Back to the future: 6 innovative technologies saving restaurants money and changing the industry

| by Nicole Troxell
Back to the future: 6 innovative technologies saving restaurants money and changing the industry

Have you ever wondered if life would ever be like the 1960s cartoon "The Jetsons," or the fictional future in "Back to the Future II"? With the acceleration of restaurant technology, we may not be far off from floating pizzas and whole meals dispensed at the touch of a button. And in many ways, we're far ahead of these imagined futures.

The restaurant of the future is here, with technological innovations that enable faster, more efficient and more profitable operations than ever. Digital advances are offering owners a chance to improve outdated paper-based operations and get further in touch with what customers really want.

Here's a list of innovative technologies that allow restaurants to digitally manage tables, seating, payroll, hiring, customer feedback and more:

1. Table tracking with RFID: from plastic table cards to sleek digital apps

Pizza Ranch, a pizza, fried chicken and salad buffet bar in the Midwest, can seat 220-250 guests in a central dining room and several community rooms at most locations. The company’s Buffet Your Way and custom-ordered pizza and non-buffet menu items allow customers to order in a variety of ways, but the company had problems keeping track of it all. 

To better organize how customers received their food, Pizza Ranch deployed Table Tracker, a passive RFID technology enabling staff to find the precise location of a guest's table without tracking interference or overlap with neighboring tables. The device is from Long Range Systems, a supplier of technology designed to improve and enhance the guest experience.

Here's how it works: At the cashier location, staff take an order and hand the table-tracking device to the customer. Staff inputs the tracker number into the POS system, and the system references that number. They then start the tracker on the starter unit. The timer displays the time in the system so that the kitchen, management and dining room staff can monitor prep/delivery time against benchmarks and prioritize and expedite orders as needed.

Once the food is ready, a food expediter can see in the system where the customers are located and immediately find the table matching the order number. If the tracker is not on the table for any reason, such as the guest has taken it with them to a restroom or drink station, the tracker also can be used as a pager to notify the guest that their order is ready. This also means trackers can be used as pagers for to-go orders to alert guests that are waiting.

Table Tracker’s ability to be used independently on up to five iPads means that staff can track and interact with just the information that they need to see (e.g., the expediter can filter the view to look at just dine-in orders; the to-go stand can look at just to-go orders; the kitchen and management can keep an eye on all orders, etc.). The system can manage and page up to 125 active orders at one time. 

Pizza Ranch Vice President of Marketing Cody Pierce said that the company saw an immediate increase in guest satisfaction with the Buffet Your Way program, "After installing Table Tracker, we were able to consistently meet delivery time goals for custom pizzas."

Table Tracking can improve the efficiency of staff tasks as well. No longer does staff have to walk around searching for numbers on tables.

2. Digital place-based networks: a multipurpose marketing system

Restaurant owners have what many consider a powerful new marketing currency in their establishments and some don’t even know it, according to a report from ScreenMedia Daily. Using digital place-based networks, owners can reach consumers through strategically placed, networked digital signage displays that transmit highly targeted messages in venues like restaurants.

Rich Ventura, vice president of business development and solutions at NEC Display Solutions, said the restaurant industry is already utilizing digital screens to communicate with patrons and favorably position their brands, products and services.

"Results from the Digital Place-based Advertising Association’s survey of strategic media planners show that 64 percent of planners have advised their clients to shift funding away from traditional out-of-home to digital place-based media. The same survey also found planners recommend shifting dollars away from traditional television (41 percent) and online media (40 percent) in order to fund digital place-based marketing channels.

"Benefits of this distinctly modern marketing approach include a highly targeted reach with demographics based on time and location, as well as immediate and lasting access to a constantly replenished audience in high-traffic, brand-safe environments," Ventura said.

Digital menu boards, point-of-sale systems and order-confirmation platforms, all interconnected, can aggregate data, which managers can analyze to drive decisions toward meaningful business impact. Systems can enable targeted messaging, which can influence purchasing decisions, according to Ventura.

3. Text analytics: zeroing in on customer feedback

How you listen to your customers makes a difference — both in the quality of the information they provide, and your relationship with them, according to InMoment, a cloud-based customer experience optimization company. Using text analytics, restaurateurs can obtain specific insights on what to improve and how, from staffing levels and training, to new items and menu selection, to the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, the company said.

Active Listening, InMoment's set of integrated Voice of Customer listening technology, has three features that can encourage customers to share more details about their experiences:

First, its Strength Meter encourages customers to keep telling their stories by detecting meaningful words in their feedback.

"I won’t come back" doesn’t provide enough information to guide action. The Follow Up feature identifies comments low on insight, and triggers additional, relevant questions that ask customers to provide more detailed information.

Drill Down identifies specific words or topics, and presents targeted questions for deeper inquiry. Drill Down can trigger from both structured data (scores) as well as the unstructured text found in comment boxes. Drill Down can also apply to voice comments in real-time.

For example, a customer might say: "You were out of the burger I wanted to order." Drill Down might respond with a question like, "Can you tell us which burger you ordered?" Once the customer provides that information, Active Listening can then ask if they would like a follow up call from the manager. 

4. Digital workforce management and energy analytics: saving time and money with POS-integrated apps

Digital workforce management is accelerating as restaurateurs see the time- and money-saving advantages these cloud-based systems can provide for scheduling, payroll, HR paperwork and more.

"Some examples include tracking food costs, accessing schedules and scheduling labor and using barcode scanners to check inventory. Access to food prep instructions, food safety, ordering and inventory have all taken the digital mobile turn," Jeff Pinc, director of food services, Panasonic System Communications Co. of North America, told in an article.

HotSchedules, a suite of cloud-based, POS-integrated applications that provide workforce management and back-office, cloud platform solutions, can create schedules and push them out to employees, allowing staff to swap shifts via online and mobile.

Research from Workforce Insight found that QSRs save four to six hours a week using digital-based scheduling. These systems allow businesses to hire and train new employees and replace inefficient paper-based systems.

"Going digital allows QSR managers to come out of the back office and onto the restaurant floor, increasing productivity not only by removing paper schedules altogether, but allowing them to oversee all aspects of their restaurant with the tap of a screen. This would bring hiring, training, scheduling, task and communications all into the digital space for the fast-paced QSR or fast casual environments," Pinc said.

Great Eastern Energy, an alternative energy supplier of natural gas, electricity and energy solutions, has teamed up with UM Technologies, a business technology company, to construct a customer dashboard and analytical portal for energy management. Great Eastern Energy’s restaurant customers are testing the beta version of the new Web-based application to gain additional insights before going public to GEE customers later this year.

 The GEE Energy Management Web-based application is designed to offer restaurant owners insight and information on ways to reduce their overall energy consumption by measuring, tracking and comparing their energy performance in real time.

The application offers savings analysis, data management, budgeting, document management, community-based benchmarking, custom reports and variance and purchasing alarms.

5. Waitlisting: from paper-based to analytics-based seating apps

Paper-based wait management systems are becoming a thing of the past as demand is being met with simpler digital methods.

One of those systems, developed by Long Range Systems, called On Cue for Restaurants, is a waitlist app that integrates with multiple hardware tools to form a complete table management solution, according to LRS.

OCR can notify guests when their table is ready by either text message or by an LRS integrated guest pager. Version 2.0 is integrated with Table Updater, a handheld device enabling staff to update a table status from across the restaurant and sync the app on up to three iPads in a single location. Users can view actions taken by other staff interfacing with the app via an activity log that provides a running status. 

The latest version of OCR also offers multiple language options. 

Waitlist Me by NoshList is a cross-platform waitlist app that can recognize regular customers via a history that shows what they like to order or have had in the past and either offer that again or add something special to the order. The app can test different specials, and allow users to view demographics and analytics.

Waitlist Me can add the name, phone number and status of customers to indicate with different colors whether the guests are with groups or VIP, ready to be seated or called in. It contains options for those needing a high chair or those celebrating birthdays or anniversaries. When adding customer information, Waitlist Me allows users the option to quote a time or ETA and add future reservations that show up automatically in the system on the selected day.

Push notification buttons on the app indicate a table is ready, and send either a text or call with an automated message. If a customer calls back, the app will route it to the restaurant number.

6. Vehicle traffic: knowing the real value of location

Using a complex algorithm that scans video feeds of vehicle traffic, restaurant owners can now detect the value of real estate.

SmartLanes Technologies' vehicle tracker system Lanescan uses computer vision technology to provide the make, model, year, color, state, county and license plate number to assess a profile of vehicle traffic over time such as typical commuting routes, preferred restaurants, etc. It can also read bumper stickers and determine the number of occupants per vehicle.

The system is primarily used for site location. It can provide hard data on the number of regular commuters along a route and their typical dining behavior such as frequency and types of meals purchased.The app can offer operational metrics for an existing restaurant location, like the number of new customers, regular customer retention rates, how long customers stay, and a profile of what their preferences are based on their bumper stickers.

Current data sets in the marketplace typically only show where potential customers live, according to Stephen Haden, CEO of SmartLanes Technologies.  

"How long a customer stays provides information on how fast the restaurant is turning tables and also how much business they are losing because people choose to leave when the wait is too long. Knowing how often a car visits an existing restaurant shows you how many regular customers you have and if your actions are causing them to visit more or less often. It also shows if your promotions are bringing in new customers and converting them to regulars versus just attracting bargain hunters," Hayden said.

A SmartLanes case study of how a Starbucks was beating a McDonald's in the same shopping center in a working class neighborhood in South Louisville, Kentucky, last summer indicated that most of the customers patronizing the site lived more than 10 miles away and that their demographics were much different than that of the people who lived nearby.  

"Starbucks was a better fit for the location because it appealed to the commuters through the area rather than the residents who lived nearby," Haden said.

Photo courtesy of Matt McRib, Jetsons Wikia

Topics: Systems / Technology, Trends / Statistics

Companies: Long Range Systems, HotSchedules

Nicole Troxell
Nicole’s work has appeared in business, education, technical, and travel publications. She is currently the editor of and wwwView Nicole Troxell's profile on LinkedIn

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