10 technologies that have made a real difference for restaurants Evan Sung

Five guest-facing technologies

Read more: 10 technologies that have made a real difference for restaurants

Read more: Five behind-the-scenes technologies

Operators identify innovations that are changing the game.

1. iPads 

Kirk Kelewae, general manager, Made Nice, New York

Made Nice, the fast-casual concept by Make It Nice group founders Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, opened last year with an order-at-the-counter format that eliminates the counter.

Instead of ordering at the counter, Made Nice servers take orders with hand-held iPads, said Kirk Kelewae, general manager.

“There’s no big POS desk and no screen that creates a divide between the guest and server,” he said.

Rather than use self-ordering technology, it was important to the group for a human being to take orders.

“We come from fine dining, and we wanted to create a more human interaction that’s not a transaction,” Kelewae said. “But we also like the idea of keeping the screen kind of to ourselves.”

Made Nice is cashless, and cards can be swiped with an iPad attachment. The restaurant uses the iOS-based POS system Salido.

Order-takers stand at the entrance next to a piece of furniture that serves as a grab-and-go display with add-on options the restaurant calls “Nice Bites.” The menu is posted on digital boards above the server’s head. The open kitchen is behind the server.

It may seem minor, but the technology that allowed the restaurant to remove those barriers has helped build loyalty, Kelewae said. 

“We see people do things like give hugs,” he said. “The other day, I saw a counter server give someone’s order back before he even spoke, and he gave her a fist bump. It’s a very human interaction, but it’s facilitated [by technology].”

2. Delivery 

R.J. Melman, president, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago

For Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., or LEYE, delivery has been a game changer, and the multiconcept operator of more than 120 restaurants is all in.

LEYE restaurants use several third-party delivery players, including UberEats and Grubhub, said R.J. Melman, the group’s president.

“Delivery created a really great extension of our kitchens [in a space] that was once owned by Chinese restaurants and pizzerias for a long time,” Melman said. “It unlocked a lot of opportunity, especially in urban areas.”

LEYE has reworked restaurant kitchens to allow for the expansion of delivery. When developing menu items, a key factor is how well it travels.

“We spend an inordinate amount of time find the right packaging,” Melman said. “That’s a whole new area of procurement for us.”

The company has launched two delivery-only concepts out of existing restaurant kitchens, ASAP Poke and Seaside. The group has also brought a delivery-only outlet of Wow Bao to Los Angeles, where there are no brick-and-mortar locations of the brand.

The delivery-only concepts “do a nice business,” Melman said, but the brick-and-mortar restaurants do more in delivery sales, probably because customers are more aware of the brands.

Restaurants still struggle with juggling multiple tablets for delivery orders that must be manually put into the POS system. Attempts to aggregate multiple delivery players have not worked very well, he said.

“It’s like that movie ‘Minority Report,’ but for us it’s fairly manageable,” Melman said. “I imagine there will be consolidation in the industry at some point.”

Overall, delivery still accounts for less than 10 percent of sales on average.

“But any growth outside our four walls is good,” Melman said. “I think the convenience of ordering food through an app, rather than having to call someone, is not going away.” 

Buffalo Boss

3. Kiosks 

Jamar White, founder and CEO, Buffalo Boss, New York City

Jamar White and partner Ronald Lee launched fast-casual Buffalo Boss in 2010, offering organic chicken wings from vegetarian-fed birds raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. With four locations in New York and New Jersey, the chain had $2.4 million in sales last year.

About six months ago, White put self-serve kiosks in two locations, a move that has dramatically improved speed of service and order accuracy by 150 percent, he said.

Guests have the option of ordering from a person or from a standalone Nextep kiosk, which allows them to customize their order.

White said the design is intuitive and simple. It’s also cashless, although guests who want to pay with cash can order at the kiosk and pay at the cash register.

Orders now take about 30 seconds, as opposed to one to two minutes at the register. Guests can watch the progress of their order on digital screens that alert them when it’s ready.

The restaurants have seen a roughly 8-percent increase in upsells through the kiosk. That’s because the kiosk never forgets to offer add-ons, White said.

“Sometimes cashiers get upsell fatigue and they stop mentioning it, but the kiosk is guaranteed to ask every time,” he said.

The increased ordering speed has also boosted sales at kiosk units by about 10-11 percent. White plans to add kiosks to the other two locations, and all new units will have kiosks.

Later this year, Buffalo Boss plans to launch a franchising program, and the kiosks will be an attractive feature for potential franchisees, he said. 

“When we saw some of the big boys like McDonald’s and other places adding kiosks, I felt like they were doing it wrong. Their kiosks are by the door, rather than the counter,” White said. “But all of our kiosks are right at the counter, so you can see the food being made, and people are available there for assistance.”

4. Aquaponics 

Adam Navidi; executive chef and owner, Oceans & Earth Restaurant, Yorba Linda, Calif.; founder, Future Foods Farm, Brea, Calif.

Adam Navidi grows organic produce and tilapia used at his restaurant and catering operation in Yorba Linda, Calif., on his 25-acre farm, one of the largest aquaponics facilities in California.

The fish are raised in a pond that supplies nutrient-rich water for the lettuces, microgreens and herbs grown using a soil-free system in greenhouses year-round at Future Foods Farm.

It only takes one gallon of water to produce one head of lettuce — far less than the 10-15 gallons per head required for conventional farming, Navidi said. After the water is used to enrich the plants, it’s cleaned and recycled back to the pond to begin the cycle again.

“So, as a farmer, aquaponics keeps you honest,” he said. “If I sprayed the plants, it would get into the water and down to the fish, and fish are more sensitive to pesticides than plants are.”

With water in increasingly short supply, it’s technology that Navidi said more restaurant operators will look to adopt to be able to provide the organic greens, tomatoes and vegetables consumers demand.

Navidi was an early adopter of aquaponics. He started the farm in 2009, after dabbling with various growing systems over several years. He was inspired to grow his own after touring a garden at the Culinary Institute of America with renowned French chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who said at the time, “Someday, great chefs will be known by the relationships they build with farmers.”

At the time, the molecular gastronomy movement was just beginning. But while other chefs were manipulating tomatoes into caviar spheres, Navidi just wanted to grow really great tomatoes.

He built his aquaponics system largely himself, using reclaimed items. Now the farm is automated to the point where he can monitor operations by laptop or smartphone. A part-time employee works the farm along with volunteers, students and interns.

With California routinely either in or near drought conditions, Navidi said aquaponics is the way of the future.

“It’s about sustainability and being able to produce your own protein,” he said. “We just wanted to grow the best possible produce.” 

Prep Kitchen

5. Cashless 

David Krause, partner, IAM Hospitality, Las Vegas

IAM Hospitality acquired three-unit Prep Kitchen in San Diego earlier this year, with plans to grow the brand in Southern California. A fourth location of Prep Kitchen is scheduled to open in San Marcos, Calif., in late April, and it will be the first to go cashless.

The other locations within the group will soon follow, although there will be a transition period for the first three months to help educate guests, said David Krause, a partner in IAM Hospitality.

Fewer than 10 percent of guests pay with cash, he said, and holding cash to tip out servers opens the restaurants up to liability. He also fears it isn’t safe for workers to leave after their shifts with a lot of cash in their pockets.

IAM Hospitality is working with OpenTable, Yelp and other vendor partners to get the word out to guests. During the transition, the restaurants will offer gift cards to those who only have cash, and perhaps comp a drink or dessert to make up for the inconvenience.

Tipped workers, meanwhile, will receive gratuities on a debit card after each shift, rather than cash. The tips are pre-loaded digitally in real time, so staff members can use the debit card to get cash immediately at an ATM. They can also opt to receive their wages on the same card at the end of each pay cycle or receive pay as a more-traditional bank deposit.

“Cashless is the way people are going, and we want to get ahead of the curve and be at the forefront of it,” Krause said.

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