Independents Find Easy Fixes in Technology
Accessible solutions enable owner/operators to solve common restaurant conundrums.
Scott Wise has long been ambitious about embracing technology at Scotty’s Brewhouse, the Indiana-based bar-and-grill concept he founded in 1996.
For every technological tool that comes to his attention, however, Wise asks a central question: Will this save me time or money? For an independent restaurateur like Wise, every investment decision must be viewed through that strategic lens. Adopting technology cannot solely be a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, but rather it must strengthen the operation.
“If you want to stay in business and grow, then ignoring relevant technology is no longer an option,” Wise says. “But it has to be the right technology for your restaurant, your customer, and your concept.”
Mistakenly, many independent operators consider cutting-edge technology the domain of national chains, corporate powerhouses, and tech geeks-turned-restaurateurs. Yet, a number of today’s most relevant restaurant technology offerings are accessible to the masses and, in many cases, specifically designed with the small-business operator in mind.
While incorporating technology can be frightening to some and foreign to others, independents can use technology to create a smarter, more efficient operation that is better positioned to improve profitability and marketplace standing, invaluable prospects in an industry known for tight margins and intense competition.
So, toss the paper schedules and yellow-sheeted waitlists aside, cease the guesswork, and embrace the tech revolution. After all, there are better ways to run a restuarant.
A Call for Up-Front Efficiency
At David’s Catfish House in Andalusia, Alabama, owner Bill Spurlin prides himself on customer service. Tending to about 2,500 customers each day, Spurlin’s crew needs to be on top of its game to please customers in the fast-churning, 200-seat dining room.
In mid-2014, Spurlin’s 7-year-old casual eatery began using Kallpod at the nudging of Kallpod COO Steven Barlow, a native of Andalusia. With the system functioning much like a call button on airplanes, patrons can press a button on a wireless unit at the table to let their server know they would like another drink or are ready for the check. Via radio waves, servers wearing a wristwatch immediately see the table number and the specific request.
Though initially skeptical of the technology, Spurlin agreed to a one-month trial. Within hours of using the technology, he was sold.
“I could see the flow of our restaurant improve immediately,” Spurlin says.
Front-of-the-house response times at David’s Catfish House are now “down to seconds,” according to Spurlin, while the direct access guests have to staff has minimized lost sales and accelerated table turns.
In addition, the Kallpod system allows kitchen staff to alert servers when food is ready, ridding the operation of its antiquated kitchen-to-server pager system. Servers now deliver the hottest, freshest food and reduce returns to the kitchen that occur when a product is lukewarm or cold.
As a result of the Kallpod system, David’s servers now cover more tables and a larger area of the dining room, which affords Spurlin more efficient deployment of his labor and boosts revenue at the table.
“This all adds up to faster service for our guests and, ultimately, more revenue,” Spurlin says.
Adding Automated Take-Out
When Chef Govind Armstrong opened Willie Jane in Los Angeles two years ago, he wanted to eventually offer carry-out business, especially since Willie Jane’s food traveled well and the eatery’s kitchen was capable of handling work beyond its dining room.
Today, Armstrong has achieved just that at Willie Jane. He teamed up with online ordering venture ChowNow in April 2014 to capture take-out business from customers unable to eat in the restaurant or uninterested in the dine-in experience.
“You can only do so many turns in your restaurant, so expanding to take-out is a clear revenue-building play for us,” Armstrong says.
Rather than a third-party ordering site, ChowNow was designed to allow independent restaurants like Willie Jane the ability to offer direct online ordering through branded mobile apps, Facebook, and a restaurant’s existing website. Last May, ChowNow launched its second iteration, a more mobile-friendly production that offers customized branding for individual restaurants.
When a customer places an online order, a ChowNow tablet at the restaurant—Armstrong placed his right in the kitchen line—rings until a staff member accepts the order. The restaurant selects the wait time, and a self-generated email notifies the customer when the order will be ready.
Payments, meanwhile, are directly deposited into the restaurant’s account. The ChowNow system increases operational efficiencies, order accuracy, and frequency, while also accommodating instantaneous changes to the menu selection, pricing, or delivery areas.
“It’s been a rather seamless process for us and, since the customer is directly ordering their food, there’s nothing lost in translation,” Armstrong says.
It’s the type of enterprising solution Armstrong acknowledges he never could have created himself.
“Not a chance,” he says, “but, fortunately, people smarter than me figured it out.”
Mastering a Digital Presence
Few restaurateurs are web design wizards possessing the time and talent to create a rich and professional digital presence. Yet, in an environment where online channels increasingly influence consumers’ dining decisions, that’s exactly what’s needed in the current marketplace.
As restaurateurs wonder where to start and whom to trust, website developer Mopro aims to be the independent operator’s ally, providing a cost-effective, one-stop shop for a restaurant’s digital marketing needs. Partnering with a company like Mopro combats the uncertainty of fly-by-night agencies and the mismatched concoctions of various third-party vendors.
In one package, Mopro delivers a website, custom high-definition video and photography, secure web hosting, a mobile site, and a social media presence that restaurants can manage from a single online dashboard—all for an initial setup fee and monthly subscription charge.
Nick Kline, restaurant manager at Sullivan’s Restaurant in Wauseon, Ohio, engaged Mopro in 2012—this came after the restaurant, which opened in 2010, had entrusted its website to a local web design company. The initial website served its basic purpose, but nothing on the website was interactive and it failed to address mobile’s rapid rise.
“There was plenty of room for improvement,” Kline says.
When Sullivan’s employed Mopro, it received a more dynamic digital presence that allowed the restaurant to better manage content, connect with customers, and run its social media campaigns in a time-saving manner.
Today, Kline can easily update the restaurant’s menu, define its calendar, and spotlight daily or weekly specials. And rather than taking time to post to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Kline can now post once to the Mopro interface and see that message distributed to the restaurant’s various social media outlets.
“There’s so much we can do at the click of a button, which saves us time as well as [eliminates] the need to pay a web designer for ongoing work,” says Kline, who also enjoys the heightened responsiveness the Mopro system affords him. Consumer emails submitted through the Sullivan’s website are routed directly to Kline’s smartphone, and the system also highlights any online reviews of the restaurant.
“Everything’s right at my fingertips,” he says, “which makes my life easier and helps us satisfy customers.”
Taking Names and Turning Tables
At busy restaurants like Scotty’s Brewhouse and Skull Creek Boathouse in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, text-message waitlist apps that run from tablets have replaced antiquated pad-and-paper waitlists and buzzer seating systems.
Both NoshList and DineTime, two competing waitlist apps, automatically calculate average wait times for guests—the DineTime app, in fact, relies on a patented formula. The apps increase customer satisfaction by replacing guesswork with analytics, helping operations provide more accurate wait times to increase customer satisfaction and maximize table turns.
Yet the benefits don’t stop there.
Frustrated by how many pagers were lost, stolen, or broken at his eateries, costing him thousands of dollars each month, Wise adopted NoshList at Scotty’s Brewhouse.
Overcoming his initial concern that guests might not provide their cell phone numbers, Wise describes the NoshList conversion as seamless. In the busiest Scotty’s locations, such as the company’s flagship 450-seat restaurant in downtown Indianapolis, two hostesses use the iPad app: One registers new customers and a second ushers patrons to their tables. Wise’s staff can now conveniently input guests’ names into the queue and, later, proactively ready the waiting customers to promptly move to a freshly bused table—operational efficiencies that have streamlined and accelerated each restaurant’s flow.
“It’s a clean and easy app to use, and it has brought our hostess from behind the stand and into more personal contact with our guests,” Wise says. “But above all, it’s saved us time, which is one of the most precious assets in our industry.”
NoshList also allows a restaurant to customize its text notifications to patrons and allows, with a restaurant’s permission, public views of the waitlist, a function prospective customers can use to add their names to the waitlist in advance of their arrival at the establishment.
Implementing new technology has also improved operations at Skull Creek Boathouse where the 250-seat restaurant serves upward of 2,000 people per day during its summer tourist season. Managing partner Chris Spargur began using DineTime from QSR Automations early this year and says DineTime’s guest-management software has helped his eatery generate one to two extra turns per table each night, a significant boost to the restaurant’s bottom line.
Beyond the waitlist functionality, however, Spargur has used DineTime to better respond to dining trends specific to his restaurant. After noticing that Wednesday nights brought an overwhelming number of groups and families to Skull Creek, Spargur hired a children’s musician for the dining room to better accommodate that crowd.
“So beyond the waitlist, this even feeds the marketing and positioning of our restaurant,” Spargur says.
This past summer, DineTime unveiled the reservations piece of its system. Through DineTime, restaurants can add a reservations widget to their website that allows online booking, an alternative to platforms such as OpenTable. Restaurants manage the booking of reservations themselves and can program the software to restrict reservations to certain days, specific operating hours, or party capacity. The reservations immediately sync to the DineTime app, so hostesses can also manage reservations while running a waitlist.
Building Data on the Cloud
Big boys like Darden and DineEquity have invested millions in technology for a sound reason: Data helps restaurant operators make informed, profit-driving decisions.
Tony Lucca, owner of 1905, a 50-seat neighborhood bistro in Washington, D.C., knows this, which is why Lucca embraced Swipely two years ago.
Designed specifically for small businesses, Swipely replaces legacy payment-processing services with a cloud-based platform that provides keen consumer insights by pulling information from a restaurant’s payment network, point-of-sale (pos) system, and online venues. In effect, it’s big data for small business.
With Swipely, Lucca can better understand his customer base and what differentiates one group—or even one individual customer—from the next. It also lets him recognize the most profitable menu items that spark repeat business, assess the performance of staff members, monitor online reviews, and measure the effectiveness of a promotion.
For instance, Lucca knew participating in D.C.’s annual Restaurant Week generated revenue for his establishment, but he knew little else about the promotion’s impact. That all changed during Restaurant Week 2013 when Lucca leveraged Swipely’s data to learn that the event brought him 200 new customers, some of whom—data also revealed—returned for a subsequent visit.
“Having access to this data, I can make sure I’m pursuing the right promotional campaigns,” he says.
Lucca also suggests that using Swipely has effectively transformed merchant processing fees into a data-collection moment that actually creates value.
“I never want to replace the element of gut instinct, but I enjoy getting rich data that paints an accurate, factual portrait,” Lucca says. “This is a clear way for me to recognize strengths and weaknesses, and make smarter decisions.”
When it comes to running a restaurant, certain aspects of labor management present inevitable challenges: scheduling staff, identifying internal theft, monitoring safety requirements, and maintaining proper processes. Every operator echoes the same, “Been there, done that,” lament.
Shelby Lear, general manager of the Tupelo Honey Café in Asheville, North Carolina, had used spreadsheets to schedule restaurant labor, but it was a time-consuming process prone to errors. “I’d be adding up hours, moving shifts around, accommodating time-off requests, and so much could—and did—get lost in the shuffle,” Lear says.
In 2012, Lear began using WhenToManage, a cloud reporting solution that pairs with Tupelo Honey’s existing POS system to streamline the scheduling process.
Founded by a former restaurant manager, WhenToManage addresses labor forecasting, while also providing staff with text and email schedules as well as a mobile interface. The result? Staff members know their schedules, while managers can visualize avenues to improve costs.
“With 100 employees at the restaurant, automating so much of this has made my life much, much easier, and also helps us make sure we’re hitting our labor goals,” Lear says. She can also juggle the availability and scheduling requests of all her employees.
Loss prevention is another key element impacting restaurant profitablity and, to some extent, labor management enters into loss prevention. ADT’s new Food & Beverage bundle offers independent restaurants looking to reduce food waste, minimize product losses, and prevent spoilage the same degree of enterprise-level solutions available to industry heavyweights. With a customized array of security features, operators can keep losses to a minimum, monitoring their establishment even when they are out of the restaurant.
Management, for instance, can receive customized notifications via text or email alerting them to specific activity in the restaurant, such as individuals present in a restricted area like the back office or inventory storage area where employee theft is more likely to occur. Through remote-access video, meanwhile, operators can monitor the control and handling of sensitive products like perishable foods or alcohol, the preparation of food, and the hygiene standards practiced by staff—visibility that can identify potential food safety hazards or liabilities before problems occur.