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Potbelly's Duplantis energized by IT architect, team-builder roles


Name: Tamy Duplantis

Title: vice president of information technology, or IT, Potbelly Sandwich Works, Chicago

Birth date: July 12, 1962

Education: master's of business administration, Nova University, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; bachelor's of business administration, data processing and analysis, University of Texas, Austin, Texas

Career: hired by Potbelly Sandwich Works in November 2005; served as vice president of application development, U.S. Food Service, most of 2005; vice president of IT, Applebee's International Inc., 2001 to 2004; software development lead, T.G.I. Friday's division of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, 1996 to 2001; 11 years in the telecommunications industry

Manages: eight people

Reports to: chief financial officer Jim Hirshorn

Family: married to Rob, a telecommunications consultant; has two daughters — Carli, 14, and Maci, 12

Pastimes: attending daughters' soccer and basketball games; serving as junior high school girls church group leader; reading; skiing; going to the beach; motorcycle riding with husband

POS system: Aloha Quick Service software running on NCR Corp. RealPOS 70 terminals

Unit-level, back-office application: proprietary invoicing and food-cost-management system, proprietary labor-management system

Enterprise accounting and HR applications: Great Plains version 8 for financials, Ceridian Payroll

Other applications: proprietary Microsoft SQL enterprise data warehouse and Sharepoint communication and reporting portal

Tamy Duplantis thrives on challenge. That's an attitude that has served her well in her current position as vice president of information technology, or IT, at Chicago-based Potbelly Sandwich Works, which has more than 140 company-owned and operated stores.

"I love solving problems," Duplantis said. "I love designing and architecting solutions to real business needs. I love building teams and being a part of something bigger than myself."

Duplantis acknowledged that helping business partners understand the value of technology is challenging and hard work. "IT executives spend an inordinate amount of time defending and selling," she said. According to her, understanding the non-IT aspects of the business and speaking in "English" rather than in technical terms is essential to success.

What are some of the ongoing IT projects at Potbelly?

  • [Visa Cardholder Information Security Program, or CISP] compliance: [We want to meet] mandatory credit card holder information security requirements to ensure the integrity of our customer credit card data.
  • Online ordering: We want to drive our phone/fax business to the Web to eliminate non-value-add steps and increase order accuracy. Our solution will integrate with the Aloha point-of-sale [system] to eliminate the keying of orders and provide online payment.
  • Reporting portal: We are building an SQL data warehouse that has historical POS transaction data with a Sharepoint portal for reporting, scorecards and communication. The objective is to give all levels of operations their respective view of data and a one-stop-shop for reporting.
  • [Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002] compliance: We are ensuring that our IT controls [related to financial reporting systems] are SOX compliant.

What do you feel is the greatest value of technology to a restaurant organization, and why?

Information is a powerful business driver and is ultimately the greatest value technology delivers. Collecting, analyzing and delivering timely performance indicators allows companies to target and achieve results and to "course correct" quickly.

What's the best tech innovation for restaurants to make its debut recently?

Customers' ability to find, order, pay for and even arrange for food delivery via the Internet. It's the technology marriage of Pizza Hut and Orbitz and is now becoming a "point of entry" for the casual-dining space. Another new idea that speaks to the cell phone generation is to send text messages back to customers' cell phones, confirming orders. These messages can then be used to resend those same orders in the future.

What tech innovations have been under-hyped?

The Internet has allowed us to migrate to hosted solutions that greatly reduce time and cost of software and data distribution and introduced less expensive options for high speed. This has also driven solution providers to build in greater resiliency in their products, like offline spooling for credit card authorization in the point-of-sale so the business is uninterrupted if DSL goes down or has a momentary lapse. While larger companies continue to invest in a wide area network of T1s, which I highly recommend, the Internet has allowed smaller companies to leverage the same solutions without making the same investments.

How about over-hyped technologies or IT strategies?

Outsourcing IT. From one extreme of writing your own POS to the other extreme of outsourcing all of IT, there is a balanced investment between package and custom applications and between strong vendor partners and right-sized internal technology teams.

What are some of the best strategies IT executives can use to sell reluctant decision-makers in a restaurant operation on the use of technology?

Learn how to put together a total cost of ownership analysis for any investment. The tendency is to only look at the cost of the technology. The real cost analysis should include what you are spending today on alternative solutions, labor hours being expended, lost productivity, lost customer satisfaction — and therefore future revenue — and lost opportunity. Time is money, and you need to calculate those labor hours to justify the investment. If the latter can then be redirected to revenue-generating activities or reduce the need to add more people, you get a hard dollar figure — which is the language executives understand.

Any examples?

All three restaurant companies with which I've worked have invested in theoretical food-cost savings solutions, which offered a payback. But the real value in manager time came when we integrated the food cost systems with food distributors' systems to eliminate the one to four hours per week managers spent hand-keying food invoices into food cost systems. The time savings in all cases was measurable payback to the companies — not to mention reductions in errors and accuracy of data.

What strategies can IT executives use to help end-users within the restaurant organization — whether at the store or corporate level — transition to new technology?

Document the objectives and measurements of success and clarify what is in scope and most importantly what is not in scope for a project to help ensure that expectations will be met. Most important is to always have an executive sponsor and a business champion who have as much skin in the game as IT does. A cross-functional team that includes operations, IT and usually finance, marketing, and training should document the current process and the desired process. Technology in and of itself does not bring value. First the business processes have to be defined and implemented, and then the technology can assist.

What are some of the toughest IT-related challenges you've faced in your career?

Bringing unity to a divided Applebee's franchise system was a no-win game, yet I believed it could be done. It was apparent that the company could not analyze the performance of its business because, like most franchise systems, stores were either running different systems or no systems at all. We formed partnerships with the most difficult franchisees — based upon their past refusals to upgrade old systems, share data or trust corporate — and led in the selection of best-in-class food, labor and POS solutions with participants from across the system and from multiple levels.

What did you want from that effort?

The objective was to create a compelling investment for everyone that had less upfront investment and less ongoing cost by standardizing and centralizing. A portion of this vision succeeded after I left, as several franchisees standardized their menu item numbers, began feeding their data into the central warehouse and now have visibility to their performance on their own customized portal. But the greater goal of unifying the system onto one central toolset did not happen, to my knowledge.

What type of technology would you like to see developed for the industry?

We need system integration, better partnerships and integration between vendors and continued proactive guidance on industry compliance.

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