Service times are improving at some fast-casual restaurants using technology that helps track and expedite orders.
A number of restaurants that previously delivered food to tables by having runners hunt down numbered placards or tents given to guests at the time they ordered have begun working with technology that relies on radio frequency identification, or RFID, capabilities. Among them is the three-unit Blue Lemon group out of Highland, Utah, and a trio of locations operated by the 240-store Jason’s Deli chain that's owned by Deli Management Inc. of Beaumont, Texas.
The technology used by Blue Lemon and Jason’s Deli requires the operators to place under each table an RFID “mat,” or device that is programmed with a table number. Counter employees provide the customer with an RFID reader/broadcaster device that resembles a drink coaster. Typically, the employee also enters an identification number on the device into the POS system that correlates to the transaction number on order tickets at the expeditor station.
When the guest places their coaster-like device on the table of their choice, the device immediately reads the table number information from the ‘mat’ and broadcasts it to a computer at the order expeditor station. The food runner then looks for an RFID device ID number on the order ticket and aligns it with the location information for that device to quickly figure out where the food should be delivered.
Knowing their destination as they leave the expo station eliminates the need for food runners to visually scan the dining room for placards or tents or call out numbers to complete the delivery, thereby speeding up the process, according to Dave Prows, executivefor Blue Lemon LLC.
“We’re able to deliver food quickly and efficiently and, in fast-casual, that’s what we are about. Without that ability, we’d be ‘slow-casual,’” Prows said of the results achieved using the RFID technology.
“If a guest moves from outside [on a patio table] to inside, we always know where they are,” he added.
Blue Lemon’s three locations each seat 200 to 250 people and generate average annual sales of $2.4 million from $14 average tickets, company officials said.
The technology also tracks order time beginning with payment, when the cashier slides the reader/broadcaster device over an “initializing unit” before handing it to the guest. It continues tracking the transaction through the time a food runner, who has dropped the order, returns the reader/broadcaster device to the front counter and halts the timing process by passing it over a “clearing unit.”
At some locations using the system, food runners stop the time tracking process as soon as they drop the order by using a portable clearing unit at the table.
Michael Johnson, a Jason’s Deli regional manager, said chain officials decided to test the new technology because they were searching for “a solid way to measure ticket times” and observed the “speed and accuracy of service to the customer” it provided to another operator. He noted that the system’s time-tracking capability gives operators insights into service performance and, through programmable parameters, gives expeditors the ability to prioritize production chores.
At Jason’s Deli, Johnson said, management has set acceptable order-preparation time parameters of between six and eight minutes. This means that when an order has been in production for six minutes, information about it turns yellow on the counter/expo station display, letting expeditors know they have less than two minutes to get that order done and out to the guest. At eight minutes, the order information turns red.
“From an employee standpoint, ticket-time expectations are clearer,” Johnson said. “The system makes it a lot easier to look up and see this one [order] needs to go first, this one is second and so on.”
He said the technology’s order timing, data recording and reporting capabilities give management a way to monitor real-time service performance to make adjustments on the fly, and added that when more than 5 percent of the orders placed exceed six minutes, “we pay a lot of attention.” He said the technology also permits management to review historic data to better understand whether factors such as staffing levels contributed to a breakdown in standards.
Jason’s Deli has been pilot testing the system for about a year, and it is currently in use at a restaurant in Chicago and two sites within the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, Johnson said. The chain, with estimated sales per unit of about $2.4 million, according to NRN Top 200 research, uses about 50 of the reader/broadcaster devices at each of those test locations, he indicated.
While test results appear positive, Johnson said his chain has formed an assessment team to more precisely determine return on investment and if it warrants deployment to additional stores across the system.
Blue Lemon’s Prows said his company has been using the order and table tracking technology for about a year and uses about 32 of the RFID reader/broadcaster devices in each store. He said there have been no theft or breakage issues and that the devices have maintained their charge as needed.
Prows said his organization is sold on the technology because it helps it better execute its mission of being an “express gourmet” concept, thereby reducing table turn times and sales, while improving guest perceptions about the operation.