How cool technologies help fast food move even faster

North American fast food chains are using technology to speed up order fulfilment, improve customer service and reduce costs.

And it’s not slowing down any time soon, with nearly $650 million being invested in 27 operations, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

“A lot of people have started using restaurants as their kitchens and they don’t cook food anymore,” said Joseph Gagnon, CEO of Exit41 in Andover, MA. They want easy access to their favourite foods, whether it’s through a drive-through, on the Web or even via text messaging.

Exit41, whose tag line is ‘shortest route between hunger and satisfaction’ – makes food-ordering applications. It’s flagship product being the Exit41 Enterprise Suite, which includes online ordering and call centre modules.

Software keeps tabs on drive-through service.

The company says its products have been used to process more than 17 million orders to date.

Gagnon notes that people today have more functionality inside their car than they do in their home office.

“I call it the cocoon,” he said. “With that macro-consumer trend going on, you can start to understand why we’re trying to look at improved ways of operating in a drive-through or off-premise take-out delivery type of model.”

It’s really a production operation, said Gagnon. The software hands over the ordering process to someone who’s not necessarily sitting in the restaurant dealing with the day-to-day craziness. That allows restaurant owners to extend their operations to have an adjunct capacity in a call centre, so they can start to rethink their processes to be more efficient – such as taking multiple orders at the same time.

“What we’re starting to see is, you’re finally trying to orient the way you operate your restaurant to the way the customer is living,” he said.

To work, however, they must have strong integration into the existing point-of-sale environment (such as PCI compliance and multiple tender types).

The company has now expanded into the casual dining market, where additional features – such as delivery dispatch and order history – have been added to its original software.

Last October, for example, Mississauga, Ont.-based Cara Operations Limited (that operates the Swiss Chalet chain) bought the new version Exit41’s call centre software – OrderPerfect 2.0 – to process take out and delivery orders for its 190 Swiss Chalet restaurants. OrderPerfect 2.0 integrates directly with Swiss Chalet’s point of sale system from MICROS Systems, Inc.
“Now we’re using it as a catering extension for group orders,” said Gagnon. “We’re driving a lot of the business that these guys would otherwise not be able to process in the restaurant.”

Independents, he said, are starting to buy into the technology as well, he said, because they don’t want to be in a situation where the only way to interact with them is by walking into their restaurant. They can pay for the application on a per-call basis or as a hosted offering.

“You don’t have to bring a lot of infrastructure in-house, so that gives the restaurant operator a lot of flexibility.”  

Gagnon notes there are so many constraints restaurant operators have to work through, such as an ever-changing labour pool, that the only way to stay successful is to create lasting customer relationships.

“One way to do that is by using technology to complement the way you run your restaurant.”

Another technology in the fast food industry uses robotics and artificial intelligence to speed delivery and improve accuracy.

“We deal with real-time production, the actual cooking of the actual food,” said John Bugay, manager of marketing communications with HyperActive Technologies in Pittsburgh, PA. The company makes HyperActive Bob, a real-time prediction system.

An employee interacts with HyperActiveBob.

That’s different from forecasting systems that typically provide electronically generated charts indicating how much product should be cooking at such and such time.  Such systems, Bugay noted, are fairly static and don’t take into account real-time information like the weather.

Using artificial intelligence, he said, HyperActive Bob provides advance notice of real-time demand to make sure there’s an adequate supply of food.

Bob is able to sense the environment via cameras on the rooftop; historical sales information is available, as well as a real-time point-of-sale link. The system has been licenced by Zaxby’s, a U.S. chicken chain, in 140 of its restaurants.

One restaurant using Bob was expecting the usual lunch rush, but they weren’t getting any cook commands, so they thought something was wrong with the technology.

A few minutes later, they found out there had been a traffic accident up the road, so nobody was coming into the parking lot. Without that kind of information, customers may end up getting food that’s been sitting there for a while or they may have to wait for the next batch to be cooked.

A camera keeps an eye on the drive through build up.

QTimer is a drive-through speed-of-service timer that tracks cars and measures the amount of time they spend at the order board and service window (Bob and QTimer work together). HyperActive also sells an order confirmation board with a visual display.

“Restaurants are being bombarded with technologies these days and we’re trying to simplify that, because Bob understands the cook process from start to finish,” said Bugay.

From a technology standpoint, the quick-service industry leads the way in the restaurant business because there’s not a lot of differentiation between one quick-service restaurant and another, said Robert Grimes, chairman of Accuvia Consulting, a Potomac, MD firm that specializes in the use of technology within the hospitality, foodservice and retail industries

You can take 30,000 McDonalds, for example, and the menus are basically the same, Grimes noted.

Most new concepts and technologies come out of the quick-service industry because companies are able to invest in a new system and deploy thousands of units.

The quick-service industry was the first to do remote call centre ordering for the drive-through; it’s also using digital signage for menu boards and integrating mobility, such as cell phone ordering, into the mix. Some are also using kiosks to speed up the ordering process – a concept that wouldn’t work in full-service restaurants.

Labour is a huge issue. “You’re going to try to use technology to save on labour,” said Grimes. The quick-service industry often uses less-skilled labour, so sometimes they have to do things that are more visual.

“It isn’t so much the technology that will differentiate them,” he said. “They may be doing it for more accurate orders or faster speed, but most of the big guys are doing the same types of things – it’s just that some people have more buying power than others.”

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