On the Menu: RFID

Casual, fast-casual and quick-serve restaurants adopt wireless technologies to enhance the customer experience, ensure food safety and improve operations.
By Jennifer Zaino

Aug 30, 2016—Mighty Fine Burgers, Fries & Shakes, a chain of four fast-casual restaurants in Austin, takes pride in its Texas hospitality, so parent company K&N Management was looking for a way to replace its practice of calling out customers' names when their orders were ready. Guests were afraid they wouldn't hear their name, explains Gini Quiroz, K&N's director of team member engagement, so instead of waiting comfortably in the dining room or on the patio, they milled around the counter, further congesting a high-traffic area.

"We want people to enjoy every single touchpoint, and the after-order/before-pickup touchpoint was causing angst and frustration," Quiroz says. "We really like cutting-edge technology, and we thought Table Tracker could be a good solution for guest satisfaction."

Long Range Systems' Table Tracker solution helps eateries like Mighty Fine "cut time out of their day, turn tables faster and create a better experience," says Michelle Strong, LRS's chief marketing officer. A high-frequency RFID tag with a unique ID number is attached to the underside of each table. When customers place an order, they receive a Table Tracker device, which has a built-in RFID reader and a ZigBee device for transmitting the tag ID number and its own identifier to the local Table Tracker software. The software alerts restaurant employees to order status and customer location. (Restaurants can also integrate the software with their point-of-sale and kitchen display systems to create one seamless system.)

The solution's ability to get employees quickly and directly to the customer's table is a key strength, Strong says. A table tent or zonal-location system "that only gets you halfway there could cause confusion," she says. Speedy delivery keeps patrons happy and results in faster customer turnover, which, she adds, is a revenue plus.
In 2012, K&N tried Table Tracker at one Mighty Fine location and a few months later rolled it out to the three other restaurants in the chain. The solution shaved roughly a minute off guest wait time for food and hospitality scores increased. Patrons can enjoy the music without worrying that they'll miss their order. "As soon as food is ready we bring it out," Quiroz says, "and that means food quality is also better." Fries, for example, diminish in quality the longer they sit, so speed is essential, she explains.
Employees like the solution, too, Quiroz says, because they can concentrate on upcoming orders rather than on calling customer names to pick up food. The four restaurants compete on how quickly they get food to tables. The information is available in reports provided by the software, which records data such as the time an order is placed and when the order is closed based on a server clearing a Table Tracker unit once he or she has delivered the food. The local Tracker system can be cloud-connected to store data for analysis. In the past, such data was entered manually and was not necessarily accurate, Quiroz says. "Now, we can know if things are out of our standards for service," she says.

Mighty Fine is ahead of the RFID adoption curve in the restaurant sector, an industry that isn't known for technology innovation. The findings of Hospitality Technology's 2016 Restaurant Technology Study show that IT budgets represent just 2.5 percent of revenue, with allocations heavy on core system maintenance. Nearly 30 percent of survey respondents—who have IT decision-making involvement for 32,796 restaurant locations across quick-service, familycasual and fine-dining brands—believe they lag behind when it comes to overall IT innovation. The respondents represented regional (51 percent), national (24 percent) and global (25 percent) brands.

It appears there's plenty of opportunity for restaurants to distinguish themselves by using technology in new ways. And Hospitality Technology's 2016 report indicates that restaurants have a growing awareness of possible technology benefits—87 percent of respondents said tech projects will be driven to improve operational/process efficiency, and just more than half cited improving customer experience/guest loyalty. Increasing employee productivity, ensuring a high degree of security/compliance
and improving business insights had the attention of roughly one-third of respondents in each case.

Pizza Ranch franchises in the Midwest, Jason's Deli, which operates in 30 states, and Zinc Café in Southern California are also using Table Tracker to improve the customer experience. Other casual, fast-casual and quick-serve restaurants are proving the business case for using wireless technologies to maximize their workforce productivity, achieve food-safety compliance, improve operations and gain business insights.

"From the corporate or regional manager perspective, the No. 1 thing is how we perform against goals," Strong notes. "Last year, Table Tracker customers were more interested in the utility of using this to find people and get them their food faster. But more people are beginning to ask about the analytics they are able to get." Restaurant managers can use the data, for example, to analyze delivery times by day or hour, which could be helpful in determining whether additional staff members are needed to
prepare food for specific shifts. "You'll always need staff in the restaurant environment," she says, "but there are a lot of conversations now about how to optimize them to apply to the most useful things, and let technology make their lives easier in addition to making the customer experience easier."

Enhancing Guest Services
Theme parks are beginning to offer apps that allow guests to preorder meals at restaurants, to reduce long wait lines. Walt Disney World, for example, lets customers order online and then pay at a kiosk at its Be Our Guest restaurant. Then customers use their MagicBand access pass or receive a Magic Rose (both have an embedded high-frequency passive RFID inlay) to identify their location. "Cast members kindly instruct you to find a table and have a seat, so your food can 'find' you," reports a
blogger who valued the service.

RFID solutions integrator Strategic Systems and Technology (SSTID) is working with an organization on a similar application, but one that takes advantage of the Bluetooth-enabled smartphones most guests bring with them, says Steve Walsh, the company's director of professional services. Guests would make a reservation and place their orders online via a downloaded app. Upon arrival at the restaurant, they'd be seated at a table near a Bluetooth beacon. The app would detect the beacon, confirming the customers had arrived. Then, the beacon would send a message to the restaurant system to have a server bring out the orders.

A solution like this is appropriate for theme parks that have multiple dining sites, Walsh says, because customers are more likely to download the required application when it's part of an entire experience. "You can see why companies like Disney have looked at [RFID solutions to help get food to diners]," he says. "Outside of a venue that has multiple facilities, its potential is not going to be as attractive."

To boost sales, McDonald's introduced the Create Your Taste program. In-store kiosks let customers design their own burger, including a choice of bun, cheese, sauce and other toppings. At hundreds of McDonald's restaurants in Canada, customers will find Table Tracker devices right next to the kiosks. "Now they grab their tracker, enter its number with their order and sit down," Strong says. Their location information is communicated via the Table Tracker software so their specially made orders are
delivered as soon as they're ready. 

Ensuring Food Safety
Restaurants know that one customer complaint linking them to food poisoning will spread like wildfire via social media—and they've all witnessed the damage last year's E. coli outbreaks at Chipotle Mexican Grill have done to that company's business. 

"Our belief is to stay off the radar, to do things the right way and be ahead of the curve about that," says Jim Gibson, VP of food safety and quality assurance for Five Guys Enterprises, parent company of the handcrafted burgers and fries chain, with some 1,000 locations nationwide. Five years ago, Five Guys adopted CM Systems' ComplianceMate solution for its corporate Five Guys Burgers and Fries restaurants and new franchises. As of Nov. 1, all restaurants—including older franchises—will be
mandated to use the system, Gibson says.

ComplianceMate is a temperature-monitoring solution that helps restaurants comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's voluntary Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) guidelines for the identification, evaluation and control of food-safety hazards. The solution uses active 900 MHz wireless sensors to help ensure that food is stored in coolers at safe temperatures. The sensors transmit the temperature data to a gateway, which forwards the data to a cloud-based server hosted by CM
Systems. The software issues alerts if temperatures are either too warm or too cold.

Employees can also use ComplianceMate's Bluetooth temperature probe and Android tablet running an app with a restaurant's own HACCP checklists to ensure products meet the restaurant's food-safety requirements. (The company is developing Windows and iOS versions due in the fall.) If, for instance, a reading shows the temperature of coleslaw is too high, they can request advice about how to fix it and record the action taken, such as icing it down. All this information goes from the tablet into the 
ComplianceMate cloud, so store, district and regional managers can review and analyze report data daily. They can assess, for instance, whether the problem was just a one-time incident or recurs during certain shifts, says CM Systems COO Thom Schmitt. If it's the latter, they can take steps such as retraining employees in how to maintain appropriate product temperatures.

The advantage of performing these checks electronically is that it provides real accountability, Schmitt says. Otherwise, it's just too easy to fudge things. "I've seen many instances where you walk in at 10 at night and an employee is filling out the time and temperature lists for the whole day at that point," he says. "A chain may spend a lot of money to develop a food-safety program and tout that great food-safety program, but that doesn't matter if the people in the stores are not doing what the program says. This helps to ratchet things up a notch to make stores more compliant."

At Five Guys, each store has one tablet, two Bluetooth probes and sensors in every cooler. The sensors are a huge time-saver for restaurant managers who otherwise would have to manually take temperature readings every couple of hours, Gibson says, adding that it's no small thing amid the hustle and bustle of the food-service business. Five Guys also has optimized station-walking paths, so foodtemperature readings can be taken with the Bluetooth probes in just two minutes. "Products not being temperature-controlled can get a lot of people sick very easily," Gibson says. In the unlikely event Five Guys receives a call from a state health department regarding a consumer complaint about getting sick from eating at one of its restaurants, he says, "We have data to pull up and say these are the cooler readings for the past week and the product
temperature readings for every two hours. We have the documentation to prove our stance on the situation."

Five Guys is now working with ElectroFreeze, the company that makes its milkshake machines, and with CM Systems to put a remote sensor into those machines with an attached Bluetooth probe to monitor that the milk inside them stays at the correct temperature while the machine is running. It plans to deploy the sensor to its 600 stores that sell milkshakes by the fall.

City Barbeque also uses the ComplianceMate system in its 25 restaurants in Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina, says Randy Potts, the company's market leader. Each location has a walk-in cooler sensor, a freezer sensor and two other sensors in salad coolers. "We have 24-hour monitoring in case something goes down, so we can throw the product out if we know it was outside the safe zone," he says.

Each City Barbeque restaurant also has one tablet and one Bluetooth probe to take product temperature twice a day. "I think it provides guests who see our employees using it a reassurance that this restaurant cares about their safety and making sure they don't get sick," Potts says. City Barbeque has never had an incident, but ComplianceMate ensures it is well-prepared for dealing with potential complaints. "Everything is recorded and accurate," he says. "It provides a security blanket."

Improving Operations
In Columbus, Ga., John Pezold is a McDonald's franchisee whose restaurants are part of a 26-store co-op that uses Bluetooth LE beacon technology from Piper to improve operations. Piper provides a proximity-based messaging platform to deliver contextual information to smartphone users.
"Proximity-based messaging was built around the idea of value-based promotions," says Robert Hanczor, Piper's founder and CEO. "The early promise was to distribute inexpensive beacons and send coupons or messages to customers while they were in range of a restaurant or store. That still works, but many restaurant and retail customers say they have 1,000 ways to give away free items. What they need is improved operational efficiency, and many are beginning to deploy proximity technology with this

The co-op originally used Piper's mobile app with the beacons to provide offers and drive sales, Pezold says, but McDonald's then came out with its own app that has offers and loyalty components to move sales. "So we utilize Piper for more operational and marketing benefits," he says. On the marketing front, the stores are part of a proximity network comprised of other local retailers, a university, tourism sites and a public safety program that use the Piper app. That enables the franchises to connect with a large user base without having to spend a lot of ad dollars.

But the greatest benefit from Piper probably is the operational aspect, Pezold says, "in the form of training employees and communicating with them at a more relevant time when they arrive to the store instead of trying to reach them on their personal time." Piper's multiplexing beacon technology and web-based dashboard lets Pezold create discrete private groups—one for crew members and managers and another for customers—and send messages to their smartphones.

He also uses this technology at his McDonald's franchises to tie into a training system Piper built for its station observation checklists (SOCs). Managers guide crew members through training steps at each station and catalog their progress. "Piper sends tips to crew members about various stations and also reminds managers to conduct
training throughout the day," Pezold says. "We've seen an uptick in SOCs completed each day. We're also looking to integrate this system into employee rewards with Piper in the future."

Pezold has three beacons in each restaurant. Recently, he says, there has been "a strong push for recruiting, so we brought the recruiting message back. Managers get notified via text once a customer gets the message and applies. They're then able to communicate with the prospective employee, and we've had a few good hires as a result."

Getting Innovative
For now, RFID is mostly on the menu at casual, fast-casual and quick-serve eateries. "Table Tracker is designed for situations where speed of service is a high priority," Strong says. "Therefore, quick-serve and fast-casual concepts are attracted to this solution to help improve delivery times while also improving the guest experience." But providers believe RFID has appeal for other restaurants, as well as food-service operations.

Any operation that serves food, including fine-dining restaurants, is a potential customer for ComplianceMate's temperature-monitoring solution, says CM Systems' Schmitt. In fact, he adds, it should be a priority for institutional operations, such as hospital cafeterias and retirement homes, that serve people with compromised immune systems. All these environments "have to monitor the temperatures of the product they potentially serve their customers," he says. But the larger chain restaurants have the most to lose, he adds, noting it will take Chipotle years to recover from its food-safety troubles. "A single store will not be as inclined to use our system," he adds, "because the owner is in the store every day, and he or she believes they know their operation."

Piper's Hanczor says there's opportunity for beacon technology in fine-dining establishments, which have been experimenting with tablets at tables for menu descriptions and wine recommendations. In this case, he says, the focus for proximity messaging would be more on the guest experience. "Proximity technology can help these restaurants create greater loyalty connections with preferred guests in the form of specialized messages upon arrival, countdown messages for table availability, customized chef's recommendations and other points of engagement that enhance the experience," he says.

No doubt restaurants face obstacles in moving forward with technology initiatives. The top challenges, according to the 2016 Restaurant Technology Study, include justifying return on investment, lack of sufficient IT budgets, lack of skilled resources and company philosophies that don't embrace technology innovation. They're also grappling with managing legacy systems even as they try to deliver new technology projects faster. On the plus side, two-thirds of restaurants will spend more on technology this year than last.

The restaurant industry is also impacted by new minimum wage and overtime requirements introduced in several states and under discussion at the federal level. Many restaurants are increasingly interested in how they can apply technology to optimize staff usage and allocate labor costs most efficiently.
"In the last couple of years, the restaurant industry, and the hospitality sector in general, has started to see the potential for RFID and other location technologies to provide ways to enhance the guest experience, to do what competitors can't," says SSTID's Walsh. "They are just beginning to leverage that in ways they feel comfortable with."