Anyone who’s faced the fury of an out-of-control kitchen printer — with orders piling in faster than the kitchen can handle and a string of tickets billowing to the floor in the chaos of peak service — will know it’s a sobering experience. Whether you’ve lived it personally like I have at the brewery-restaurant I opened with my wife, Jen, or watched in discomfort and potentially horror as a crush of online orders overwhelmed the kitchen crew on FX’s hit The Bear, service gone sideways can be hard to recover from.
Add in the pressures of the current labor market, and it’s a recipe for all hell to break loose. According to the National Restaurant Association, as of August, the restaurant industry remains 633,000 jobs down versus pre-pandemic levels — with full-service and bar and tavern segments on an even longer road to recovery. Meanwhile, soaring food and labor costs are squeezing already tight margins, including a 16.3% rise in wholesale food costs over the last 12 months. And perhaps most timely: with the signing of the FAST Act in California, we can only expect increased wage pressure in the nation’s most populous state, with some predicting ripple effects as other states follow suit.
Back-of-house roles remain considerably hard-hit, as many employees turned away from industry jobs over the last two years for a number of reasons, among them less jobs amid pandemic-related restaurant closures, access to higher pay and more consistent income in alternative careers, with far less customer service demands, to boot. Consider that the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is now accepting 97% of applicants, a sharp rise from its 36% acceptance rate in 2001. The CIA, and our country’s kitchens, are literally hungry for aspiring chefs.
While the industry reckons with the dynamics that got us here, we must reinvent our playbook once again in order to move forward, and that includes taking a hard look at how technology can bridge the gaps — not just to help operators do more with less labor, but to give team members modern tools that actually make their jobs easier and more enjoyable.
But where to start? The answer (at least for the vast majority of restaurants out there), isn’t robots. It’s better ordering and payment enabled by easy-to-use, mobile-optimized tech for on- and off-premises dining. This can be a game-changer and crucial pandemic sales lifeline that should be part of operators’ arsenal, but it’s only one part of the equation of helping restaurants do more with less.
Using tech to capture — and maximize — every sale possible should go hand-in-hand with a tech stack that creates operational efficiencies, so operators, and most importantly the leaner crew working tirelessly in the back-of-house, can not only harness those sales, but also better handle them.
So where to start? The next frontier of restaurant tech is in the kitchen — and it starts with a KDS.
Transitioning paper tickets to a digitized, easy-to-use Kitchen Display System unlocks exponential efficiencies. Routing orders is no longer just about getting from point A (order) to point B (the cook who prepares it). A feature-rich system and app can help prioritize which tickets should be handled in what order and when for most efficient prep time and service, with the ability to auto-route tickets by time of day and traffic patterns, manage menus with a click and easily 86 menu items if the kitchen runs out of an ingredient or modifier, or even alert the kitchen when tickets are unattended for too long. Batch ordering rules can make food running more efficient; set an amount of time you want orders to be grouped by and let the KDS do the rest.
A modern KDS can even be used to communicate directly with the guest, for example, to clarify an incoming order or to update customers on their prep times and order status quickly and efficiently. When integrated with mobile ordering and payment, the time saved and efficiencies gained really add up, freeing up restaurant and bar staff to focus on more meaningful interactions that build a better experience and guest loyalty.
The Brig, a 400-capacity indoor/outdoor beer garden and full-service kitchen in the heart of Washington D.C., is a great example of how tech can be leveraged to drive sales and manage labor costs, while at the same time enhancing the guest and team member experience.
During the pandemic, The Brig onboarded QR ordering and payment, which now accounts for 95% of its service model while allowing the large-venue restaurant to run its entire bar with 60% less staff. Through the use of the KDS app, The Brig’s management team can quickly monitor kitchen flows and make on-the-fly tweaks to service and staffing, while streamlining tasks like payroll and inventory management, ultimately freeing up countless hours of administrative and labor hours that can be used for other tasks. At the same time, by freeing servers from rote tasks like closing tabs with on-demand guest payment, on average, servers are clearing higher average tips since they can cover more tables with less effort.
All in all, incorporating guest-facing and back-of-house technologies has meaningfully dropped The Brig’s labor costs below 30% and front-of-house labor costs below 12%, and send-backs are down from 3% to less than 1%.
With the right provider, adopting KDS into your restaurants’ daily flow should be quick and easy. Look for solutions whose providers make it easy to integrate with their (or your existing) POS and other front- and back-of-house management tools that can be tailored to your needs, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Partners who offer integration flexibility and compatibility, along with the ability to run off any smart device, make onboarding a KDS easier and more cost-effective than ever before, while saving operators time and money usually spent on hardware.
In an age where consumers demand a digital, seamless and convenient experience, the brands who will win are those who leverage tech to work smarter. Operators need to be thinking about how to navigate the unexpected issues that arise in the kitchen, and making a plan for how to mitigate any food delays or negative experiences, with the pressures of less staff. By preparing for when things go wrong — and leveraging tech to make guests’ experience a great one — operators can uphold that standard of unparalleled guest service without the added strain on servers.
Tim McLaughlin is cofounder and CEO at GoTab, a restaurant commerce platform serving more than 1,000 large and mid-sized food and beverage establishments, hotels and other venues across 35 states and growing. An experienced e-commerce executive, board member and restaurateur, prior to founding GoTab, McLaughlin led Siteworx, Inc., a mid-sized digital experience agency with clients including PayPal, Goldman Sachs, VeriSign, Bain & Co., and Thermo Fisher Scientific, to a successful PE exit in 2013. Subsequent to Siteworx, Tim and his wife, Jen McLaughlin, co-founded Caboose Brewing Co., an upscale brewery and farm-to-table concept based in Fairfax, Virginia. Tim is also owner of craft beer and cider distributor, Ferment Nation.