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Enterprising Browser Solutions: The Right Restaurant Scripts in Tough Economic Times

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April 01, 2002
Enterprise Restaurant Systems
Ed Rubinstein

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© 2002 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

These are tough times for restaurant operators, many of which are feeling the effects of the lingering recession and post-Sept. 11 jitters. Things may not get any easier. According to the National Restaurant Association, foodservice sales this year are expected to reach $407.7 billion, a forecast that’s only 1.4 percent higher than 2001 and one that may prompt many chains to trim operating expenses in order to keep them in line with potential revenue declines.

But it is during dubious times that operators have to turn to information technology, most notably in the form of browser-enabled solutions that address total cost of ownership issues and allow them to quickly respond to changing store-level conditions. Such enterprise solutions are helping them decipher which restaurants are performing above or below plan; when food and labor cost thresholds have been reached; or what menu items should be added and deleted in order to keep margins up to snuff.

That scenario is unfolding at Maryville, Tenn.-based Ruby Tuesday, which this year celebrates its 30th birthday and currently operates more than 600 casual restaurants in nearly every state in the union. Last fall the chain expanded on a long-term relationship with MICROS Systems by installing the iPOS and back-office applications that provide reporting in 15-minute intervals, complete decision-support capabilities and seamless interface with its existing 2700 and 3700 terminals.

Nick Ibrahim, vice president of information technology for Ruby Tuesday, told Hospitality Upgrade that the upgrades are consistent with the operator’s plans to move toward a more linear reporting structure for its company-owned stores. “We wanted a more centralized approach, but also wanted to get away from fat clients so we’re putting everything in a browser,” he said.

The iPOS solution, a Web- and XML-based POS architecture that is the result of a partnership between MICROS and Vivonet, is being piloted in seven Ruby Tuesday units and is being dovetailed with the chain’s conversion to frame relay from dial-up.

According to Ibrahim, the solution gives Ruby Tuesday real-time data to make better store-level decisions. “We no longer have to rely on Excel spreadsheets or wait until the end of the day or next day. Plus the drill-down capabilities give us detailed views of all key performance indicators like best-sellers, labor numbers, period-to-period comparisons and more,” he said.

Another important aspect of the solution is redundancy, which has been a chief concern when it comes to Internet-based solutions and those hosted via ASP models. While Ruby Tuesday is hosting iPOS on its own intranet and servers, Ibrahim has accounted for built-in backup. “We have two weeks worth of data onsite. Even if we lose a connection for four days, we can have everything automatically reloaded in 15-minute intervals,” he added.

Elsewhere, longtime MICROS user Hooters of America is leveraging the utility of its enterprise management and product management applications for its own intranet, whereby it is offering store-level reporting capabilities to select franchisees.

In a project spearheaded by Director of IT Wes Marco, the Atlanta-based operator has developed a Web site aptly dubbed “Infohammer,” in which sales and labor metrics are pulled from the EM server and interfaced to a Web portal for franchisees to view KPIs from any Web browser.

As part of a directive last year to modify its information technology strategy to more of a business strategy, Schlotsky’s Deli has taken proactive measures to allow their franchisees to better manage their units and keep keen tabs on store-level metrics.

Last fall the Austin, Texas-based operator, which franchises some 700-plus units in 40-plus states, standardized its go-forward point-of-sale and decision-support platforms with Aloha’s POS software and enterprise.com solutions and the SurePOS 500 hardware from IBM, an upgrade that Schlotsky’s Chief Information Officer Robin Hannah said is consistent with its renewed business approach to information technology.

“Everything we do now with IT is based on either increasing revenues or decreasing costs,” she said.

Hannah, who joined Schlotsky’s last year after stints at Dell Computer and IBM, praised the system’s ability to give operators drill-down data viewing capabilities, suggestive selling features and real-time alerting functions that tell them when labor hours, food costs, inventories and other data approach predefined thresholds.

“For years operators had no way of getting at store-level metrics in timely and meaningful ways. Now we can go to market with the tools to maximize revenues and decrease expenses,” she said.

Schlotsky’s unit-level, regional and corporate decision-makers can see how stores are performing, while centralized menu management lets it gauge the financial prudence of, for example, turning a limited time offer into a permanent menu item, like it did last year with its Fiesta Chicken sandwich. “We changed 700 menus in minutes rather than days or weeks,” Hannah added.

Currently, about 70 franchised units are up on the Aloha/IBM setup, which Hannah says costs about 3 percent of the average initial investment for a franchised unit.

Smaller operators are also taking “Webified” approaches to data management. One example is Rock Fish Restaurants, the bayou-inspired concept that caters to seafood lovers in and around the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and whose minority equity partner is Brinker International.

Last fall the 10-unit operator installed the enterprise.com solution that is hosted by Aloha, allowing the budding chain to gauge key performance indicators, all through a browser-based interface and dial-up connections. According to Aloha, users of the hosted version of enterprise.com pay $100 to $200 on a per-store, per-month basis, excluding one-time setup charges.

“Being able to manage centrally allows us to make smarter and faster decisions. Plus, we’ve eliminated paper trails and have all KPIs in a format that is just how operations wants to see it,” said Kevin McKnight, manager of information technology for Rock Fish.

Next on McKnight’s agenda is to setup a wide area network later this year that will do away with dial-up, speed up data transmission rates and reduce credit card processing times to one or two seconds from a current average of 15 seconds.

Even one- and two-unit operators are benefiting from enterprising ways of extracting meaningful store-level metrics at or near real time. For the past three years, Steve Bottom, owner of two Sonic Drive-In units in Anaheim and Bakersfield, Calif., has used a Web-based reporting, alerting and video monitoring service that is hosted by Apigent Solutions and accessed by Bottom’s computer via a DSL line.

“I can drill down to look at each ticket and ensure that the items sold jibe with what was collected and compare this week vs. last week,” he said. Because the registers have open discount keys, Bottom maintains that the service has ensured that any discounts registered are in fact warranted.

The ZEOM.net service provides hourly sales figures that can even be sent to Bottom’s e-mail address, pager or PDA. Bottom is looking forward to future alerting features that will allow him to set threshold levels on, for example, any discount over 25 percent and to be instantly alerted when someone hits the void key.
Ed Rubinstein is principle of IT-Informant, Inc., a knowledge research and marketing services firm for the hospitality industry. Ed was an area vice president for Aspeon Inc. Prior to that he was editor of Hospitality Technology and technology editor at Nation’s Restaurant News. He can be reached at it-informant@att.net.

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