The Wireless Touch

By Vicki Powers • Contributing Editor | June 01, 2006

Wireless point-of-sale (POS) systems started gaining attention in 2001, but are just now starting to pop up more often at the tables of casual-dining restaurants. This market represents an estimated 41 percent of the wireless POS market, according to 2005 research from Mercator Advisory Group, a research firm for the payment industry. With benefits such as turning tables faster, delivering more accurate orders, and maximizing server productivity and customer satisfaction, there's no question why restaurants are remaking themselves with wireless handheld systems.

Turning tables

Tumbleweed Southwest Grill, a Louisville, Kentucky-based casual dining chain with 59 restaurant locations worldwide, started testing wireless handheld POS systems in January 2005 as a technology accelerator to turn tables faster. "We were one of the first to bring wireless handhelds into casual dining,"says Steve Brooks, director of mission control at Tumbleweed Southwest Grill. The restaurant started with one wireless handheld unit, which servers found to be too big and bulky. After three months, Tumbleweed decided to expand its wireless systems and switch to the Symbol (symbol.com) MC50, which was a new, smaller, PDA-sized model. The POSitouch (positouch.com) POS system tied in well, and a module already existed to fit on handhelds, says Brooks. The restaurant also worked with Mirus (mirus.com) for data warehousing to measure results, allowing it to drill down to smaller items, whereas in the past the restaurant could only pull sales or labor percentages. This location, for example, had a 10 percent higher percentage of soft beverages per guest than the locations without handheld systems. Brooks says the restaurant experienced little resistance from servers as it switched to the handheld units, and it only took about 10 hours for servers to feel comfortable using the handheld screens. Employees especially like it now, Brooks says, because they make more money. Servers can turn more tables, which translates to more dollars--often 50 to 60 percent higher tips. Where servers used to handle nine to 15 tables on a Friday night, they can now work 30 to 40 tables in one evening. "Servers also get to stay with the guest longer, which helps build relationships with them,"Brooks relates. It also offers credit-card security, he adds, since the credit card never leaves the table. Tumbleweed Southwest Grill added its wireless handheld units to a second Louisville location in July 2005 on the waterfront. With terraces on each level and a 425-seat capacity, the system lived up to its ability to work inside and outside. Wireless handhelds were added to two more Louisville Tumbleweed locations in February and April of this year.

On the cutting-edge

Two years ago, Chris Skodras, owner of South Carolina-based Eggs Up Grill, wanted to add a POS system to his restaurant operations. ASI (actionsystems.com), a Maryland-based provider of POS and management software for the foodservice industry, pitched its handheld POS system, and Skodras was sold. He believes his family-owned restaurant is on the cutting-edge of technology with the wireless systems. "They didn't have a breakfast menu and had to redesign the software to fit what we needed,"Skodras says. "It turns out it was very compatible to what we wanted."
It took about six months to ready the POS system software for the restaurant's extensive breakfast menu and Eggs Up Grill has been using ASI's Restaurant Manager POS system on the handheld Dell (dell.com) Axiom 50 for a year now. The restaurant uses four wireless handhelds on the floor, two POS workstations, and three back-up handhelds when the batteries go down. Skodras placed wireless handhelds in his two South Carolina restaurant locations and plans to add them to all new franchise locations. According to Skodras, it took employees about one week to learn to navigate the new handheld system that replaced the pen and pad. At that point, he says, servers are able to approach the table and take orders with a degree of confidence since the menu is right on the screen. Employees at Eggs Up Grill who had previously used only a pen and pad had a more difficult transition and had to relearn the menu, but new servers adapted easily to the technology. Skodras says the restaurant has experienced a number of benefits including increased table turns, orders rung in ABC order, and smoother flow in the kitchen. The new technology helped increase guest count nearly 15 percent, increase sales nearly 15 percent, contribute to 18 percent fewer mistakes, reduce labor costs $68,000, and increase employee retention 15 percent. Savings in the first year added up to $83,000.

Path of least resistance

Las Casuelas Nuevas, a casual dining restaurant with two locations in Rancho Mirage, California, added wireless handheld POS systems in July 2004. Because this family-owned restaurant seats more than 400 guests, the manager wanted to add the new technology. Manager Andres Delgado worked with Digital Dining (digitaldining.com) and its integrated restaurant management system. The restaurant uses NCR hardware (ncr.com), Dell handhelds, and Symbol access points. "Overall the new technology provides better service to guests,"Delgado says. "There are fewer lines for POS terminals and servers can turn tables faster. Once they understood and saw how easy it was to use, they didn't resist."Servers at Eggs Up Grill are especially enjoying the benefits of using the wireless system. Orders are placed quicker and paper orders don't have to be walked back to the kitchen. The system also tallies each table's bill, rather than the server writing down memorized prices and tallying 75 to 80 tickets per day. It's also reducing food costs and accurately charging for every item because according to Skodras, the restaurant was losing $15 to $20 per day in errors when servers forgot to charge for extra sides. "Once they take the order, it's done and they go to the next table,"Skodras says. "They're able to handle more tables and spend more time with customers."Skodras says the kitchen workers absolutely love the new system since it prints food orders directly to the appropriate station. Toast orders, for example, are sent directly to the toast station. "No one wants to go back to the pad,"Skodras notes. "Even those who initially resisted!"

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