Untethered Access

By Mary Carlin, Contributing Editor | October 01, 2005

More and more hotels and restaurants are untethering their back-office applications and taking advantage of hosted and application service provider (ASP)-based solutions. With less technology at remote units and easier access for management, the wireless office has finally come of age.

Self-learning handhelds

Internet-based back office solutions are changing the way restaurant operators do business, as shown by Jeff Weiss, senior manager of IT store operations for the 45-unit Dallas-based Dave and Buster's, which serves up food and entertainment in equal measures. Dave and Buster's has been using Compeat's (compeat.com) back-office system since October 2001, and went live with the wireless inventory component right away for food, six months later for beverage, and six months after that for redemption (For more on the relationship between Compeat and Dave and Buster's See "Pay it Forward" page 58). "Now, we're completely live in real time with five Symbol (symbol.com) PPT 8800 handhelds per store, and Cisco Systems' (cisco.com) wireless access points," explains Weiss.

"The biggest pros are labor savings and accuracy," Weiss adds. "It reduces the number of people to two thirds as many, and the time to do inventory by half. Now we count by position for food in storage, and by barcode on bottles for the bar. It's self-learning, and asks for information on new barcodes automatically." The system allows dave and Buster's to count by the bottle or case at the same time (in multiple units), and the handhelds read from the bar codes to know the difference.

Out of the stone age

Wireless inventory has so completely changed the way that Dave and Buster's does business, that no one can remember how it used to be done. "The labor savings could easily cover the ROI, but the staff got too used to it," says Weiss. "Last week a general manager called me with his wireless network down, and I suggested they do a paper inventory. He thought that was like chiseling into stone, or using an abacus, but that was how we did it for 20 years!" Weiss' only regrets are that Dave and Buster's initially launched with less expensive equipment, like consumer-grade handhelds, which broke easily and lost settings and programming if their power was lost. "You also need good wireless coverage. Interference from our games was an issue, so we went to better and more access points, and have four to eight store now."

Jeff's advice to operators considering wireless inventory is to learn from his experience. "Take the time to position it right--from coolers to programming, keep it in the same order. The more work you do up front, the quicker your inventory process will go."

The first time through is time consuming, getting all the programming in, Weiss recalls. "Training was a bit of a challenge, putting bartenders and computers in the same sentence, but they did pick it up quickly, and through paper manuals only. The handheld applications are fairly self-explanatory." Weiss says that Compeat had the most robust and flexible product, with quick responses from the support desk: "In terms of development, they've been uniquely responsive in requests for software enhancements. Our support desk says it's the most stable system we have."

Weiss sees a wireless future for the restaurant industry, with improved networking, less expensive hardware, and increased functionality. "We're looking at wireless receiving with Compeat when it's offered, but ask, and you will receive," he says.

Satellite reach

Many restaurant operators, particularly those with remote units, are turning to hosted and ASP-based solutions. Pete Palumbo is senior director of IT for Friendly Ice Cream Corporation, which owns 350 restaurants in 16 states, and franchises 190 others. He says their intent was to automate the back office in a Web-based environment, using Micros (micros.com) myinventory for hosted applications.

"This can lead to wireless, and the ability to scan EPC codes, instead of paper inventory," he explains. "But the driving force was the integration of the back office with the front of the house, which uses Micros 3700 POS. The second driving force is that mymicros is Web server based, so one copy is resident at Micros, at Friendly's, wherever, so it's more reliable and less effort is needed by the store manager to maintain it."

Friendly's is four months into the pilot phase with two stores, and communicates with all of its stores via Spacenet (spacenet.com) satellite. "We'll probably expand to DSL or cable for speed and the lack of a latency delay," says Palumbo. "If we had it to do over again, we would've gotten the reporting down quicker. The requirements weren't quite there before putting it into the stores."

In the future, Palumbo sees wireless in the restaurant and back-office: "In particular, family style restaurants need a wireless connection for training anywhere in the store--in a vacant booth, in the break room if there is one, etc. Adding and changing wired kitchen displays and printers is very expensive, so wireless would also be much better in the production area." Handheld costs have been coming down in the last 5-7 years, but he feels they shouldn't be used everywhere. "They're fine for inventory taking and receiving, but it hasn't caught on for ordering. It takes out some of the personalization when the server's focus is too concentrated on the handheld," he says. "For inventory control we're a little bit unique, in that we own our own fleet of trucks and do our own deliveries, so we can automate the whole process of receiving pretty easily. We also haven't ruled out the kiosk approach, at the walk up window possibly. Wireless takes the complexity out for installation."

Rocky mountain high

For Rocky Mountaineer Vacations, wired access to systems is just plain impossible. Rocky Mountaineer Vacations offers year-round vacation packages in Canada. The Rocky Mountaineer trains steam through some of the most picturesque part of the Canadian Rockies, offering guests the finest lodging and foodservice along the way. Leaving the wires behind, Rocky Mountaineer recently selected Eatec's (eatec.com) EatecNetX, web-centric software solution, to manage its retail and foodservice operations.

EatecNetX's retail module will be utilized by Rocky Mountaineer Vacations to assist with its retail and souvenir inventory management. The enterprise solution will help track requisitions and transfers between the trains and its souvenir warehouse. Rocky Mountaineer also plans to use EatecNetX's hand-held devices, which will significantly reduce the time-consuming warehouse tasks. EatecNetX is the first retail and souvenir inventory management system Rocky Mountaineer Vacations has implemented and the solution will be integrated with its current point-of-sale and financial systems.

Rocky Mountaineer Vacations also has plans to utilize EatecNetX's food and beverage module in other parts of its business including hotels, entertainment shows such as Two River Junction, and station events.

The Web is the way

For Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, the Web is clearly the way. Following up on its recent adoption of a web-based PMS, Kimpton is now rolling out Avero (averoinc.com) Slingshot business intelligence solution. Following a 60-day rollout to 25 restaurants, Slingshot is already in use by over 100 managers responsible for food and beverage operations, in the restaurants and their adjacent partner hotels.

Slingshot's ability to provide a seamless communications link between multiple point-of-sale systems and regional management has been a key factor for the restaurants, notes Kelley Jones, director of restaurant development. "Our goal is to streamline and manage our hospitality service, while nearly doubling our business. Avero Slingshot serves as a vital revenue management tool for our regional teams, allowing us to quickly centralize information and monitor operational trends in properties around the country. It allows us to monitor server productivity and build revenues while ensuring the highest level of guest satisfaction."

For Aramark Harrison Lodging (AHL), a management company with 50 university and conference center facilities, online accounting has been a critical tool for getting management contracts. In addition to offering facilities management services, sales expertise and front-office operations management, AHL provides accounting services at each property. AHL installed the web-enabled Profitvue system from Aptech Computer Systems (aptech-inc.com) in seven of its properties to bring those conference centers onto a uniform hospitality chart of accounts to evaluate side-by-side performance and profitability.

Wine and wireless

The 100-room Chauncey Conference Center in Princeton, New Jersey came under Aramark Harrison Lodging management in June 2003. The Chauncey Center, located on 370 acres of woods, streams and fields, is a perfect location for executive learning sessions. "When AHL took over management of the Chauncey Conference Center the first thing it did was look for ways to grow the property's business mix; they also replaced its legacy back-office accounting system platform," explains Scott Hammon, Chauncey Conference Center controller. "Our old accounting system did not allow us to make corrections to past periods; we could not even reproduce past period statements. When we assumed management we were forced to work off the archived financial hardcopies to create budgets, and it took us took seven days to close the month."

AHL installed a new front office system, and the Profitvue back-office at the Chauncey Center in July 2004 to standardize the property's financials for better analysis. The result was a streamlined accounting process that saved 2.5 man-days in the accounting office each month and eliminated re-keying of data from the front office system.

"We used to devote hours every month re-keying numbers from the PMS into a spreadsheet for financials and forecasting," continued Hammon. "With the new back-office system in place the person who used to do that data entry is spending her time managing the business center and providing better guest service at the front desk."

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