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Technology

A techie fast casual ups its tech game

With a new CEO at the helm, The Melt rolled out a new look to improve efficiencies and better the customer experience.
the melt food beverage

For a fast-casual concept that’s had technology as part of its DNA from the start, a refresh wasn’t about entirely new programs. Rather, it had to rethink how today’s customers use tech. When The Melt first launched in San Francisco in 2011, it was all about using cutting-edge technology to crank out grilled cheese sandwiches. It had an order-ahead app with geotracking technology, and it used proprietary sandwich cookers to ensure a consistent product. But as the chain—and the restaurant industry—grew, so too did the needs of the operation.

Among the biggest shifts, The Melt rethought kiosk ordering. While it always had kiosks tucked away, the restaurants’ new design brings them up front. “Preliminarily, the percentage of kiosk orders has increased almost tenfold,” says new CEO Ralph Bower, who took the helm this month after serving as head of the Pei Wei chain. “Now, in many of our restaurants, over 20% of the orders are at kiosks,” he says. The software remains the same, he says; kiosks are just more available. Diners now have three accessible ordering options: kiosk, person at the counter and smartphone app.

While the app remains pretty much the same, it still has features not in play for most of the fast-casual market. Geotracking serves more purposes than marketing for The Melt. For example, it’s using location-based knowledge of who is in the store to craft its playlist. When customers sign up for the app, they have the option to put in their favorite music. When guests come in (geotracked by their smartphone), the store will add music or artists to its que that fit the guest’s listed preference. That same geolocation technology is used to have app orders ready exactly when the customer comes in. The kitchen gets signaled to fire food when a customer who ordered via the app gets within 1,000 feet of the restaurant.

But cooks don’t have to fire the sandwiches quite as early now. The chain put in what Bower calls the “second generation” of its cookers. “[They] allow us to cook grilled cheese faster and more consistently,” he says—sandwiches can go from an order to the guests’ hands in three minutes. The proprietary cookers and grills automate the cooking process of its sandwiches and burgers across the board.

In addition to the new cookers, a kitchen display system on video screens has improved wait times, says Bower. For a concept initially built on tech, it was using a printed slip system in the back of house, with orders moving down a rail. With the KDS, team members at each station see the orders in the cue. “We’ve already seen a 30 second to one minute improvement in average ticket time, and a lot of efficiencies,” Bower says. The two biggest efficiencies: reduced training time and increased consistency.

The remodel wasn’t all about updating the in-store technology, though. The Melt serves comfort food—burgers and grilled cheese—but the vibe with whites and subway tiles didn’t quite match that casual food. “These are comfort foods, and we want the decor to reflect that … We wanted to be warmer and more inviting,” says Bower. And that meant a new look, with warm colors and woods, for the dining room. To make it more inviting, The Melt also added a lot of sound-absorbing materials to create a quieter dining environment. In addition to fabric finishes instead of tile, The Melt added what Bower calls “floating clouds” on the ceiling to absorb noise. It’s still early, says Bower, but anecdotally, the dining rooms are filling up and people are more interested in staying.

One of the biggest challenges with this new look: The team decided to do all of the 17 restaurant remodels in a 30-day period. “We felt, if you are going to change the perception of a brand, we didn’t want to do it a little at a time,” says Bower.

The team has been busy with the remodels—and keeping it pretty much on track—so now, growth is on Bower’s mind. Next up, The Melt plans to expand beyond California and Colorado with its first Texas unit in Houston scheduled for November. It’s got three more planned for the market next year.  

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