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Robert Irvine warns FSTEC, Automate or die

Chef and TV star Robert Irvine had a blunt message for restaurateurs attending the FSTEC conference: Embrace technology or risk flat-lining like one of the wrecks he tries to revive on his hit show, “Restaurant: Impossible.” Robert Irvine

“If you’re not thinking of technology as a business necessity, you won’t be around,” warned Irvine, who opened the second day of the conference with a lively keynote address to a packed room.

Irvine walked the audience through the technology he has embraced at his two South Carolina restaurants, taking the perspectives of both guest and business person. For instance, he noted how customers typically discover restaurants today via the internet, then make a reservation through services like Open Table.

Bookings formerly were handled by a paid staff member, who had to sort manually through the reservations book to learn when a table was available. Mistakes abounded, and no-shows were routine. Now, said Irvine, the work is outsourced for a palatable fee; mistakes are non-existent; and no-shows are never-happens because reminders of a reservation are delivered several times, in multiple ways, to the patron.

Irvine described the automation he’s eying for his restaurants, Robert Irvine’s Eat and Robert Irvine’s Nosh, to enhance the guest experience and operate more efficiently. For instance, he’s about to test iPad-based menus that can do far more than present options to the customer. He mentioned the possibility of having guests place orders themselves.

Regardless of whether a server or patron placed the order, the “tickets” would go directly to the bar or kitchen, shaving minutes off the process, enhancing accuracy and eliminating paper.

Irvine mentioned in particular how technology could improve the wine-selection process for both parties. With a printed wine list, the average time for choosing a wine and having it delivered to the table is 17 minutes, Irvine said. With the use of a tablet that suggests a suitable wine, “we have proof” the process is cut to three minutes, he said.

“If you’re not on the path to a paperless environment, you soon will be,” Irvine barked. “Because if you’re not, you’re history. Mobile payments at the table will be more and more common.”

Irvine noted the two main reasons why restaurateurs are loath to embrace technology.  First, “technology requires us to change old habits,” and, second, there’s “the basic human emotion, fear.

“’What if I choose the wrong technology?” he continued. “What if the technology I chose today is obsolete tomorrow?”

He urged members of the audience to overcome their fear by asking themselves a few simple questions, starting with, “Where will I get the biggest bang for my buck?” If a relatively small investment has the potential for a big payback, why not take the risk?

He also advised attendees to consider who should take responsibility for developing a technology plan. “If the answer isn’t you, we’re in trouble,” he said.

Irvine ended his presentation with a wish list of technology he hopes will become common within restaurants:

  • At-the-table and mobile payment systems;
  • Technology that texts or calls patrons to alert them their wait for a table is over;
  • Real-time payment for charged meals, so the operator gets the cash more quickly;
  • “Real advances in payroll, especially with servers.” He explained that he’d like to find a way to transfer charged tips to cash-loaded cards that could be distributed to the wait staff at the end of its shift.

“We’re only limited by our imaginations,” Irvine said in conclusion.

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