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R&IEditorial Archives2004 — February 15 — Operations

Taking Names
Technology and a personal touch partner to improve reservations efficiency

echnology takes the migraine out of table reservations. Computerized systems mean no one has to decipher handwriting. Phone calls are tracked instantly for time, date, number of guests and proper spellings. Profiles of guests are stored and updated for fast reference.

Though such efficiency has its fans, it is not foolproof. Some operators say it falls short on the human touch. That’s one reason why reservations are taken the old-fashioned way at Morels, a 240-seat restaurant in Bingham Farms, Mich.

“Too much dependence on computers turns dining into an experience similar to check-in at the airport,’’ says Matthew Prentice, president of Unique Restaurant Corp. in Bingham Farms, the owner of Morels. “Everything is punched in. You don’t need eye contact.’’

At Pod in Philadelphia, managers double-check reservations complaints against an online database.

Though little computer technology was available 13 years ago when Morels opened, the bistro-style restaurant is better suited to paperwork than faster-paced operations. Employees, many of them veterans with five to nine years of service, know customers by names, faces and favorite foods. The leisurely pace of dining eliminates pressure to turn tables or watch the clock. But even Prentice admits that writing names requires more human effort, especially during peak times when tables turn three times nightly.

This July, Unique will launch its largest restaurant and enter the high-tech world when it opens an upscale steakhouse in downtown Detroit. With seating for 800, it will occupy the two top floors of the Renaissance Center, the global headquarters of General Motors.

Prentice will invest $103,000 in a computer system to manage tables, track dining-room traffic and network with point-of-service handhelds.

Unlike Unique’s other 12 restaurants, this one will cater to business clientele, some of whom will visit only once or twice a year. “I need technology that identifies guests and maintains profiles,’’ he says. A full-time staffer will oversee the system.

Middle ground
Paula Walker likes the efficiency computers bring to reservations but she still leaves room for paper and pens. Both are used at Rumi, a 150-seat restaurant and lounge in Miami Beach, Fla., where Walker is the marketing director. Staff take reservations by phone during the day and enter information into the office computer. Before dinner, the hostess prints a spreadsheet to be used to check names.

Morels' slow pace is better suited to noncomputerized reservations than are faster-paced operations.

The method reduces paper and mistakes. It also leaves room for a personal touch. “The last thing we want is someone’s face glued to a glowing screen while guests wait to be seated. That looks like a fast-food restaurant,’’ says Walker.

Managers at NoMI, in the Park Hyatt Chicago, praise the fine-dining operation’s 2-year-old online reservations system. It’s fast and convenient and gives the restaurant a presence on a national restaurant-reservation Web site. About 20% of out-of-town guests use it for weekend reservations, while locals phone, according to Emmanuel Nony, hotel resident manager. “Being connected on a Web site gives us visibility, it’s a marketing tool,’’ he says, adding that any staff member with basic computer skills can be trained within five minutes to use the system.

A downside is its proprietary nature. The system does not interact with any other Hyatt computer system. “Even the catering manager who books parties for NoMI can’t access it. She has to use the hotel’s system,’’ Nony explains.

While he praises the versatility of a system that tracks seating and food-order status between kitchen and dining room, he stresses the importance of balance between technology and hospitality. Guests want to hear voices and see faces, he says. Plus, pen and paper look better than any bulky terminal.

Reservation databases, if updated regularly, can be an operator’s best friend. At Pod, a 225-seat restaurant in Philadelphia, managers double-check complaints through an online reservations system. “When a customer claims he waited 20 minutes to be seated, we check for time of arrival, time of actual seating, waiter ID and exit time,’’ says General Manager Greg Dodge. “With 15 reservationists working the system throughout the week, you can’t rely on ‘who said what to whom when.’ The system clarifies communication with facts, not guesswork.”

Waitstaff at NoMI in the Park Hyatt Chicago receive financial incentives for updating guest profiles. The information is used daily to refresh employees’ memories on customer preferences and identities. Knowing who takes cheese-stuffed olives or has allergies enables staff to offer customized service. One manager recently surprised a guest from Japan by serving his favorite beer in a champagne flute, the way he takes it at home in Tokyo.


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