Turning the Tables

By Nicole Marie Richardson, Contributing Editor | November 01, 2005

It's a Saturday evening and it looks like everyone in town decided to eat at your restaurant. This is great for business, but why did everyone show up at the same time? Your hostess is trying to monitor tables, seat guests, update the wait list and pacify customers that have been waiting much longer than they were estimated to wait and just when you least expect it, a party of 11 walks through the door. Annoyed with the crowd, the long wait and the seemingly scatter-brained hostess, customers start to walk out the door.

Every restaurant manager running a high-volume restaurant or restaurants has experienced this nightmare. The scariest thing is that a good manager knows that guests' dining experience starts well before a drink or food order is taken. And dissatisfied guests not only will not return to your restaurant, but they are going to tell their friends. The days of crossing names off a clip board and praying that chaos doesn't ensue are gone, and table management systems are rising to the occasion to deliver a significant ROI for restaurants using recent technological innovations. Wireless enabled paging systems speed table turns, dynamic content offers up-sell opportunities, and better systems are extending battery life and reducing loss.

•You Rule' technology

Deb Fratrik, COO for bd's mongolian barbeque, a chain of nearly 30 Mongolian stir-fry restaurants, began taking note of the evolution in table management technology and customer expectations in 2004. The company then resolved to choose a solution that was representative of the cutting-edge technology currently available on the market. After investigating various solutions, Fratrik, along with CFO Todd Pahl and President and CEO Billy, "BD" Downs, selected Long Range Systems (pager.net) to install the system, Total Control system. "Improving the table management system is focused on one main thing, making the dining experience better for our guests," boasts Downs. "Technology is always evolving.  bd's plans to continue to use technology where it makes sense, and LRS makes sense to us today."

Total Control combines table management, advanced seating, guest, staff and cell phone paging and wait list management in one unit. "Our initial goal was to incorporate the use of cell phone technology as part of our guest paging system. The paging system is personalized for bd's guests. It allows them to choose if they are ready to be seated now, wait an additional 10 minutes to be seated, or simply return at another time. Their response by cell phone is automatically updated in the restaurant reservation system, which allows the best possible quote time for guests waiting to be seated," explains Fratrik. So what if no one in the party has a cell phone? No problem. The reservation system continues to offer the standard coasters. "In the company's •You Rule' culture, these choices permit the guest to control not only their dining experience, but their seating experienced as well," boasts Fratrik, who is testing the technology in two company operated restaurants in Royal Oak and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Customers come first

Chris Webb, regional manager for PJW Restaurant Group who runs a group of 10 neighborhood pubs called PJ Whelihans Pubs, agrees that the customer comes first, which is the main reason company management decided to research and implement a new table- management solution. "We do a lot of research before we purchase almost everything. We found out about NTN (ntn.com) through Advanced Hospitality Systems. We demoed the ProHost table management software from NTN and were sold right away. The quality and durability of the hardware and ease of use of the software was a no-brainer. On top of that we had a great track record with service and support from AHS," notes Webb.

The ProHost technology automates table selection with server rotation, helps to manage large party seating, provides accurate wait-time quotes, gives real-time table status information as well as manages the wait list. It can integrate with the POS to provide operations data capture and reporting. Guests can call ahead and enjoy nearly immediate seating once they arrive. Webb launched ProHost at three locations and has plans to install it at additional locations.

"Customers feel great and our restaurant feels more professional and organized when our hostess can estimate an accurate wait time and hand them a pager. It is a long way from the days of writing names on a clip board. We could never go back. Our dining room runs much more efficiently," marvels Webb. "It is basically like having the ability to be two steps ahead of the guest."

Surprise innovation

Another great fringe benefit of recent table-management technology is the additional technology that often comes wrapped up with a solution package. Fratrik says, "The big surprise for bd's was the electronic comment card (ECC). We found this element of the reservation package an outstanding feature, allowing management to respond to guest comments immediately."

The ECC has the ability to link up a question to a pager that is carried by the dining room manager. It is delivered with every guest check and the guest has the choice to complete the survey or not. The ECC can be easily programmed with questions and quickly changed to follow up on guest feedback to new menu items, a change in service standards or just about any other piece of information the company wants to obtain from our guests. Should a guest respond a particular way to a question that is tagged, the dining room manager is immediately paged and makes contact with that table to follow up. "bd's believes we are getting a more balanced picture of the operations within a restaurant because now we received hundreds of surveys daily, versus two a month with shoppers. The ECC reports out daily in server detail and summary form. This allows managers to redirect individual performance rather than retrain an entire staff," states Fratrik.

Another surprise for bd's was that the new solution costs less than the system the company was previously using, yet quote times have dropped and efficiency and the ability to seat groups of guests in the most comfortable locations for their party size has improved.

"Anytime a new system or piece of technology is put into place we expect a few hiccups," says Fratrik. "The LRS team has participated in the training during the initial implementation of the program and has supported the opening of our new bd's mongolian barbeque prototype in Royal Oak. Implementation and installation of the LRS system was relatively uncomplicated, and took less than one day. Training to competency for hosts took about a week and use and analysis of the reports for management took another week."

The benefits of table-management technology abounds, including better guest service that will create repeat business, reduced customer walk-outs, better staff organization and communications that lead to increased productivity of staff and reduction of staff turnover, and elimination of table checks. In addition, users are guaranteed to experience increased table turns and seat utilization that will lead to greater profitability.

"Our experience has been positive," shares Webb. "I think you are really going to see a lot more single unit owners moving to this technology once they do the math on dining room efficiency. Time is money in a restaurant or pub. And being able to organize seat and serve without seams is the goal."

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