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Why You Should Tell Your Guests To Order Themselves

Ordering KiosksIf you do it right, guest prefer to order themselves.  This has been proven by the advent of interactive electronic ordering kiosks, which have quickly become commonplace in European and Asian quick service restaurants.

Americans are finally catching up to their European counterparts when it comes to self-service kiosks.  Early adopters like Jack-in-the-Box have already seen the benefits these electronic order takers can provide, including a boost in sales, higher customer satisfaction, and increased order volume.

What’s so great about a kiosk?  And what exactly is a kiosk anyway?

Kiosks are electronic ordering systems that provide a touchscreen menu for guests.  The newest generation of kiosks integrate directly with the restaurant’s POS system, making order processing extremely easy.

Kiosks add a couple key benefits to a guest’s experience, at least in a quick service restaurant environment:

Improved order accuracy. Whether or not kiosks actually reduce the number of botched orders is up for debate.  Regardless, guests feel like orders are more accurate because they are directly involved in the order taking process, and that perception can go a long way towards improving a restaurant’s overall customer service.

Guests buy more. Having an interactive menu that automatically suggests upsells, lists the best menu items first, and advertises specials without forgetting is a potent weapon for restaurants.  Guests who use kiosks are more likely to spend more and order more than those who order from a human.

This means a restaurant using kiosks can shift staff from being order takers to order fillers and service providers.  In fact, the restaurants that have introduced kiosks did not have to cut any staff because order volume went up significantly.

Ordering kiosks certainly make sense for quick service restaurants, but what about independents?  Is there a place for an automated menu and order taking system in the more traditional dining experience?

That certainly remains to be seen.  However, here are a couple ideas for ways independents could bring kiosks to bear:

Make waiting interactive.
If you’re fortunate enough to be a restaurant that regularly makes guests wait for a table, then a kiosk could become your very best friend.  Instead of making customers sit on a bench staring blankly at the wall next to the host stand, invite them to place their order on a kiosk, then time their meal to drop 10 minutes after they are sat.

The potential for slashing your table turnover times with that kind of system is tremendous.  That kind of system also gives your servers more time to provide top notch service as well, especially when things get hectic on a busy night.

Make kiosks part of your concept. Remember restaurants with telephones at each table for calling in orders?  Their success depended on the novelty of ordering via phone but eventually it proved much too hard to create a quality experience when the guests’ only interaction with staff was through a phone.

Kiosks could be different.  If they are used to replace menus at tables servers can still interact with guests while they order, have more time to attend every detail, and benefit from the kiosk’s tendency to make customers order more.  All of this could be accomplished without sacrificing face-to-face service, and in fact the iPad has already proven itself to be a great replacement for the traditional menu.  Kiosks at tables just takes that concept one step further.

Change the way you take reservations. Especially if your restaurant is in a high foot traffic area, plop a kiosk on the sidewalk in front of your establishment and invite guests to place their order and then come back to dine at a time of their choosing.

Guests that have already chosen their meal are going to be more likely to come back, reducing reservation no-shows.  That kiosk would also serve as some great advertising for your restaurant and take some pressure off your host stand and servers on busy nights.

Naturally kiosks are going to have to run their course in the quick service segment before independent restaurants start considering them.  But a future where all menus are electronic and interactive is not that far off, and restaurateurs stand to benefit immensely from this new technology.

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NRA Announces 2009 Kitchen Innovations Awards

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) has announced the 2009 winners of their annual Kitchen Innovations award, which recognizes cutting edge advancements in improving the efficiency of commercial kitchen appliances and tools.

Some highlights from this year’s list include:

The Silar Microwave Flatstone

Advanced Composite Materials’ Silar Microwave Flatstone. This composite ceramic insert is designed for commercial microwaves.  It creates even heat distribution throughout the unit, meaning foods that normally require long oven times can now be cooked quickly and efficiently without sacrificing quality.

As a result, a fresh dough pizza can be cooked in three minutes using this flatstone in a commercial microwave.

Eneron, Inc. Turbo Pot. This innovative stock pot drastically improves heat transfer through aluminum fins on the bottom of the pot that cut cooking times and energy usage in half.

The Turbo Pot has been tested by Fishnick, an organization dedicated to improving energy efficiency in the commercial kitchen.  Their findings show the Turbo Pot can significantly reduce energy usage while still maintaining the durable quality needed for commercial cookware.

Halton Model-based Automated Regulation of Exhaust Levels (MARVEL). This automated ventilation system controller automatically adjusts ventilation fan speeds depending on restaurant equipment usage and exhaust air temperatures.  The result is an automated system that conserves energy during slow times while safely removing smoke and heat automatically when the kitchen is busy.

Somat Company eCorect Waste Decomposer.  Reduce food waste by 90% with this compost machine.  Less waste means less expense for trash removal and boosts a commercial kitchen’s green credibility.  This machine is easy to maintain and doesn’t require any special additives or enzymes to work.

These product innovations are great examples of how technology is being leveraged in the food service industry to increase efficiency and therefore profit margins in the fiercely competitive world of food service.

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Online Ordering: Is It Your Future Blessing or Curse?

You can do anything on the Internet these days, and increasingly people are relying on the web to do all kinds of things that make their daily lives more convenient.  On paper, the idea of introducing an online ordering service sounds exciting to restaurateurs.  After all, who can complain about making sales before your customer ever steps through the door?

At this point, it’s mostly national chains that have introduced online ordering, many with some considerable success.  But as the technology gets more advanced, like order integration with your in-house POS system and cheaper to implement, many smaller operators may seriously consider implementing an online ordering system.

And as this technology trend continues, many can probably learn from the school of hard knocks Chipotle Mexican Grill has been through with online ordering.  When Chipotle launched their online ordering feature a couple years ago, it was almost too successful.  Orders poured into some chain locations, and staff trying to fill online orders frequently got in the way of staff trying to take care of customers in the store.

How many times have you walked up to a restaurant, taken one look at the line, and walked right out again?  Traditionally, this is how food service has regulated its peak periods and prevented extremely long wait times.  When customers are ordering online, however, they have no idea how many people are already waiting in line.  That created all kinds of problems for Chipotle, because online orders kept pouring in even though the restaurant was already full.

A great problem to have, right?  Chipotle responded by adding a dedicated prep line for online orders in their busiest locations.  They also streamlined the order generation process and added staff for those peak times.

For smaller operators, there’s a couple lessons to think about.  Because sooner or later, you will probably have online ordering, especially as customers catch on and start expecting everyone to provide the same service as Chipotle and other big operators.  Besides, an online ordering system can really help boost sales and customer convenience, which makes the concept very appealing to any restaurateur.

Be prepared.  Internet sales aren’t going to come in during the afternoon lull.  They’re going to pour in when everyone else is hungry: right at lunch and during the dinner rush.  When you first start out, assign some extra staff.  You don’t know how online orders are going to shake out, and the last thing you want is to compromise service to your in-house customers because you can’t keep up with online orders.

Manage order flow.  As Chipotle learned, having two teams, one working on walk-in customers and the other devoted to Internet sales, is a great idea in theory, but when those two teams are competing for the same food prep resources, problems and inefficiencies arise.  Make sure you develop a way to either give both teams their own resources or a way to integrate orders from both sources that allows your staff to deal with them in a timely manner.

Be flexible.  Every restaurant is different, and each one trying an online ordering service is going to be presented with a unique set problems.  No matter how well you prepare, something is going to go wrong.  Be ready to make adjustments and continue to tweak your service until you get it right according to your circumstances.

For many restaurants, online ordering seems like a distant prospect.  But I’d be willing to bet it’s a trend that sneaks up on the food service industry faster than most realize, and when the day comes for your restaurant, no matter how large or small, to accommodate customers coming in from the Internet, be prepared.

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Why Google Is The Future Of Restaurant Marketing

Google Restaurant Marketing“Favorite Places On Google” is a new feature that provides maps, directions, reviews, and photos of 100,000 businesses across the U.S.  Many of these businesses are restaurants, and that’s significant because eventually users will be able to post reviews and other information about your restaurant and have it display on Google.

You’re probably thinking: “Great, this sounds like Yelp, Zagat, or a hundred other websites that try to get me to pay to get listed online.”

Well, naturally Favorite Places is done the Google way.  There’s no paying to play, which makes it certainly cheaper than sites like Yelp.  And Favorite Places is on the cutting edge of technology – Google has already mailed out decals with a scannable barcode on it to the first group of businesses.  Mobile device users can immediately access deals and information about that business when they scan the barcode, and will even be able to post a review directly on site.

What makes the Favorite Places concept more democratic than other restaurant directory sites is that it pulls from multiple sources.  You can access reviews from Zagat, photos from UrbanSpoon, and search results from Google.  This dilutes the biases that tend to plague other restaurant review sites, because those sites pull from only one source – their own.

So how do you get your site listed on Google’s Favorite Places?
It won’t happen overnight.  Google identifies popular local businesses by analyzing who’s searching for what on their site.  The most popular searches in geographic areas get designated as Favorite Places.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.  You can help the process along by adding information about your restaurant in the Google Local Business Center.  After you “unlock” your business listing by providing key information, your restaurant’s ready for consideration for Favorite Places.

So how is this going to change restaurant marketing?  By democratizing the process that sites like Yelp and UrbanSpoon have started.  Taking away payments and diversifying information sources means the most popular restaurants in a given area will be featured, and they will be able to take advantage of that through the decal system.

Favorite Places also gives restaurant owners a free place to create an online presence that can have a real effect on business.  And being able to engage customers through the decal barcode will definitely change the way restaurants target their customers.

Google plans to send out more waves of decals to Favorite Places in 2010.  If you’re one of the lucky restaurants that gets a decal, consider yourself lucky, and immediately start thinking about how to take advantage of it.  If not, start thinking about how to get that decal in the mail.  The future of restaurant marketing is upon us.

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Restaurants Use Nutrition Info To Add Value For Customers

Restaurants Nutrition LabelingIn a world of discounts, something besides price has to get your customers in the door.  It’s the new reality facing the food service industry these days, and many restaurants have already started devising ways to go the extra mile for customers.

Soon enough restaurants will be required to post nutrition information about each item they serve.  Study after study has shown that consumers prefer to have nutritional information available about the dishes they order – whether that information is good news for their diet or not.

Some restaurants have taken the trend towards healthier menu items and nutrition labeling and used it as a way to add value for their customers.  Moon Under Water, a restaurant in St. Petersburg, FL developed a computer program that allows you to punch in your meal and get back a full report of nutritional data about your choices.

The program doesn’t mean the restaurant’s high-calorie items don’t sell anymore, or that customers have been turned off by the numbers on their favorite dishes.  Instead, putting the program together helped Moon Under Water’s owner find some particularly unhealthy ingredients, like high sodium stocks, and replace them with healthier substitutes.  Many customers were surprised by the relatively low calorie counts of the dishes they ordered.

Mod Market, an eatery located in Boulder, CO, adds nutritional information to the items customers ordered on their receipt.  The restaurant is focused on fresh, healthy offerings, and adding calorie counts to the receipt gives them an opportunity to remind customers what they’re getting (or not getting, in the case of calories) out of a Mod Market meal.

These two restaurants gain two things from making nutritional information an after-meal interactive experience for customers.  First, it’s a way to showcase the menu and reinforce your brand in the mind of the customer.  Second, it gives restaurants a fresh look on their menus.  What items are customers ordering despite the high calorie count (“indulgence” items)?  Which items are customers choosing because they work into their diets well?  This gives you a third factor besides price and taste to rate your menu.

Naturally, providing nutrition information in the way Moon Under Water and Mod Market are doing doesn’t make sense for every segment of the food service industry.  But if you serve a customer who sees a real benefit in knowing the nutritional information associated with the dishes they ordered, providing a creative, interactive way for them to access this information is a great way to  add value to every visit.

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Kogi Is Kool – How One Taco Truck Is Taking LA By Storm

Los Angeles has long been famous for roaming taco trucks that service the myriad neighborhoods of this sprawling metropolis, serving classic Latino fare.L.A. is also known for its distinct Asian cuisine, which is often blended with more traditional American foods to create wonderful hybrids.

Well, now Korean BBQ, a hot food trend in America as it is, has met and melded with the classic Mexican taco to create a tantalizing blend of tangy, slightly spicy meats and sesame vegetables…in a taco. The menu was developed by local professional chef Roy Choi, a heavy hitter in the culinary world in his own right, and the result has been almost unanimously delicious. But the unique menu and tasty menu doesn’t even begin to explain why people are waiting in line for 2 hours just to eat a couple Korean tacos.

A combination of 21st century technology and a classic cultural icon have combined to make Kogi Korean BBQ the social phenomenon it is today.

The icon is the traveling truck that serves Kogi’s now famous tacos.

The Kogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck making the rounds in LA

The Kogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck making the rounds in LA

Taco trucks have always held a special place in the hearts of L.A.’s denizens, and when the Kogi truck started showing up in hip neighborhoods, sometimes drawing crowds large enough to force a disperse order from local police, street cred was definitely cemented. The most fascinating aspect of the rise of Kogi is how modern technology has fanned the flames to make Kogi a phenomenon across L.A.

Co-founders Mark and Caroline Manguera use Twitter to alert Kogi fans on where and when the Kogi truck will be rolling through their neighborhood. Caroline maintains a blog devoted to all things Kogi, and is quick to comment whenever other food related blogs post about the Korean BBQ taco truck. And the company has a website and presence on other social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. The full utilization of these cutting edge networking tools has resulted in a young, hip crowd of Kogi faithful that use the internet and their cell phones to locate the Kogi truck and descend upon it with their friends wherever it stops.

The fact that Korean BBQ tacos are genuinely good undoubtedly forms the core of Kogi’s success. But it is equally certain that a tech savvy approach to the familiar taco truck, a long-time customer favorite, has rocketed Kogi into the stratosphere of cutting edge food service concepts.

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Technology Trends: Restaurant Teleconferencing

Restaurant TechnologyThe technology needed to allow a person to sit in one room and communicate visually and verbally with a person in another room somewhere else far away has been around for some time now.  It’s been imagined in the movies for decades, going back to Star Trek all the way up to Austin Powers.  But until recently teleconferencing was largely unavailable to the public.

Marriott Hotels have begun to change that with state-of-the-art teleconferencing suites in select locations across the country.  The investment started to make a lot of sense when the recession hit last year and businesses started looking for ways to slash travel budgets.

This isn’t choppy video on a laptop screen backed by lagging audio either.  Three large screens display the people on the other side in life size, and the connection speed is fast enough to eliminate any lag between audio and visual.  Already businesses looking to save on airfare have booked these suites despite the steep price ($500 an hour).
What’s in it for restaurants?  Well, if a hotel can generate stays with teleconferencing, then a restaurant can certainly sell some meals to the same crowd.  Morton’s Steak House is on the cutting edge of this trend, with teleconferencing capabilities in dozens of its locations across the U.S.

Of course, like most new technology, the cost to implement teleconferencing is beyond the budget of most restaurants.  But over time, those costs will come down, and more and more restaurateurs will be able to take advantage of teleconferencing as another service they can offer customers.
Even so, the market for expensive, quality teleconferencing between high powered business people isn’t exactly a large, untapped resource for most restaurants.  On the other hand, people are connecting online now more than ever, and giving them a venue to do so while providing a great meal may be a trend to watch in the future.

Services like Skype already provide an affordable way for people to communicate via video on the internet.  The production values aren’t the best, but that hasn’t stopped millions of people from using the service.

The point is that as communicating with other people remotely becomes even more ingrained in our culture than it already is, communal meeting points like restaurants will become a more and more popular venue for remote communications.  We’re not quite there yet, but the restaurateur who makes their restaurant technology friendly is going to succeed in the new era of communication.

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Motorola Makes Tableside Ordering Easy

Handheld Ordering: The Wave of the FutureMotorola recently released a case study highlighting the latest in restaurant POS system technology: handheld, wireless ordering systems for servers.  The handheld device is about twice as big as a BlackBerry, and connects directly into the restaurant’s POS software via a wireless connection.

The case study focuses on Sam’s Chowder House in the San Francisco bay area, a high volume seafood restaurant that seats about 280 people.  According to the study, the restaurant achieved a return on investment on the hand-held devices in one month.  That’s because check averages went up and table turnover times and labor costs went down.  Servers no longer have to write down orders and then re-enter them into the POS system.  Instead, they enter orders directly into the handheld device, which then sends the order along automatically.  This allows servers to focus on customer service and sales, which explains the check averages and improved table turnover times.

Labor savings were realized by Sam’s because more efficient servers means less front of house staff could serve the same amount of people in the restaurant.  This also makes the servers happy because they get more tables and therefore more tips.  Staff turnover rates have plummeted since the introduction of the handheld ordering devices as a result.  Finally, these devices can also process credit cards, allowing servers to run customer checks while standing tableside, further improving turnover times and customer service.

The handheld ordering device is obviously the future in restaurant technology, but for now, I suspect the cost of the system is still prohibitive for most restaurateurs.  Yes, Sam’s realized an ROI in one month, but Sam’s also does A LOT of business ($6 million in annual sales).  If you’re a larger operator, I really don’t see why you shouldn’t buy handheld ordering devices today.  The benefits I list above are admittedly direct from Motorola, who has an interest in hyping the good points, but they also make good logical business sense.  Imagine if your servers never had to leave their tables.  Of course sales and table turnover times are going to improve.

If you’re a smaller operator, wait for the day when these devices are much more affordable.  It’s just like any new technology (HD TV, cell phones, iPods): they’re always extremely expensive at first and then eventually become affordable to the masses.

I’m personally looking forward to the day when all restaurants have these handheld ordering systems.  Every restaurant should be able to focus on the customer, and on making the best sale possible, and handheld ordering technology is the way to get there.

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How Tech Companies Are Competing To Help You Market Your Restaurant Locally

Marketing your restaurant online is a concept that’s relatively new to the food service industry as a whole, and is still a foreign concept to many restaurateurs.  This is not helped by the speed with which marketing channels online are moving.  By the time you set up a Facebook page, everyone’s raving about Twitter, and by the time you finally start tweeting, everyone’s already moved on to Foursquare.

To make things worse, Google’s new feature, Google Places, is a new directory that allows local businesses to submit their business for listing in local searches.  In exchange for a $25 monthly fee, Google Places will post your restaurant’s listing for certain “tags” in search results, for example, “Italian restaurant” in a search in your area would bring up any restaurants that pay the fee.

Keeping up with all the different ways you can market your restaurant can feel time consuming and frustrating – but in reality this is a great time to be marketing your restaurant online.

That’s because these different tech companies are competing for your business, and using their services to market your restaurant is very inexpensive and often free.  The learning curve might be a little steep at first, but if you take the time to get the hang of how to use all of the different avenues available, it can have a real impact on revenue.

This is especially true among customers 30 years old and younger.  This demographic should be especially important to restaurant owners, because converting a young person into a loyal customer means steady income for years down the road.  Eventually, almost all your restaurant marketing will happen online as the younger generation takes over the majority of the market and baby boomers retire.  That means restaurants who get ahead of the curve today stand to reap rewards in both the short and long term.

Google Places is a clear move by the search giant to compete with upstarts like Foursquare when it comes to helping local businesses find local customers.  While these tech giants duke it out in Silicone Valley, you can be enjoying the tools they develop to help you meet your customer.  All it takes is a little research and a lot of time.

If you’re interested in learning more about local marketing, the Local Marketing Source blog is a good place to start.

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Could The iPad Change Food Service?

iPad could change food serviceThe unveiling of the iPad earlier this month left a lot of people wondering what all the hype was all about.  For many, the mini-notebook looks and feels like an oversized iPhone without the ringtones.  But as the iPad hits the market and continues to sell well, more and more people have started to consider how to use the iPad in new ways.

Some tech savvy restaurateurs were among the first to see the potential effect of the iPad on their business.  Already some restaurants have explored the possibilities of replacing menus with iPads, turning a laundry list of entrees into an interactive experience for guests.

These iPad menus could feature entire albums of pictures spotlighting each entrée from many angles, the ingredients before they go in, and even video of the dish being prepared.  And after a guest has explored all of this digital eye candy to their heart’s content, they could even order directly from their iPad menu with a simple touch of the screen.

For now the cost of the iPad makes it a pretty expensive menu, but the time is not very far off where a handheld device similar to today’s iPad could be affordable enough to make it a very compelling option for restaurants.  Like most technology, high-end establishments will probably be the first adopters, followed by the rest of the industry as price points fall.

An interactive digital menu has many intriguing effects on the operation of a restaurant, effectively digitizing the marketing of entrees and automating the ordering process.  This could free servers to focus on achieving top-notch customer service for every guest – and make their experience in your restaurant truly unique.

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