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IT in 3: Former OSI exec Bill Allen on guest self-order systems

Allen, now a tech investor and advisor, talks tablet and smartphone trends

Former OSI Restaurant Partners LLC chairman and chief executive Bill Allen said he believes foodservice can benefit today from customer-facing technology such as at-table tablet computers that let guests order and pay for meals.

That's why Allen, since resigning from Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill parent OSI in January, has become an advisor to, and investor in tablet computer technology vendor HubWorks Interactive LLC.

HubWorks’ FoodHub iPad ordering system uses Apple’s tablet computer fitted with payment card readers to enable guests to order and pay for food, and access entertainment content at the table, among other functions. The tablets communicate across a wireless network with servers hosted by the vendor, which, in turn, communicate with the restaurant's point-of-sale system.

Single units of the Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar casual-dining chain in the U.S. and Canada recently tested the HubWorks solution. Tim Murphy, international director for Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings Inc., said in a statement about the tests that early results were positive among employees and guests. “We are noting a more efficient process, with guests receiving their food and drinks more quickly," he said.

But Buffalo Wild wings is just one of many restaurants that have begun trying out similar customer-facing tablet technologies over the past three years. They include Au Bon Pain of Boston; California Pizza Kitchen of Los Angeles; Carmel Café & Wine Bar of Clearwater and Tampa, Fla.; Chili’s franchisee ERJ Dining LLC of Louisville, Ky.; 4Food in New York; Pizzeria Venti of Atlanta; Stacked: Food Well Built of Newport Beach, Calif.; The Post sports bar in St. Louis; and Umami Restaurant Group of Los Angeles, among others.


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Allen spoke with NRN about industry trends such as the advancement of customer-facing technology solutions, a development that he said will "bring value to restaurant operations and will for years to come.”

What has changed within the casual-dining restaurant business, or among consumers, to suggest that traditional methods of taking orders, handling payments and communicating with in-restaurant guests alone may no longer be adequate?

The consumer is changing in many ways. Technology is pervasive in our lives, and tablets and mobile devices are an everyday part of how we communicate and interact with others. It seems natural that they should become a part of the dining experience where they add value to the experience. That can be the ability to access food and beverage quicker, the ability to entertain ourselves while we wait, or the ability to close out our check and leave when we want to do so without waiting for the server to complete this tedious process.

How might the use of tablet computers benefit casual-dining restaurant operators and guests?

From the operator standpoint there are several areas of value: boost revenue, maximize labor effectiveness and provide entertainment for the guest, which in turn creates customer retention. These are just a few to mention.

The guest also benefits greatly. They have a fun, engaging digital menu that they can order and pay from. They will also have servers that will be able to spend more quality time with the guests because they are not running around gathering orders and checks.

Which application of the tablet computers—hand-held tablets used by wait staff or guest-activated, pass-around or table-mounted tablets—holds the most immediate promise for operators looking to technology to improve sales or service, and what future role might the guest’s own mobile device play in the ordering and payment processes?

If the restaurant wants to maximize operational efficiency then I would say customer-facing technology.

There is value in both the tablet at the table and the smartphone. The reality is that not everyone has a smartphone today. As smartphone market share continues to grow, I would say there would eventually be a balance of both products throughout the hospitality industry.

Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @AJ_NRN

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