Cracker Barrel quality assurance program gains tech support

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LEBANON Tenn. Proving that having "Old " in its name does not preclude a restaurant chain from trying new things, family-dining operator Cracker Barrel Old Country Store has augmented its food safety and quality assurance program with software and handheld computing devices.

Executives of 560-unit Cracker Barrel, which is owned by CBRL Group Inc., based here, said the chain is using Steton software to accelerate data collection, analysis and reporting tied to restaurant and supplier audits. The executives indicated Cracker Barrel also has some employees using HP iPAQ handheld computers for entry of audit data in the field — an efficiency play that eliminates the need to put to paper forms information that eventually must be captured electronically to take advantage of the new software.

"In addition to tasting good, each and every meal [served] must be safe to eat," said Bob Doyle, Cracker Barrel's vice president of product development and quality assurance. "We already had data collection and analysis systems in place, but using the Steton software will increase our capabilities without increasing our labor."

The move to the new technology ultimately may make it easier for Cracker Barrel to enlist the aid of third-party auditing firms, Doyle said. He noted, "We're very close to establishing a test of an outside [auditing services] group."

Sources at contract feeder Sodexho, another Steton user, have said that the software, along with its ability to run on handheld devices, helps manage contract auditors. It does that, they indicated, by permitting the foodservice company to make available to third-party auditors in the field the information or policy statements needed to answer Sodexho-specific questions that might arise.

St. George, Utah-based Steton remotely hosts its software for all restaurant company users, linking with the intranets of some and providing others with secure high-speed Internet access. Nearly all Steton users save overhead expenses by eliminating paper audit forms and entering data directly into Microsoft Windows-based portable computing devices, according to Steton sources. But those vendor representatives added that most users find the greatest value in the software's analytical tools and business intelligence reporting capabilities.

"With this software, we can set up trigger points and alerts so it can catch [quality or safety] things you or I might miss" using manual systems, Cracker Barrel's Doyle observed. He said that by using the software to better track trends related to food safety or quality, Cracker Barrel can spot situations in which a product or practice "maybe still is within specification, but moving away from the target." That capability can help the chain better anticipate a potential safety or quality problem or the need to change product specs or suppliers, the executive indicated.

Doyle said Cracker Barrel decided to try Steton's mobile data collection and reporting software after seeing it being used by some of the chain's suppliers and hearing about it from other restaurant operators. He said Cracker Barrel would make use of the Steton product a requirement for vendors wanting to deal with the company in the future.

Also in the works, Doyle said, is the entry into the Steton system of the results of health department inspections conducted at the chain's restaurants.

Capturing inspection data electronically and working with some of the functions in the Steton software can help chains better track inspection results, plan corrective measures and monitor progress in making corrections or improving inspection scores, Steton's Jason Callahan explained.

Callahan, Steton's general manager of foodservice solutions, said the initial investment made by operators to use his company's software and services can range from $30,000 for a small chain to $250,000 for large players. Beyond that, he said, Steton clients usually pay annual software licensing and hosting fees that can vary greatly and therefore are not publicized by his firm. A few users, the Steton representative added, have opted to pay monthly, per-unit, subscription rates.