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R&IEditorial Archives2004 — May 1 — Special Report

Part One: Dining in the Digital Age
In the highly personal foodservice industry, technology proves that its efficiency is just as welcome in dining rooms as it is in kitchens.

Terminals at the Charlie Palmer Group restaurants help customers pair wine and food.

The technology revolution is unfolding in other arenas besides professional kitchens. Plenty of action takes place in the front of the house, too, an area once thought to be off limits for high-tech touches.

Operators now use online services, software and technology to streamline reservations, keep track of workers and, perhaps most importantly, better serve customers.

A tap on a computer screen gives Pizza Ranch employees all kinds of information about the person phoning in an order.

“If it’s an existing customer, we can pull up the name, address and delivery instructions,” says Roy McDonald, information and technology director of the Hull, Iowa-based chain. “If they can’t remember what pizza they had last time but want the same order, we get the information and ring it up in two punches of a button.”

Designed for Pizza Ranch by a Lynden, Wash.-based company that caters exclusively to multi-unit pizza chains, the system also functions as a time clock that tracks employee hours, records delivery runs and provides valuable marketing information, says McDonald.

“When a store owner wants to do a mailing that targets only customers who haven’t been in for 90 days, our agency pulls up the list and starts producing the mailers,” he explains.

Fine-dining restaurants also make effective use of new technologies.

An electronic wine list makes that beverage flow more readily at three restaurants that are part of New York City-based multiconcept operator The Charlie Palmer Group. Management estimates that the list has increased wine sales by 36% at its Charlie Palmer Steak restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas, and at Aureole in New York City.

“Imagine a jumbo [personal digital assistant] with a color screen,” says Keith Goldston, director of wine for the D.C. Charlie Palmer, where the wireless system has been in operation since the restaurant opened in May 2003.

The electronic list contains the wine selection—4,000 bottles in Las Vegas, 800 in Washington and 600 in New York City—along with tasting notes, food-and-wine pairings, features on selected wineries and more. Information can be updated with a few keystrokes, and customers who want to send comments to the chef or sommelier are invited to write them freehand on the screen, using a stylus.

“Some people say, ‘I’m in front of a computer all day, give me a paper list,’ ” Goldston says. “But the reaction has been far more positive than negative. It’s such a new concept that a lot of people who would not normally look at a wine list now want to see it.”

Customers returning to Palmer’s Aureole should not be surprised if the server remembers their favorite dish. Management tracks that information—and more—with a database reservation system that currently includes 2,000 names. Gathered over the four years the system has been in use, it includes people who made reservations by telephone or online.

No-shows receive follow-up e-mails, and the system records their failure to appear. “It doesn’t blacklist them,” says Richard LoPuzzo, Aureole general manager. “But we know on the fourth [no-show] reservation not to hold the table for them.”

Technology doesn’t stop at the reservation desk. Binelli in New York City saves time and improves security with a wireless handheld credit-card processor.

“It works perfectly,” says Co-owner Jose Luis Santos. “Customers pass the card through the machine themselves and fill in the dollar amount. The card is never out of their sight.”

Percent of operators who haven’t considered investing in “smart kitchen” technology who say a lack of knowledge about new technologies is a reason for their reluctance. Reed Research Group/FE&S 2004 Industry Forecast Study

Wireless handheld terminals work very well at Nava in Atlanta, a fine-dining restaurant that is part of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. All servers in the 190-seat operation place cocktail and food orders via the terminals.

“When [the manufacturers] came to me with this, I thought it was a gimmick,” says Nava General Manager John McDaniels. “I thought, ‘What’s the benefit other than it replaces paper and pencil with a little computer thing that could be dropped and broken?”

Experience turned him into a fan.

“The terminals separate orders out to whatever areas they need to go, whether it’s the garde manger, the hot appetizers or the grill,” he says. “And it’s been a dream for cocktail servers. They can stand at the table, send the order to the bar, walk over and the drink is ready.

“They make the restaurant more efficient and more profitable,” McDaniels says. “They get the food to the customer at a more rapid pace.”

Special Report Part 2 of 2: Techno-Kitchens > >

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