Sunday, September 9, 2012

Restaurant technology playing catch-up?

Imagine if the course of food trends was suddenly reversed and home kitchens became the place where cutting-edge culinary ideas were hatched and advanced. In that alternate reality, restaurants would be the followers, hoping to catch up with customers who were more inventive and advanced.

Cue Rod Serling, because that’s exactly the Twilight Zone that restaurants have entered with technology. The youngsters coming through the front and back doors are lugging more sophisticated yet easier to use devices than what they wield on the job.

That was one of the more surprising observations of the panel that kicked off today’s FSTEC conference, a shopping and idea-sharing event for the tech specialists of the restaurant business. 

“This ‘consumerization’ of technology is something we see as a stealth issue right now,” said panelist David Matthews, the chief information officer of the National Restaurant Association. “When your customers are bringing better technology to the workplace than the restaurant has, that’s a problem for us.”

Agreed Don Zimmerman, the CIO of Wendy’s: “Anytime that consumers have better technology in their hands than we do in our restaurants, that’s a potential that we not only have to address, but that could potentially harm us.”

Consider, for instance, the social-media implications. Customers and employees likely have very effective equipment to tarnish a restaurant’s reputation, using nothing more than a smart phone and the smarts they’ve developed through extended practice. What do restaurants have in the way of know-how and technology to avert being slimed?

“For them, technology is second nature,” remarked Kelly Maddern, the newly appointed CIO of Burger King.

Rob Grimes, FSTEC’s host and presenter, described how an unnamed restaurant chain wanted to require employees to use their own phones for work purposes, the way delivery drivers use their own cars. He suggested that it could be the model of the future, with the order placement function of a POS system replaced by an app that employees download.

The panelists disagreed, though Matthews suggested that tablets might supplant the sort of hardware component of today’s POS set-ups. That way, he explained, restaurateurs would only have to focus on selecting the right software.

BK’s Maddern concurred, to a point. The hardware component of tomorrow’s POS systems will be largely irrelevant, she asserted. “We have to continue look at the software side,” she said, with the search focused on what’s easy to deploy and “easy to use, so your employees can use it.”

I’ll be tweeting and blogging from FSTEC through Tuesday. E-mail me at if there’s something in particular you’d like me to cover, or anything you’d like me to ask of the show’s presenters and vendors. 

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