Kitchen Critical

| May 01, 2005

Next time you visit a restaurant, don't be surprised to see more than a chef in the kitchen. While most CIOs are not known for their cooking abilities, increasingly they are stepping into the kitchen to help install new technologies to boost speed and efficiency in the kitchen.

According to "Driving Restaurant Productivity," the 7th Annual Restaurant Industry Technology Study, published by Hospitality Technology magazine (Go to htmagazine.com to see the study), kitchen-management systems have become one of the hottest restaurant technologies. Forty-six percent of the study respondents indicated that they now use kitchen-display systems and another 40 percent indicated they use IT systems to route orders into the kitchen.

Paging all servers

Just as popular as kitchen management systems and equally efficient are server paging systems, which allow seamless communication for kitchen staff, waitstaff and managers. Though hardly new----many restaurants have been using the in-house paging systems for as long as ten years----just try to get one of the restaurants to change.

Monical Pizza, a 57-unit casual pizza chain located in the mid-west, was one of those early adopters. Managers and waitstaff use JTech (jtech.com) ServAlert pagers to keep in close contact with the kitchen. "It keeps them from hovering in the kitchen," notes Pat Alvey, Monical's vice president. With its own proprietary Mac-based point-of-sale system, Monical is happy keeping the systems separated. Even more importantly, notes Alvey, the system is easy for his staff to learn and use and can be implemented at both corporate and franchised locations. "It's very simplified and streamlined," he adds.

Making the connection

Recently, Carlson Restaurants decided to go for a decidedly high-tech kitchen-management solution at T.G.I. Friday's. Carlson rolled out QSR Automations' (qsrautomations.com) ConnectSmart Hospitality Automation Solution, including the eXpert hospitality controller, KP-3000 keypad, and ConnectSmart Kitchen (CSK) graphical software.

The kitchen-management solution is a major part of Carlson's overhaul of the Friday's brand, which also includes new decor, menu development and training. Carlson also wanted to pare down its kitchen solutions, moving from seven different kitchen-management system configurations to the single platform at its nearly 600 U.S. restaurants.

"QSR's kitchen solution fits perfectly into our Ã.‚¬Ëœculture of hospitality'----an initiative dedicated to enhancing our restaurants within the spirit of our heritage of high energy service and enjoyable food," explains Mike Archer, executive vice president and chief operating officer for T.G.I. Friday's U.S.A. "We are even more excited about the speed-of-service improvements we have already seen."

Significantly, it is not just the display attributes that attracted Friday's. The system fits well into Friday's commitment to Microsoft (microsoft.com) .Net framework. With between four and seven kitchen stations in each kitchen, Friday's can use the XML-based kitchen software to change display attributes and create sophisticated routing options. Data from the system, moreover, can be added to Friday's data warehouse.

Analyzing the data allows Friday's to identify how long it actually takes for menu items to be prepared and get to the table, as well as all the steps in between. Friday's management compares the production data with sales and labor information.

"When we decided not to update our own proprietary kitchen system, QSR Automation became the clear choice," adds Deborah Lipscomb, chief information officer for Carlson Restaurants Worldwide. "QSR has become a strong partner in every sense of the word, bringing us new ways to meet our goals and excite our guests."

The architecture of the system was important to Carlson. The eXpert controller provides a distributed architecture and complete redundancy, as well as an industrialized design with no moving parts. With growth in the plans for Friday's, the standards-based Microsoft Windows XP Embedded controller can expand as Friday's continues to grow.

Now the initial rollout for all company operated restaurants is completed, Friday's restaurants have now designated the QSR solution as its corporate endorsed kitchen management system for its franchisees.

Slow food, fast

At ten-unit Original Pancake House South Florida, ServAlert has helped the restaurants handle the busy morning brunch rush. That's particularly important when the restaurant prides itself on creating everything fresh from scratch everyday. Some of the House's speciality menu items can take up to 30 minutes to put together.

While creating many of the dishes takes time, the restaurant tends to have very tight rush period. Most of the restaurants seat 125 people, and on an average Sunday the dining room may have at least three tableturns between 9:00 am and Noon.

According to Susan Khouri, director of human resources, "ServAlert has helped us evolve into where we are now----a server based company. It is imperative that the servers connect with guests, but it is also important that we can get a hold of the servers when we need them."

The solutions works equally well for managers as it does for guests. "It keeps the manager from trying to guess where they will be needed," Khouri adds. "It is critical that they have face time in the dining room."

Case Study: Paul Lee's

By Steve Carey, Guest Contributor

Automates Kitchen

I'm a chef. I'm not an IT specialist. I just run kitchens. At Paul Lee's Chinese Kitchen, we recently implemented a kitchen-display system (KDS) from QSR Automations (qsrautomations.com). We are getting quite a lot of benefits out of the system, which seem worthwhile to share.

In a Chinese kitchen, the wok is part of the ambience. When you're cooking with the woks, it's an exhibition--you can hear the music, you hear the people and you hear the woks in the background. It actually sounds really quiet without it.

One of the differences between Paul Lee's Chinese Kitchen and most other restaurants with kitchen-display systems is that we serve food family style. That means if you're in a party of six and you have ten entrees, it may come out two at a time. How do you track that and make sure the ticket isn't gone? A lot of the restaurants that serve family style have ticket that they check off manually as the items go out, but we wanted a more efficient process.

Ensuring speed and accuracy at the takeout has also been a priority for Paul Lee's. Our restaurants have a dedicated takeout kitchen with its own kitchen and a separate entrance. The key is for takeout orders to be fast. On a Friday night we may have 500 people in the main dining room, but it only takes 15 to 20 minutes to close a takeout order. It was really important that the KDS support the takeout kitchen as well.

Fully automated, fully redundant

Each station has its own Windows XP Embedded computer. If something happens on takeout and the system goes down, it will not effect the rest of the system. We have no lost data. The system runs off a main server in the back.

The functionality and production data is one of the key benefits of the system. On a busy Friday night, with 20 open tickets the server comes up and says, "How's table 10?" Without the system you would have to stop right there, find table 10, look at it, check the time, see where the food is. By that point the server could have sold two more tickets. So what's great about the KDS functionality and production data is that you have views so servers can see their ticket status and how the kitchen is running. It's real-time data you can see during production.

The KDS has two types of screens in the kitchen, a prep screen, which is what the cooks see, and an expo screen, which the expeditor sees. With real-time data, the screen shows whatever the kitchen staff is doing at their station and is updated on the expo screen.

Because we have family-style cooking and we have a wok station, there is a person that actually sets the order for the wok cook. The wok cook doesn't turn around, grab all the ingredients and go over to the wok station. There's somebody that sets it. All that can be seen on the expo screen. If you wanted to see how long our average crab rangoon takes, you can split it out from how long it takes to cook it, when they bump it, and then how long it takes to actually sell the full item.

Bump up the volume

Another of the system's selling points that we are not using yet, but which I like is the "item detail" option on the bump bar. If you highlight an item----let's say it's Mongolian beef----and select item detail, you can bring up the picture and the recipe of that item. During training you have the ability to show the recipe. We're not using it at this moment but it was one of the KDS's selling points. We want a have a paperless kitchen. The item detail option means we will not have recipes lying around.

I can tell you at Paul Lee's Chinese Kitchen, on a Saturday night the average ticket time is eight minutes. It is absolutely unbelievable. I thought we would get complaints about, trying to turn the table too fast, but the guests are raving.

Servers and kitchen staff are are so sure of the execution in the kitchen that they now trust the system. Servers don't wait until they see all the appetizers before beginning to serve guests. Occasionally my staff will mess up and bump something. So once they bump it, it is off their screen. But the order remains on the expo screen, so unless I've actually had it delivered I know that something is still pending. It's been great for lost items because I can say, "Hey, I still did not get that chicken spring roll." The guys don't argue.

The detail that you get has really helped us a lot. In a Chinese restaurant there are tons of special instructions: less oil, no salt, no peanuts, extra broccoli, no peppers. You get a lot of that, plus we do fried rice 15 different ways, with five different vegetables. So there could be long descriptors on every ticket.

Ultimately, we want to add a printer to the KDS stations. Right now as orders are ready to go, we write "Mongolian beef for Steve." When an item gets bumped, we want to automatically print out a little label that tags the dish so that we don't mix up any orders.

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