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NRA Show: The Tech Evolution Speeds Up

NRA Show: The Tech
Evolution Speeds Up

Well, those days are over, according to speaker after speaker who participated in technology workshops at this year’s NRA Show. Forget the bells and whistles, they advised. Operators now have a more pragmatic attitude about what they want out of the technologies they purchase and deploy in their restaurants.

The specifics were spelled out by speaker David Miller, founder of J-Tech Communications. "We need to provide restaurant operators with the right tools to give the right information to the right person at the right time so he or she can make the right decision for the customer and for the restaurant–instantly."

That’s a pretty tall order, one that some of the hardware and software exhibited at last year’s show simply didn’t meet. Where did those companies go wrong? "Do the folks designing technology understand what really goes on in restaurants?" Miller asked.

In case they don’t, Miller pointed out that it’s typical for a restaurant to take in 50 percent of its weekly revenue on just two nights, and 50 percent of that figure in just two hours of operation. The inference: A lot of systems that perform like clockwork when demonstrated at a trade show booth by a provider’s IT experts turns out to be more problematic when your restaurant’s going full throttle on a busy Saturday night.

So what will really help operators handle the load? Many casual dining chains indicated they are exploring new wireless applications and portable devices to share data and communication among all functions of the restaurant. So are QSRs, where the drive to improve transaction time–current national average, three minutes and three seconds–will speed up.

On the purchasing front, several speakers expressed a cautious attitude about online purchasing. "There has been rapid evolution on the Internet-side of the e-commerce and e-procurement business," said Richard Dobransky, sr. v.p. of Levy Restaurants’ Sports and Entertainment Group. "Lots of people are not here this year, and you don’t see a lot of people embracing e-purchasing."

This sentiment may explain the absence of foodservice portals like, and, whose offerings were the talk of last year’s show.

The idea behind portals was that they would be an everything-for-everybody destination for foodservice operators. A restaurant manager would supposedly log on, purchase some groceries, chew the online fat with other managers in a chat rom, then click on a link to catch up on the foodservice news of the day.

These services earned high marks from some users, but failed to reach a critical mass of profitability for the service providers. Some managers liked them. But many owners were less than thrilled that their managers were holed up in their offices with their computers instead of being out on the floor with customers or riding herd over employees in the kitchen.

However, some panelists noted that online purchasing efforts that focus on a specific category– for wine, spirits and beer, for E & S gear–are gaining traction in the industry. A BigTray spokesperson noted that their site had already recorded purchases by more than 7,500 operators.

What a difference a year makes. It was only 12 months ago that foodservice-specific Internet portals and a host of gee-whiz systems proven in other industries and newly adapted to the restaurant business were the tech items creating major buzz at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago.

Goodies In The Pipeline
A lot of companies may have sunk like a stone on Wall Street, but the product innovations debuted by some of the 191 technology vendors who exhibited at last month’s NRA Show demonstrate that technology will play an ever-increasing role in operators’ business strategies. Among the debuts:

Marconi Commerce Systems

unveiled a wireless payment system that uses Radio Frequency Identification technology to speed payment processing at QSRs. Customers just wave their RFID tag in front of a reader, which recognizes the customer’s account and charges it automatically.

Radiant Systems, Inc.

introduced its Lighthouse POS system, tailored specifically for tableservice operations.

Ozzitec Inc.

rolled out its Waiter Pad System, which incorporates electronic hand-held ordering devices with the company’s WaiterPOS terminals. Waitstaffers take orders on an electronic pad, then relay them via wireless transmission to a POS terminal in the prep area.

and are two new web sites designed to help operators solve their staff-procurement problems. So far, its applicant-to-employee ratio is 8-to-1.

Long Range Systems

Kitchens Can Get Smarter

McDonald’s Tests Cash-less Schemes

presented "The Informant," an electronic customer survey device that enables customers to easily fill out an electronic survey at the end of the meal. A built-in calculator figures out tips and helps split checks.

Point-And-Click Protein
Provision X recently announced the opening of its beef, pork and poultry marketplace,, with initial trading beginning between five suppliers (Excel Corp., Farmland Foods/Farmland National Beef, Gold Kist, IBP and Tyson Foods) and three buyers (Foodbrands America, Topco Associates and Good Source). The Provision X system was built with input from meat and poultry industry professionals so that it would mirror the way business is currently conducted, especially by permitting the continuation of one-on-one relationships between trading partners that is a crucial element of the protein marketplace
Want to know what’s going on in your kitchen when you’re not there? Operators can use a Net Access card from Computer Telephony Concepts ( to communicate data from foodservice equipment to a web page, to their e-mail, to a Telnet session or to a FTP download. The system adds Internet/Intranet capability to any food service device, and operators are able to remotely monitor multiple kitchen processes. So what’s the plan if something does go wrong and you’re not watching? Not to worry. You can rig the system to report an alarm to you instantly via e-mail.
After a nine-store pilot program proved successful, QSR giant McDonald’s Corp. said more than 400 of its Chicago-area restaurants would employ ExxonMobil’s Corp.’s Speedpass system. Instead of using cash or a credit card, Speedpass users wave a small wand-shaped radio transponder in front of a reader located at a unit’s drive-thru window or counter. The transaction amount shows up on the customer’s next credit card statement. Separately, the company is also testing FreedomPay, a stored-value system, at 29 Boise, Idaho stores. Customers use the Web to load cash onto a FreedomPay transponder prior to their purchase.