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The aisles may have been less packed at this year's National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, but that doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of business being conducted on the show floor.
Exhibitors say that while attendance was clearly down —54,000 attendees reported by the NRA in 2009 as opposed to 71,000 in 2008 — those who were there represented restaurant executives with more buying power than in previous years.
"There were fewer people by the booth, but they were all serious about the product suite and we had more time to talk to them," said Tommy Woycik, president of Nextep Systems.
Nextep was showcasing its product line of digital menu boards, touchscreen kiosks and online ordering applications during the show, held May 16-19 at Chicago's McCormick Place.
While the self-order kiosks are Nextep's flagship product, Woycik said attendee interest at the company's booth was split 40:40 between the self-order terminals and digital menu boards. The remaining 20 percent of operators were interested in Nextep's online-ordering solutions, he said.
As menu labeling legislation is getting passed throughout the United States, operators are increasingly interested in using digital menu boards.
"Posting nutritional information is just one reason why using a digital menu board is better than a static menu board," Woycik said. "The cost for a large chain to print new menu boards is significant. With digital menu boards they can try new pricing, items, specials, advertising or promotional tie-ins, almost with no cost."
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Matt Buksbaum, vice president of Visual Graphic Systems, said restaurateurs are starting to mix their static menu boards with digital elements, but operators need to think through a full-on switch.
"Everybody likes it as a movement, but you really have to think it through before implementation," he said.
Another ordering tool gaining in popularity is the self-order touchscreen kiosk.
"There's an increasing percentage of the population that sees self-service as a mainstream application," Woycik said. "A lot of smaller more entrepreneurial concepts are embracing the technology today and we're finding that many customers prefer self-service over standing in line."
Nextep recently announced its kiosk-integration partnership with Speedline POS, a provider of POS solutions. The companies rolled out the first countertop self-service kiosks and integrated POS system at a Sylvan Lake, Alberta, Taco Time location.
Integration was an industry buzzword at this year's show with technology and transaction-processing providers.
Henry Helgeson, president and co-founder of Merchant Warehouse, said integrated payments are the wave of the future for point-of-sale providers and credit card companies.
"A lot of credit card companies don't have the technology to work with POS vendors, but now they're starting to," he said.
Integrated systems also will help loyalty and gift card transactions as restaurateurs continue rolling out these programs to gather customer information for marketing and demographic use.
From the show floor
Overall, exhibitors at this year's NRA Show displayed everything from operations to POS to storage solutions, along with the latest in iPhone applications.
Ben Middleton, senior trade communications manager for Coca-Cola North America, discussed the company's initiatives to help operators solve problems. One initiative was a recently commissioned study that tracked the impact of price increases for beverages at limited-service restaurants.
The survey found that when beverage prices increased at limited-service restaurants, consumers bought fewer drinks, which lowered operators' revenue. The study suggests that by lowering fountain-drink prices, operators could increase their total menu revenue and profitability from more food and beverage sales, not just increased food sales.
Metairie, La.-based Diversified Foods Inc. teamed up with International Dispensing Corp. to develop a solution that allows the shelf-stable storage of milk for up to seven months. Diversified Foods developed processing that heats the milk to 282 degrees, killing 100 percent of bacteria. Typical pasteurization heats milk to 145 degrees, which eliminates only 70 percent of the bacteria, said Norman Romagosa, vice president of Diversified Foods.
MICROS Systems Inc. is adding to its portfolio of restaurant solutions with myCentral, an online ordering system. The solution has been available in the United Kingdom and will be available in the United States this summer. MyCentral allows for online-ordering administration from a centralized portal, and sends the order directly to a restaurant's point-of-sale system. Operators also can opt to utilize a call center to facilitate orders.
Iphone and iPod touch applications were emerging technologies displayed throughout the show floor. One such application is Yowza!!, which combines GPS technology with mobile couponing. Consumers use the free app to view all subscribed restaurants in their proximity and select an offer. Restaurants can opt to display a barcode or promo code that users can take to the restaurant to redeem. It was developed by Greg Grunberg, co-star of NBC's television show Heroes.