Part 1 of a two-part series: “Video surveillance in restaurants: Who’s using what technology and why”
A desire to keep a tighter rein over day-to-day problems in the front- and back-of-the-house—not all of which are security related—is driving operators to adopt digital video surveillance technology that is light years ahead of the VCR-based sentries of the past.
Some restaurateurs, like airport feeder Hartsfield Hospitality of Atlanta, are using video surveillance to monitor food and cash handling procedures, employee conduct and more. That firm operates one Freshens Smoothie Co. unit and one Le Petit Bistro store at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, as well as four Freshens units and one Le Petit Bistro unit at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta.
Other operators using video recording, analysis, reviewing and reporting technology also augment the basic security and employee-theft prevention roles of their systems by using them to verify workers’ compensation and guest incident claims. Service providers say such users include operators of IHOP  and Steak n Shake  restaurants and a number of Subway  and McDonald’s franchisees with multiple locations.
“With this [video] system, I can see basically everything that’s going on, from how food is being prepared, to how customers are handled, to whether employees are wearing their uniforms,” Esau Sims of Hartsfield Hospitality said. “In fact, we’ve seen a big improvement in service efficiencies from using the system at Le Petit Bistro, where customers wait on line to pay for their food, because the recordings [revealed] that employees weren’t calling the next [patrons] to the register fast enough when finished with the previous guest.”
However, Sims, who is Hartsfield Hospitality’s director of operations, indicated that his company’s desire to improve its financial position was what prompted it to use technology by Coppell, Texas-based Digital Witness.
He had suspected that monitoring food preparation in the stores would bring expenditures “more in line with what they should be.” Sims also had a hunch that putting a surveillance finger on the pulse of cash handling and customer service would benefit the bottom line. His suspicions proved correct, and Hartsfield has shaved about 2.5 percent off its annual food expenditures and increased profits by about $100,000 since the system was deployed in February 2006.
The Digital Witness system consists of cameras placed in strategic areas around a restaurant, including near the front door, prep areas, cash registers and the back door. The cameras continuously record images on a digital video recorder, or DVR, and upload them to a password-protected Digital Witness website that operators can access from any computer. Sims logs in to the site daily to view images in real time, as well as to look at images that have been indexed by the system and are stored on Digital Witness’ host computer.
Based on dashboards created for each operator, the cameras also generate and e-mail to management exception reports detailing any anomalies they have detected. In Hartsfield Hospitality’s case, such anomalies include instances in which employees are obviously deviating from prescribed food portioning guidelines and discarding or misappropriating ingredients. The system also has been programmed to let Sims and his colleagues know when an employee has made a cash-handling error, such as leaving a cash drawer open or failing to provide a receipt with a purchase.
Sims declined to quantify his company’s investment in the system, noting only that the monitoring capabilities it affords have sparked an “excellent” return. Hartsfield Hospitality uses the technology on a subscription basis, as do 95 percent of Digital Witness’ customers, whose ranks include operators of Outback Steakhouse , Benihana  and Buffalo Wild Wings  outlets.
Kelby Hagar, chief executive of Digital Witness, said the cost of an eight-camera system, such as the one in place at most Hartsfield Hospitality units, runs $299 per store per month. That fee covers equipment, server and software licensing, maintenance, daily remote assessments to ensure that hardware is in working order and two annual software upgrades. System setup carries a one-time $900 fee.
Two-unit coffeehouse operator Café Intermezzo in Atlanta acquired a video surveillance system to gain better control over workers’ compensation and guest incident claims and employee conduct, said chief executive Brian Olson. The package, DTT OnSite from DTT Surveillance of Los Angeles, is already installed in one store and is being deployed in the other.
A third Atlanta store now under construction also will be fitted with the technology, as will all future units, management said.
Café Intermezzo purchased for each unit a 16-camera bundle that also included a DVR, CD burner, server and software. Sam Naficy, chief executive of DTT, said system purchase prices range from $4,000 for a four-camera package to about $11,000 for a 16-camera package. He declined to provide details about his company’s monthly service fee. DTT also counts among its users some McDonald’s and Subway franchisees, Naficy said, as well as those of IHOP, Steak n Shake and Moe’s Southwest Grill.
The software can sort clips of images captured by the system by year, date and time, and footage can be played back on the hardware even as recording is occurring. Olson can set the playback function for single or multiple camera views, or he can view frame-by-frame thumbnail shots for quick identification of any incident.
Olson said the technology paid for itself within a year.
“On the first day we installed it, we recouped $570 that had just gone missing from the petty cash in our locked cash room,” he said. “We have cameras all over the store. One covers the cash room and another, the back office. When we realized the money had been taken, we reviewed the images and observed a dishwasher stealing the manager’s keys and gleefully pocketing the cash.”
Olson said the technology not only enabled Café Intermezzo to apprehend the thief and share a CD of the incident with police, but it also helped clear the manager of any wrongdoing.
In another instance, Olson recalled, a guest claimed her purse had been stolen from her chair while she was away from her table looking at the pastry selection, and she tried to pin the blame on the establishment. However, a look at the video indicated that she had taken the purse with her when leaving the table. In a third situation, an employee attempted to file a workers’ compensation claim for a slip-and-fall incident, but the recording showed that she had caught herself before actually hitting the floor.
“Our workers’ comp claims are way, way down because of the system, and we don’t worry nearly as much about bogus slip-and-fall claims by patrons,” Olson said. “The technology has also been great in terms of [curtailing] employee pilferage. Once, we noticed that a lot of shrimp—which is very expensive—was disappearing. We reviewed images from the kitchen and found that a chef—who ran a catering business on the side—was responsible.”