Off the wire

Managers are getting the message. Wireless technology eases operations off-site and in-house, and can even turn a profit.

The wonderful world of wireless has changed—a lot—over the year since I last wrote about this topic. Take computer connectivity, for example. In January ‘03, WiFi Planet reported that there were only about 2,000 public-access hotspots—places where laptop users can log on to the internet. But now, chip man­ufacturer Intel reports that there are nearly 17,500 hotspots in the U.S. The numbers have grown exponentially over the past 24 months.

That’s pretty compelling.

The technology can still be divided into four restaurant-specific categories:

  • wireless computer access
  • phone/communication
  • paging
  • wireless order entry

So, we talked about the jump in the number of hotspots. The question is, does wireless computer access make sense for your restaurant?

You can look at wireless as a money generator or as a customer service. Both approaches can contribute to the bottom line.

First off, you can’t benefit from wireless if you’re still using dial-up internet access. But, with a high- speed connection, operators can hook up a wireless router for as little at $60. Then, just load up the software, and in five minutes people can be clicking away on the laptop with no wires tying them down.

For an extra $100, you can get a wireless router that connects up to four cabled computers to the internet along with countless wireless computers. A web-based configuration utility program makes the connection a snap. Other benefits are added security features and the capability of setting up access from off-site, such as corporate headquarters—whether it’s in your home or a distant office building.

Okay. So far all you’ve done is spend money. You could try to make money by selling subscriptions to users in the restaurant. This probably doesn’t make much sense for a single unit but it can work for chain operations. Another option is to engage the services of an aggregator—one of which reports that it has over 11,000 hotspots worldwide—which turns your hotspot into a node on its wireless network.

You get to advertise that your restaurant is a part of this large network (which can attract savvy customers), and for each person you sign up for the service, you receive a fee. However, it’s your responsibility to maintain the hardware and you have to pay for the internet connection.

Speaking of that, be sure to check with your ISP to ensure that you are allowed to resell your access.
Another option is to sign up with a provider who, in addition to selling subscriptions, can install a laptop or desktop at your location from which customers can rent usage. Again, it’s your responsibility to provide the internet connection.

Besides keeping customers connected, you might find that wireless connectivity can make your life easier. You can easily set up a secure wireless network that links together all of the computers in your operation. That way the computer at your host stand can be networked with the computer in the back office. Or you can use your wireless laptop while sitting at a deck in mid-afternoon to work on a spreadsheet or to prepare next week’s schedule.

Cell phones are nothing new—in fact, everyone’s got them these days—but apart from being an annoyance in public places, they can also be a wise business tool. Some shudder at the idea of their staff being able to reach them at all times, but that tether ensures that your business keeps running smoothly even when you’re on the way to the bank or counting cans in the storeroom.Sure, you delegate authority to supervisors and staff, but they still need a way to reach you and your management team when circumstances arise.

Cell phones offer you a way to keep in touch with your operation at all times and are a great way to keep in the loop about emergencies, so there will never be surprises waiting for you when you arrive in the morning.

That said, don’t forget that they do have off switches for those occasions when interruptions can be inappropriate.

While the service plan is an important factor, you should also look at the various phone options and choose one that’s right for your operation. For example, I carry a combination cell/PDA. That one unit helps me keep track of all my appointments, and I can even check my date book while talking on the phone. In addition, I have software that allows me to write my RB columns while waiting for a plane, or helps me choose the ideal wine in a retail store or dining location. Most importantly, I can cable the phone to my computer to sync my appointments, phone list, and files—so I won’t lose everything if my cell/PDA disappears.

You may find that a walkie-talkie-style cell phone is the best way to keep in touch with your team. This phone works effectively whether users are on or off premise.

Then there’s the camera feature that some folks think is an affectation. However, when a celebrity drops by your restaurant unannounced, your hostess can snap a quick shot for your gallery of guests. That camera also comes in handy for recording evidence should you or your staff sense a potential lawsuit.

Straight walkie-talkies that don’t depend on cellular networks are an economical in-house way to keep your staff in touch. While pagers can alert a busser to clear a specific table, a walkie-talkie can give the busser specific instructions as to which table, how many people to set the table for, and whether there’s a rush.

Speaking of pagers, this technology has been in restaurants for a while and is tried and true.

Guest paging offers faster table turns. Handing each party a pager means you’ll never have to plow through a busy bar calling out names. Customer paging systems are also effective for make-to-order quickservice restaurants where orders are placed and paid for and customers then head to a table. With one system, each party is given a “key” to insert into a table-mounted pager. When the order is ready, the kitchen activates the pager that lights up on the tabletop.

Pagers also work wonders with your service staff as well as floor supervisors. These systems let servers know as soon as their orders are ready for pick-up. That means food doesn’t hang around waiting for a server to check in. Also, it minimizes the chance of overloading pick-up areas, which can be a real problem during a busy meal rush. And because orders are picked up promptly, there’s less chance that orders will get mixed up, and that goes a long way toward improving guest service. While some pagers only buzz to say that an order is ready, others will indicate which specific order is up, which means that staff can ready the table for service before bringing out the food.

Wireless POS systems could have the greatest impact on the restaurant industry. Why? Servers can give custo­mers better service, because it keeps them on the floor rather than congregating around an order-entry POS. Remote printers offered a quantum leap in improved service and the wireless order-entry pad can have even more of an impact.

If you haven’t seen one of these units, you’re in for a treat. Basically, they take the same software interface as on your current POS and put it on a handheld PDA-size unit. Servers go through the same ordering process and with the same speed as a touchscreen system. And, with two-way communication, waiters will never again place an order for a slice of prime rib after the last order has been sold, because the chef can send out a message the item is 86’d. That saves servers time and keeps customers happy.

Users report that the hand-held units lead to increased sales of desserts and after-dinner drinks because of the ease of ordering these check-building items.

To carry the concept further, consider portable credit verification and printing units. Guests are still presented with the check at the end of the meal, but when they pull out their credit card, the server swipes the card at tableside. This means that your customers won’t have to worry about how their card is being handled behind their backs. Once authorized, the credit receipt is printed out and handed to customers for their signature.                                              

Ring in the New Technology

Pocket planner  Cell phones with PDA capabilities allow users to access software and organize appointments on the go.

Camera never lies  Camera features on cell phones can be handy for operators. They can document evidence should a potential lawsuit arise.

Over and Out Walkie-talkies that don’t depend on cellular networks are an economical way for in-house staff to communicate clearly and specifically.


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