Fast food gets an upgrade

7 Sep 2006

The interior of Eddie Rockets diners may evoke Fifties America but there’s nothing retro about its IT systems. Wireless handheld devices used by the waiting staff get orders to the cooks quicker and more accurately and speed up the payment process.

The Fonz himself would surely give it his trademark thumbs up.

Jonathan Parkhill, operations manager with Eddie Rockets, peppers his conversation with American diner speak but he’s straight-talking about the technology that’s transforming the business.

“It makes the service more efficient and the customers are happier as they can get in and out quicker,” he says. “When you add that up at the end of the week, you would see increased orders and revenue.”

That’s the bottom line for the restaurant chain which has 25 outlets and a further six set to open before March next year.

The decision to invest in wireless waitering technology was taken to improve accuracy of ordering, reduction of error, elimination of handwritten paper dockets and also — most importantly — to speed up the payment process.

“We would have five or six different waitrons [waiters/ waitresses] working and the chef doesn’t have to identify whose writing it is if there’s a problem,” Parkhill points out.

Previously a chef could potentially receive up to eight dockets per order, all hand written. This has now been eliminated completely as all orders are sent directly from a waitron’s handheld computer to the kitchen printer (see side panel).

This reduces the likelihood of an incorrect order going to a table and makes the best use of the chefs’ time in the kitchen.

When it comes to paying, the system already ‘knows’ the customer’s order and it’s a simple matter of having the waitron enter the table number to call up on the details at the cash register.

Parkhill says that it further speeds up the process for all concerned. “Customers see what they’re going to be paying for so they can have their cash ready,” he observes.

Having started with one store, Eddie Rockets is now in the process of rolling out the technology more widely within its franchise network; 17 will be up and running by the end of the year.

Franchisees are not obliged to install the system but many have seen the benefits, Parkhill reports. A new restaurant due to be opened in Cork in a few weeks is currently trialling the system.

The initial outlay is relatively significant — around €24,000 for six handhelds, wireless antennas, two printers, the base PC and the software — but according to Parkhill it has a payback in terms of man-hours saved.

Ultimately, it’s a simple equation: faster throughput of customers means more paying punters which means higher revenue.

In addition to the wireless order-taking system, the point-of-sale software is a crucial part of the equation.

Under the terms of the franchise contract, head office must be able to dial in remotely to any given store to check sales data.

Eddie Rockets is in the process of upgrading its virtual private network so that individual stores can upload sales data to head office in real time.

By the same token, head office can easily send price changes or new menu items to all of the restaurants in the chain quickly and easily.

“In the old days it was post, faxes and couriers but now it’s instantaneous,” Parkhill reports.

Eddie Rockets isn’t the only operation to realise the cost-saving potential of IT systems. Captiva Software, which supplies IT systems to the retail trade, has supplied similar technology to a range of different food outlets around the country, including Lemon Creperies in Dublin, the Mizzoni takeaway pizza chain and Tony Roma’s.

The company’s order book is full and it is working on several sites per week.

Eddie Carty, a director with Captiva Software, explains the rationale behind the move to more advanced point-of-sale technology. “It’s all pushing towards the speed of getting the food out to customers,” he relates.

He adds that PC-based point-of-sale systems are more versatile than their traditional counterparts. “They’re a lot more programmable than cash registers,” he points out.

Having written the original software, it’s a matter of some customisation work to make it suitable for the needs of a particular restaurant, says Carty.

For example, the intelligent prompt feature can be changed according to the food available: if a customer orders a steak, the handheld would ask staff to check how the meat is to be cooked.

It could also remind them to ask whether the customer wants salad or fries with their order.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel every time,” he says, acknowledging the fact that every outlet’s menu is different. “You have different charges or meal deals such as a 14-inch pizza with a Coke.”

Case study: Eddie Rockets

Illegible handwriting need not rule you out of a job in Eddie Rockets any longer.

The waiting staff are given Casio IT10 handsets, loaded with software written by Dublin-based Captiva Software, and the unit is attached to their belt clips as they move from table to table.

The handheld device links with a kitchen printer over a wireless network, so that orders can be sent to the chef without having to return to the kitchen with a fistful of order dockets.

A separate drinks printer also comes as part of the system. During busy times, a restaurant can employ a ‘soda jerk’ — American diner slang for a dedicated drinks machine operator — to fill beverage and dessert orders in place of wait staff whose job it would normally be.

Befitting a device that has to be used continuously, the Casio is durable, with a casing to protect it from water splashes and dust; it also has a long battery life that can get up to 24 hours from a single charge.

The high-resolution screen is easy to read for the waiting staff and is also compact and flat, allowing easy handling.

Essentially, the screen is a duplicate of the menu that the customer sees, with some ‘intelligent prompts’ built into the software to check items such as whether the cheeseburger comes with Swiss, blue or Cheddar.

Every time a member of the wait staff takes an order it prints out immediately in front of the chef. It reduces mistakes in orders through chefs not being able to read handwriting and improves service because the built-in prompts save staff from having to go back to customers to check if they got an order right.

WHERE ON THE WEB: Useful retail technology resources for business
Directory listings and company profiles of technology providers to the retail trade
Touchscreen and point of sale specialist outlines reference sites and product range
Dublin-based provider of IT systems for the retail and distribution sector

By Gordon Smith