Call to order

Using a PDA at outdoor cafes and beer gardens can improve the service.

Using a PDA at outdoor cafes and beer gardens can improve the service.

The must-have accessory by the wait staff is electronic order pads but are these handheld units as functional as mounted terminals?

Waiters flitting between tables with electronic order pads might look all streamlined and efficient but handheld units as part of a restaurant point-of-sale (POS) are not for everyone.

One option when you install a POS system is to equip staff with handheld units, basically a personal digital assistant (PDA), on which orders are taken and then sent straight through to the preparation area.

Most POS suppliers give the option of either handheld units or mounted terminals, but how do you know which one to choose?

Jeff Lamb, general manager of POS specialists RedCat, says the initial outlay for the hardware and the specialist needed software to run it is significant: around $3500–$4000 to set up the first unit, including software, then about $1500 for each subsequent unit.

“Once the system is set up, it’s not too bad. Certainly the cost per unit for handheld devices is cheaper than a terminal.”

RedCat uses a server-based system. This means the software on the PDA opens a session in a server, as opposed to a radio-controlled system, on which terminals are based.

The problem with using a server-based system in areas with a lot of other wireless networks in the vicinity is that there can be some interference. This may only mean that the system slows down slightly, and is generally only a problem in CBD areas. RedCat will always do a site audit to see whether there is likely to be a problem. If so, they would recommend the terminal option.

Handhelds are extremely handy for restaurants or pubs with large outdoor areas. It becomes like a roaming till—orders can be taken anywhere within a restaurant and go straight into the system, avoiding double-handling. In theory at least, it should also eliminate the possibility of an order getting lost.

The system can actually be too efficient, creating a backlog of orders the kitchen can’t keep up with or the bar staff can’t handle.

“In restaurants with an outside area, like a beer garden, it can improve the service,” Lamb says. “But the restaurant needs to be able to cope with the extra demand that it puts on the kitchen. If you have the capacity, it shouldn’t be a problem.

“Where you may have had people queuing at the bar for a drink, their order is now taken at the table with a PDA. So there can be a longer lag-time between the order being taken and the customer receiving the order.”

Restaurant & Catering Australia’s Technology Roadmap found resistance among some restaurateurs who claimed handheld systems were too susceptible to breakage, with a life span of only four to six months. Cost and durability is a major issue, according to the Roadmap. Some restaurants have reported needing to replace one each week. With staff running in and out of the kitchen, they’re easy to be dropped or knocked about.

RedCat’s Lamb acknowledges that units can be fragile and will need to be replaced. “The cost of replacement depends on the hardware. The ones we tend to use are based on standard technology and cost about $700 per unit. If something happens, you don’t have to wait for it to be sent overseas for costly repairs. You can easily pick up a new one at Harvey Norman or somewhere like that.

“There are other units around the $2000 mark, which are obviously more costly to replace. The benefit is that they tend to be hardier and can withstand a lot more. So while the upfront cost is considerable, they should last longer. On the other hand, if they are purpose-built, they can be as much as $3000 each. That hurts.

Ken Burgin, former cafe owner and chief executive officer of industry consultants Profitable Hospitality, is an advocate of handheld POS, and says even in smaller cafes they can be beneficial. He points out that replacing a PDA is still much cheaper than buying a terminal.

“Savings come from other areas,” he says. “For instance, when we had them in the cafe, we stopped using docket books, which we had been going through at a rate of 15 to 20 per week. That was an immediate cost saving.”

Some restaurant owners consider that handhelds are likely to meet with customer resistance. There is a perception that staff focus on the PDA in their hand rather than the diner in front of them, and service can suffer as a result.

Lamb says this issue has been brought up among his clients when they are deciding which option best suits their situation. “We find a lot of people are not so keen to go down the handheld road because of the lack of personal touch,” he says.

“They’ve seen them operating elsewhere, and think the wait staff tend to talk to the PDA, not to the customers. Certainly not many five-star restaurants will go down that track.”

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