A GPS for locating tables

David Jones operates five Blazing Onion locations, but only one has achieved a coveted four-star average review on Yelp. The rest garner a respectable three and a half. He traces that half star difference to the technology he's testing out at the one restaurant, including a table location system from Long Range Systems that helps servers immediately get the food to the right place. “We have a faster ticket time for that restaurant,” says Jones.

When a customer orders, she is given a key card, a small card that fits into a device at the table. The key card talks to an RFID receiver that then wirelessly sends information to a computer. The customer's location shows up on a monitor for servers and managers to view. When the food is ready, it goes straight to the right place with no wandering around or shouting of names. Customers at Blazing Onion can also push a button to call a server over for assistance. That table will appear on the location monitor. “You can summon someone at any time and our response time is usually about 11 seconds,” says Jones.

There are two big players in the table location technology arena: Long Range Systems and HME Wireless. Long Range Systems uses a passive RFID system while HME uses an active one that lets all of the tags in a restaurant communicate with each other. “We have the ability to 3D model every step. When you hand it to the guest, it immediately starts talking to every other reference point in the restaurant. You can see where they go, if they go to the back, or if they go to the drink machine first,” says Russ Ford, vice president of sales and marketing for HME.

Managers and servers can also wear RFID tags that can be tracked to learn about server efficiency and how much time the manager is spending in the office versus out on the floor. “It gives you the ability to see traffic patterns in your restaurant, the flow of your guests, flow of your managers and your staff. The Holy Grail of the whole thing is to build more efficient restaurants in regards to layout and to bring your costs down,” says Ford. Costs for the system can vary based on features, but Ford says a restaurant of between 30 to 50 tables would spend between $100 and $150 per table.

LYFE Kitchen, a healthy fast casual restaurant in Palo Alto, California, uses Long Range Systems. “We did not want the customers to have to come up and come get the food or to be yelling out their name or a number,” says Larry Taylor, vice president of operations development for LYFE. It cost about $18,000 to install the system, but Taylor says price drops mean future LYFE locations will likely cost about $12,000.

Servers finding tables is just one small piece of the puzzle. Staff and managers can see how long an order has been open and which ones are running late. At LYFE, the monitor will turn yellow as an order approaches 10 minutes and then red if it goes past that. “The big wow came for us when we took the same monitor the servers see and put another monitor just like it back in the kitchen. We saw significant improvement in our percentage of time within standards and the overall times for the day,” says Taylor.

A table location system brings an upscale feel to fast casual restaurants. “The customers are going to begin to expect they can go to restaurants where they don't have to get back up again. The food will be brought out to them,” says Taylor. “Those who continue to yell names or yell numbers are going to struggle because their customer service is not as good.”

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