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Operators use wireless technology to connect customers, employees


ROCK HILL S.C. Anytime customers at the Fatz Cafe here need something from server Sheila Hall, they can simply page her through a wireless device on the table.

Asoda refill, another appetizer, the check - whatever the request, Hall instantly knows she's needed by the vibrating and flashing symbol on her clunky wrist device.

Hall loves it.

"It lets the customer feel in control, and I don't feel out of control," said Hall, who has been waiting tables for the past year and a half. "It saves steps. You are more productive."

Taylors, S.C.-based Cafe Enterprises Inc., parent of the 34-unit Fatz Cafe, is one of three casual-dining chains that is using a customer service software and hardware program developed by ESP Systems Inc. to improve service by making front-of-the-house employees more efficient and productive. The operators say their more productive employees turn tables faster, increase check averages and are able to handle more duties, which can reduce labor costs.

"It encourages your staff to perform at a higher level," said Steve Bruce, chief executive of Cafe Enterprises.

After getting positive reactions from Hall and other servers in the Rock Hill unit for a couple of months, Fatz Cafe planned to put the devices in another restaurant in December and slowly roll it out to more stores next year, Bruce said.

Applebee's franchisee Casual Restaurant Concepts, a 28-unit company based in Tampa, Fla., also plans to install the device in six of its units in the first quarter of 2007, although chief executive Franklin Carson admits he was skeptical about the devices at first.

"I was opposed to putting technology between the guests and our servers," Carson said. "I thought it should be avoided at all costs. Applebee's is very service-oriented. I was proven wrong."

Instead, the two units that tested the device had faster table turns and higher check averages, he said.

"They can handle, potentially, more tables, although we haven't tested that," Carson said. "But they have more free time, more ticket times, and their turnovers are faster."

Customers also were hooked by the novelty of the hub device, he added.

T.G.I. Friday's franchisee Metz & Associates Ltd., in Dallas, Pa., also tested the program in a couple of units and plans to use it in more stores.

Charlotte, N.C.-based ESP, which tested its patented software and hardware in restaurants of all three companies last year, now has 74 restaurants under contract to use the system, chief executive Devin Green said. The restaurants pay a monthly fee for the technology.

The operators said they are finding that ESP is improving customer service by improving communication among the staff, from hosts to bussers, servers to expeditors. The software also provides managers with detailed information on employee performance.

"It's the first piece of technology we've seen that comprehensively deals with all things, not just pager systems at the front door or kitchen systems," Bruce said. "We've never seen anything that ties it all together like this."

ESP creates a wireless "bubble" over a restaurant, Green said. A hub device at the table allows customers to page their servers. Servers can page one another if they need assistance. A busser can page the hostess to let her know a table is ready. A hostess can page a server when a new customer has been seated. A bartender can page a server when a drink order is ready, or a chef can page a server for a question about an order.

Alerts also can be sent to a manager if there is a problem, such as if a server had two tables seated at the same time and can't get to one, but no other server can greet the table either.

The system gave Applebee's managers useful information in supervising their staffs, Carson said. "It gave them a greater sense of what's going on in the restaurant," he said. "To be a manager and to know instantly if a ticket has gone wrong, or if there is a problem at a table, is huge. In our restaurants, the managers are on the floor all the time. To know at the time that there is an issue going on is a powerful tool for a manager."

Managers also were able to get unbiased reports on employees' performances - how quickly they bussed tables, greeted customers and delivered drinks or the check.

Managers can use the information to provide additional training to employees if they notice problems in particular areas, Bruce said.

However, some industry insiders caution that such technology could be vulnerable to misuse.

"The abuse potential is such that the system could actually interfere with the staff's ability to organize and execute seamless and appropriate service," said Paul Paz, an Oregon server who also is a consultant and founder of Waiters World, a website for servers.

Possible abuses could come from employees who lose the equipment or forget to bring the wrist device to the shift, or from staff playing practical jokes on each other at customers' expense, Paz noted. Or customers might let their children play with the table device or make repeated unnecessary prompts just for "waiter-tricks" entertainment, he said.

The operators who tested ESP, however, said they had not experienced any abuses of the system by customers or employees.

Hall of Fatz Cafe found that customers did not excessively page her.

"It worked out very well," she said. "If they needed me, they could ESP me. And I didn't have to keep going back and interrupt their dinner conversation. If they were in a hurry, I could help get them out faster."

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