Plug And Play
For Restaurant Kitchens
Although you can bet that every chef in the business scoffs at the idea, the notion of an automated foodservice kitchen is edging closer to reality. An all-industry task force organized by the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers has settled upon and is now actively pushing a standard data sharing protocol that would enable kitchen equipment and related computer systems to interact and share data on-line. Its goal: To enable store managers, franchise holders or even chain headquarters personnel to monitor a unit’s kitchen activities as they happen.
The standard itself is nothing fancy. It’s based on the same TCP/IP protocol that is already being used worldwide to connect to and move data across ethernets and the Internet. Making it the industry-wide standard for foodservice equipment opens a world of possibilities for manufacturers and operators who are eager to make kitchen gear interoperable.
For their part, restaurant chains love the idea, particularly those in the QSR segment. In fact, they were a driving force behind this initiative. Since managers will be in direct communication with their unit’s networked equipment, they will in theory be able to gain a higher level of control over restaurant operations. Given the importance of consistency in chain operations—and the trouble chains have in maintaining it in a high-turnover labor environment—it’s no wonder this seems like a good idea to chains.
Granted, it falls short of true kitchen automation. You’d need robots to pull that off. But operators think that linking together all of a restaurant’s back-of-the-house gear should yield immediate gains in labor reduction, food safety and energy savings, while further addressing equipment calibration issues that can directly affect food quality.
Think it all sounds a little futuristic? At this May’s NRA Show in Chicago, Mike Harlamert, manger of cooking and control systems for Tricon/KFC and a NAFEM task force member, described in a standing-room-only session how a current KFC system "allows the front-of-the-house to drive the back-of-the-house in near real time." Part of the scheme is a "dashboard" of monitors which flash red if there’s not going to be enough fresh quality product available, and flash yellow as some finished product nears the end of its allotted holding time.
KFC’s system also turns down the temperature of a unit’s fryers during slow times. Additionally, Harlamert said, "This system helps you keep track of your gear. Is it under warranty or not? Is the quality of its performance degrading or not? Are you optimizing your use of energy?"
In short, it’s a godsend for a chain restaurant manager.
Manufacturers stand to benefit, too. Now that the issue of how data will be communicated from equipment to the operator’s information network is settled, E & S companies will be able to incorporate hardware and software components that capture the data operators need to run their restaurants more efficiently.
The holy grail of restaurant connectivity remains the creation of systems that share data between the front of the house, the back of the house and the restaurant’s back office PCs, all of it able to be monitored "live" at chain headquarters via the Internet. Enterprise software has already made it possible to view some of this activity by routing POS data from individual stores back to a chain’s regional or national office. Full implementation of the NAFEM protocol could provide additional information that paints a more comprehensive picture of store operations.
For more information, go to www.nafem.org/resources and click on the "data protocol" link.
The Missing Link
The right mix of food, service and atmosphere is one key to longevity in the restaurant business. So is the cultivation of a loyal base of repeat customers—preferably free-spending ones—who routinely beat a path to your door.
But when it comes to implementing a marketing program that identifies your best customers and encourages them to come back, independent restaurants and small chain operators are frequently out-gunned by national players. Whether it’s mining the data to figure out who the key customers are or producing and implementing marketing schemes that will bring them back, big chains have a built-in edge. These organizations have the staff and budget to do the grunt work, and they can spread these marketing expenditures across enough units to make their program cost-effective.
If you’re small, there are options. There are several customer relationship management (CRM) tools available, and they do an excellent job of helping operators keep tabs of customer spending patterns (just so long as those customers pay via credit card). Plus they figure out where these customers come from and who they are.
Taking it one step further is the CLICK program from Chicago-based Clever Ideas, Inc. (www.cleverideas.com), which also produces, mails and tracks direct marketing efforts for independents and small chains. By pairing high-tech data mining with low-tech direct mail marketing production, the company provides a turn-key customer loyalty solution for independents and small chains who do a lot of credit card business.
RestaurantTrade Adds Nieporent
Myriad Restaurant Group president Drew Nieporent has joined the Board of Advisors of RestaurantTrade, a provider of Web-based software designed specifically for independent restaurants. In addition, 13 Myriad restaurants (Nobu and Tribeca in NYC, others around the U.S.) now use RestaurantTrade’s Operations Reporting software. "To be a successful restaurateur, you need to be on top of your key operational and financial data on a daily basis, and to constantly monitor your business cycles," says Nieporent. "This software also gives us the ability to compare the critical data for each restaurant side by side–which is incredibly useful for someone who has restaurants across the country."
On-line Reservations With Aloha
Foodservice POS giant Aloha Technologies has struck an agreement with iSeatz.com to offer Internet-based reservation service to Aloha’s customers. Right now, the iSeatz reservation notification system interfaces with Aloha’s Back Office system and will soon be added to Aloha’s Web-based enterprise management system. Soon it will interact with Aloha’s POS software. "This is an opportunity to revolutionize reservation technology," says Aloha president Manny Negreiro. iSeatz.com has more than 600 member restaurants in the U.S and Canada.
Blimpie Goes Wireless
Wireless location-based directory and information services provider go2.com now lists more than 1900 franchised units of QSR submarine sandwich company Blimpie. That means that information about each of the chain’s restaurants can be distributed to users of all Web-enabled wireless devices including cell phones, pagers and PDAs. The service also provides potential customers with store addresses, turn-by-turn directions and one-touch calling. "Go2 provides a cost-effective, easy-to-use-avenue for our customers to find our restaurants when they’re ready to order," says Blimpie group president Joe Morgan.