See and Be Seen

| June 01, 2005

Coffee Society presents itself as a place to see and be seen. For owner Ralph Flynn, that even includes when he is not there.  For Flynn, and other innovative operators of small multi-unit restaurants, remote-management technology is dramatically changing how they manage their restaurants--at long last, managers can be in more than one place at a time.

The essential element for all remote-management solutions is the ability to physically see what is going on at a remote location via a secure broadband connection. Some solutions show transaction-level data in real-time in conjunction with video feeds, while others offer direct VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) communication so that managers can actually manage from afar.

But the true value of remote management, operators note, is the peace of mind of being able to know what is going on in their restaurants any time day or night. This has proven especially true for small operators that have expanded to a handful of locations but have not quite built up the size to hire onsite managers for each location.

A great, good place
It should come as no surprise that Flynn looked for a technology solution to his management concerns. With three locations nestled in Silicon Valley, Coffee Society is well positioned to take advantage of emerging technology trends and has a tech-savvy clientele. Furthermore, Coffee Society offers free Internet access to its guests, meaning it has had a broadband network in place for guest use as well as and enterprise applications.

For Flynn, the importance of remote management is not supervision or security, but rather employee training. "When I look at technology," he recently explained to Hospitality Technology, "I look for what is going to have the maximum affect on the customer," he explains. "When I first saw this solution, I was very excited about the ability to do video training and to watch transactions at the same time."

Flynn went with the PRO 1260 network and security solution from SonicWALL (sonicwall.com), a combined dynamic threat management firewall and switch to provide secure, separate network zones for back-office systems, point of sale (POS), voice and video over IP (VVoIP), and guest wireless. Guest wireless access is secured by the SonicPoint intelligent wireless access points. The wired and wireless network is protected at the perimeter by SonicWALL's gateway anti-virus/anti-spyware/intrusion prevention services.

Facing stiff competition from Peet's and Starbucks, Flynn Coffee Society puts a premium on high quality and a comfortable atmosphere for lingering. "When our employees are making a cappuccino or any other espresso drink, there are quite a few variables in that drink and the cost of training them correctly is extremely high," Flynn explains. "If we can get in there and hear and watch the actual preparation and presentation we can help those employees improve and just as importantly, we can tell them when they do a great job."

Sleeping at night
For Rod O'Neal, vice president of SeaTac Bar Group, training concerns take a back seat to simple peace of mind. O'Neal operates two bars, one in the Las Vegas International Airport and the other at the Seattle Airport, making it difficult to float back and forth between locations. It is little wonder O'Neal selected Restaurant Vision from SmartConnect (smartconnect.net).

"One of the greatest benefits I have from this system," O'Neal explains, "is that in the morning I can log in and make sure that the bar is physically open. I have a laptop right beside my bed and every morning I set my alarm for 5:00 AM. When I wake up, I roll over and look at the computer screen and see whether the bar is open and if customers are seated. I can then go back to sleep feeling so much better."

Given O'Neal's background at a Las Vegas policeman, quite naturally his focus is on ensuring security. "Initially when we put the cameras in, we wanted a better way of tracking the business," he recalls, "but now that it is integrated with the register, I can watch them ring up transactions to make sure everything is okay.

Importantly, O'Neal notes, the system does not only offer real-time video, but can also bring up archived video that is associated with specific transactions. "If the cash drawer is open for a specified amount of time," he explains," the system will notify me and give me all the transactions as well as the video. I don't have to watch two hours of video tape."

Remote controllers
Because remote management is such a relatively new technology, the solutions still vary widely. The Coffee Society, for example, deployed a comprehensive network solution, in which remote management was only a portion. Other solutions, like SeaTac's SmartConnect Restaurant Vision, Image Vault from FKI Security Group (fkisecuritygroup.com) and Sovus Media (sovusmedia.com) function more as stand alone solutions. Nearly all the remote management systems interface with key systems to provide video that can be tied to specific alerts. Whichever type of system operators choose, the one thing they can expect is peace of mind.

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