Online Ordering Know-How

By Bradley Schmidt | May 05, 2008

About ten years ago, Mark Murr, president of Victoria, British Columbia-based Ali Baba's Pizza (www.alibabapizza.ca), en-countered a local pizza shop website that claimed to feature online ordering. Intrigued by the novel technology, Murr placed his order and waited for the pizza to arrive. He's still waiting.

As Murr later found out, the pizza never arrived because the pizza shop's online ordering system sent orders to a computer at the owner's house, and he happened to be out for the night. To call that system inefficient would be an understatement.

In addition to leaving him hungry for the night, the incident reinforced for Murr his belief that new technologies should only be implemented after a maturation period and a well thought out plan of action.

In 2007, nine years after his first experience with an online food ordering system, Murr felt that the time, and more importantly the technology, was right for his organization.

Keep your POS in mind
The key for Murr was POS integration. "There are lots of fax-based solutions on the market where an online order generates a fax and it's up to the staff to enter the information into a computer manually. I didn't think that was the way to go," says Murr. "Once our POS had the ability to handle online orders, that's when we went forward."

Ali Baba's utilizes POS provider Speedline Solutions' (www.speedlinesolutions.com) OrderLink Gateway, which through its XML pipeline can accept orders from Web sites, remote call centers or drive-thru ordering services, automated voice ordering systems, and self-serve kiosks. Order confirmation is instantaneous.

"When a customer places an order online, it enters our computer system and a bill comes right out of the printer like it was taken in the store," adds Murr. Like it would with any other order, it appears on the kitchen display right away.

Lee Greer, director of marketing for Jason's Deli (www.jasonsdeli.com), agrees with Murr and advises restaurateurs looking to get involved with online ordering to get a handle on POS integration issues early.

Greer speaks from experience. He spearheaded Jason's Deli's online ordering initiatives beginning in 1998. Working with Hilton and Yvette Keats of OrderTalk, Inc. (www.ordertalk.com), the three partnered and developed the first interface and software that manages orders at the store level, with the first pilot launch at five Jason's Deli locations in Austin, Texas.

The initiative "took off like wild fire," according to Greer, and the decision was made to roll the solution out company-wide just one year later in 1999. Jason's Deli hosted the solution internally until OrderTalk incorporated a new platform based on Microsoft.net (www.microsoft.com) technology, at which point Jason's Deli moved to an application service provider model between 2005 and 2006.

Today, online ordering is very popular with Jason's Deli customers, and lucrative for the business. Greer indicates that customers spend 15 percent to 20 percent more per check when placing orders online versus through other ordering methods. But despite all of their success with online ordering and years of experience with the technology, Jason's Deli is still working with its POS vendor Radiant Systems (www.radiantsystems.com) and OrderTalk in a collaborative partnership to integrate the full range of OrderTalk's features with the Aloha point-of-sale.

Knowing what he knows now, Greer would have worked on POS integration much earlier. "We're working through that right now with Aloha," explains Greer. "Because OrderTalk is such a dynamic system, there are features that we still have to integrate into the Aloha system. They're working through that and are in development currently."

Murr also notes that the complexity of a restaurant's menu will factor into the speed of an online ordering rollout. Speedline partner Brygid Technologies (www.brygid.com), which uses OrderLink Gateway to integrate online ordering with restaurants' POS systems, took some time to figure out Ali Baba's menu and pricing structure.

"It isn't as simple as counting out toppings," comments Murr. "For Brygid to take our menu file - our different specials, deals and coupons - translate it, make it work for their system, and then implement it online with direct integration to our system, it's fairly labor intensive to get that happening."

Help wanted
Jason's Deli's Greer was fortunate enough to be able to work with a vendor during the early days of restaurant online ordering to develop a robust solution. However, for smaller establishments that may not have the breadth and depth of restaurant technology knowledge like that of more established organizations, relying on the help of others is essential to the success of an online ordering initiative.

Until as recently as one month ago, customers could only browse the menu at Indiana-based Kelsey's Steak House's website, www.kelseyssteakhouse.com. The management team, which includes marketing director Dina Karahalios, had wanted to implement an online ordering solution for some six months but did not know where to turn to find a solution that would meet their specific needs.

"We didn't know if there was a database out there that would track the orders and give customers all of the options available to them," explains Karahalios. Eventually, in discussions with the individual that manages their computer system, they turned to eHungry.com (www.ehungry.com).

The eHungry.com service provides users the ability to create a website (or integrate the eHungry.com service to an existing one) where customers browse and select menu items and place orders which are transmitted to the restaurant via fax, email or to a thermal printer. Users pay a monthly fee and per-order costs depending on how orders are transmitted.

Karahalios indicates that Kelsey's Steak House has undergone thorough quality assurance testing to ensure a smooth product rollout. Kelsey's submitted eHungry.com service to a staff-wide review and even though the system is now live, they are not advertising its availability just yet. "The only people who have used it are customers who we've given coupons to in-store," says Karahalios. "If there's a glitch in the system, we don't want anything to go wrong."

Once the system is more widely available to customers, Kelsey's Steak House has plans to expand online sales offerings to include Kelsey's signature glasses and store gift certificates. Ali Baba's is currently working on an online gift card program that will allow customers to order and reload gift cards online as well as use them in-store and for delivery.

Make it easy
When it comes to online ordering, the restaurant's focus should include not just the technology powering the solution, but also the customer service aspect.

Ali Baba's Murr believes that the ease of online ordering gives the customer the opportunity to browse the full menu under no pressure from in-store lines or a busy phone operator, and make a more informed decision about what they'd like to purchase. Murr indicates that Ali Baba is averaging approximately 90 online orders per store per month; while 25 percent of those are new customers, 75 percent are regular customers who have found it easier to order online.

Kelsey's Karahalios believes that eHungry.com's pre-ordering function is one of the most attractive features for her customers. The function allows someone who decides what they want for dinner at 2:00 p.m., for instance, to arrange for the meal to be ready for pickup at 5:00 p.m.

"Online ordering is the most convenient method for customers," Karahalios says. "Customers feel that it's easy, meaning they are more likely to buy."

However, Jason's Deli's Greer recognizes that even in the most user-friendly environment, there are bound to be mistakes. Having good customer service available at these critical junctures, he says, is the difference between lost faith and a repeat online customer.

"I think that the support you give to your customers and your stores is critical to success. Inevitably you're going to run into issues at the store level where an order is misplaced or there are credit card issues," Greer comments. "Having a resource the customer can call to work through any type of problem is how I think we've grown our sales online."

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