hand, but that opens us up to more cause for error in order accuracy and it is certainly more time consuming," Dominguez says. "The Radiant system allows us to not only increase speed, but also increase accuracy, which decreases our waste."

Restaurants such as Europa and Pax have recently renovated their establishments with flat screen plasmas that display menu items and daily specials.

Dominguez says that his company is considering adding similar units and is testing them as information systems. "Plasma screens speak to the quality of the food that we serve and menu ideas, so we are experimenting with them," he says.

Total Integration

For larger restaurant groups looking to make the leap into fast casual, the biggest concern is installing a universal POS solution that can be used with its fast casual, fast food and fine dining services.

"One of the reasons that I chose Menusoft's Digital Dining was because we are a multi-unit operator, and all of our weekly paperwork for all of our restaurants is processed in a central location at our corporate office," says David Hansen, vice president of L Tran Enterprises. With its old system, L Tran used traditional cash registers, which meant a lot of manual data entry ¬ taking sales reports, looking at register tapes, reconciling all of the data manually into an accounting system. "I wanted to find a unit that could integrate directly into our accounting system," Hansen says. "By uploading the data straight from the source, we cut down on errors."

According to Hansen, unlike his fast food POS systems which are barebones and faster to operate, his fast casual POS menu is built similar to that of a table service restaurant. "The advantage for us is that we have the same software at all of our stores making it easier to maintain and adjust."

Multiple Stores

Since 9/11, heightened airport security has forced travelers to arrive at airports hours ahead of schedule in order to avoid long lines. More often than not, these travelers are bored and hungry, and fast casual dining facilities have sprung up at many airports to accommodate their needs.

MSE chose to incorporate fast casual dining into its company by default as it moved into the airport market. "There is a demand for a mixture of concepts," Jones says. "In today's airports, the environment is such where there is a lot of dwell time - on average, an hour and a half to two hours for every passenger. So, while there's always going to be the guy that gets there late and wants to grab a Subway sandwich, there will also be people there for two hours that want a fast comfortable meal with a drink or two. You have to be able to deliver to both.

The company's fast-casual restaurants incorporate many of the technologies used in fine dining establishments, including menu-ordering capabilities, payment processing and table tracking, and it is considering handheld technology for even faster service. "We use Posera's (www.posera.com) Maitre'd POS system for all 60 of our outlets, whether it is fast food, fast casual, or regular old casual dining," Jones says.

"They have been extremely flexible in adapting their system to our needs." Posera adapted its system to all of MSE's properties, including fast-casual restaurants, bars, and few fast food locations. "All of our managers and employees can work interchangeably and because the system is identical in every restaurant the only thing you see different are menu options."

Similar to MSE, La Bou, a breakfast/lunch fast casual provider in Sacramento, California, wanted a system that would synch between all of its locations, making it easier to share information and employees. "The hardest part we face with our new systems is just making all the components work with each other, and integrate with all of our locations," La Bou Cafe CFO Lisa Limcaco says.

To allow its corporate office to communicate with the stores, and to allow stores to communicate with each other through its POS, La Bou installed the MenuSoft Digital Dining software package in August 2006. This system not only gave La Bou the connectivity it needed but it also consolidated all its systems into one hardware package rather than separate components for credit card swipes, printer, and monitor.

"The biggest selling point was that it could integrate all 22 locations with the corporate office, allowing for universal changes that can be distributed to all locations," Limcaco says.

In the past year, Limcaco has taken the fine dining aspects of its Lemon Grass locations and scaled the Thai Vietnamese concept down to the fast casual level. Where fast casual dining tends to be more sandwich/salad oriented, Limcaco envisions fast casual moving towards hot cooked meals that guests can order quickly and eat in a relaxing atmosphere. The company simply trimmed down its menu to the easiest meals to prepare, and is now dishing them out in a fast casual environment.

"A lot of companies are opening fast casual because of nutrition," Limcaco says. "People are tired of just eating burgers and shakes. They want something that is more casual, but quick serve."

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