Automated restaurant systems are fast becoming recognised as integral to running a secure, efficient and profitable business, writes Claire Deutsher Burke
Gone are the days of seeing a restaurant manager frantically zipping around the floor of a buzzing eatery, trying to juggle a potential security breach, smooth over tension between the wait and kitchen staff, placate a disgruntled customer with a misplaced order, and fretting the ‘fish of the day’ might not see out the night.
Automated systems allow restaurant managers to control all aspects of the business—including table management, loyalty information, stock, staffing and security—quickly and easily from any point-of-sale (POS) terminal on (and in some cases even off) the premises. The result is a more efficient, effective and, crucially, a more profitable business. And, as restaurateurs across the board begin to feel the pinch from the effects of the global financial crisis, many are realising it’s more important than ever to find new ways to improve their bottom line.
With most restaurateurs focused on providing a positive customer experience in their venue, it’s no surprise automated systems for front-of-house operations are popular.
Automated table ordering systems are becoming increasingly common. Wait staff use computerised hand-held devices to send orders direct from the table to the kitchen, significantly reducing ordering errors and miscommunication between floor and kitchen staff, as well as prompting certain questions when taking orders and aiding up-selling opportunities. Further, with the need for wait staff to leave the floor eliminated, they’re able to focus on more attentive customer service. Smooth and seamless table management not only looks polished in the eyes of the client, but increased order speed, accuracy and efficiency means you can turn over more covers within a sitting to boost returns.
Automated loyalty programs are another way of improving the diner experience and therefore your business. The client is provided with a rewards card that they can use each time they visit to accrue benefits. Smart systems give the restaurant important information about the customer—whether it’s their favourite menu item, or if they’re celebrating a birthday—that can be used to show the client their custom is valued. “Loyalty systems and gift cards provide you with the tools to learn more about your clients, and then reward and retain them accordingly with targeted marketing communications,” explains Spiro Vournazos, national sales manager at restaurant solutions operator RedCat. Rewards accrual can also be updated in real time so that, each time the loyalty card is swiped, the number of points appearing is the actual number the customer has—
reducing the risk of the system being abused.
Another pioneering system for front-of-house efficiency actually hands back control to the customer by allowing them to pre-order their meal over the web—either from their PC or phone—so it is ready upon their arrival. “The beauty of this system is it integrates into the POS and order production and processing system, so customer orders are allocated to the kitchen at the right time for preparation, and are pre-paid so table churns can be increased,” explains Vournazos.
Behind the scenes
While the improvements for front-of-house operations are substantial, automated systems can also significantly advance back-of-house functionality and, importantly, cost-saving.
“There are two major cost components in any operation,” says Burt Admiraal, from automated restaurant system supplier, H&L Australia. “First, stock management and cost control attached to selling prices, and second, staff management and labour cost control. With both of these integrated with a clear reporting system our clients can manage these high and volatile cost centres easily.”
Automated systems can monitor stock levels, recommend purchases, control and monitor buying prices, and suggest selling prices.
The Point Restaurant on Albert Park Lake in Melbourne, which uses automated stock control, POS terminals, and ordering and table management systems, has benefitted from the accurate reporting and reliable communication the technology provides. “The systems provide management and department supervisors with margin and profit forecasting for various stock categories and stock items,” says manager Rabih Yanni.
Automated rostering is another method of improving restaurant efficiency. With systems that link to the POS, managers can easily check every hour of their labour dollar is being well spent by assessing whether staff load matches demand. Staff clock-on/clock-off can also be integrated to the system and that, in turn, is linked to door access control, therefore providing another boost to security.
Tightening security is another vital area of restaurant management that can benefit from automated systems—allowing restaurateurs to rest a little easier knowing their venues are safer. Available technology allows integrated POS surveillance that links footage to the actual POS audit trail. “Security is enhanced with secure staff identification, and detailed transaction and process tracking that means that errors and fraudulent activity is difficult to hide, and easy to track back to its source with a single report,” explains Vournazos.
Surveillance footage can be viewed at any POS as registers have screen capability, so managers don’t have to leave the floor to view film. And, in an emergency, staff and management can take comfort knowing security staff can be easily paged from any POS terminal.
Pomi Singh has reaped the benefits from the automated systems he has installed in his triple award-winning Indian restaurant, The Tandoori Oven, in Adelaide. He uses a computerised ordering system; a loyalty system; satellite security that prevents surveillance from being disconnected in the event of a break-in; and a camera system in all public areas, the kitchen and store room. “All these systems have made everything transparent and accountable, which is important in any business,” he says.
Automation in action
While there are definite cost-saving opportunities using automated systems, there’s obviously an initial outlay. Systems can be purchased that integrate with existing software so there are no transfer issues, or you can buy a complete package that manages POS, financials, payroll, loyalty and inventory management. However, it isn’t necessary to start with all the bells and whistles—in fact, depending on the venue, not all automated capabilities are needed. Therefore, most automated systems are modular, allowing restaurateurs to start with a basic package tailored to their requirements and add to it later as the business demands increase. It doesn’t take long for restaurateurs to see return on investment, but precisely how long depends on the options taken and how effectively they’re used.
And while all the bells and whistles of integrated software packages are fascinating, managers shouldn’t lose sight of the hardware your system uses. “Business owners often want cheap. It’s our job to educate operators that cheap costs you money,” says Mark Calabro of OrderMate. “All it takes is a blown LCD screen or power outage to fail an electronic component and you’re anywhere from $500 to $1200 out of pocket. It is almost always a very expensive exercise.
Calabro says OrderMate’s use of IBM hardware meant they always “had a challenge on our hands to continue to win business with a higher price-point hardware product. We also knew with our experience over the years that the total cost of ownership over a typical five-year life-cycle of a touch screen would be around $1000. Keeping in mind IBM design and test all their hardware to withstand seven-plus years, that’s almost double all the other manufacturers.”
Calabro also says make sure the software you’re using all comes from the same place: “Many other software solutions add on other third party software modules. It makes integrating all the various modules that make up a POS solution very challenging and clunky.”
To get maximum value out of your automated system, it’s worth putting in the time to properly understand the capability of the product. “A typical system requires about 30-40 hours’ training and we pride ourselves on a very planned and structured training program that can be tailor-made to the venue’s requirements,” says Admiraal. “Once the system is set up, it is extremely user-friendly and ongoing maintenance is minimal.”
When one person in the restaurant understands the systems solidly, teaching other staff members to competently use the products is relatively easy. “All new staff have to be trained to some degree and a little more training at that time does not take all that much effort,” says Singh. “These days most people are computer-literate and like to be involved in innovative systems that work.”
The results speak for themselves. “There’s definitely a more efficient and seamless transaction from the guest’s point of view. It reduces the margin for error and increases accountability by assisting with front- and back-of-house communication,” says Yanni.