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The Newsroom: Articles

INTERNET CHANGING DINING OUT EXPERIENCE
by Mike Saelens

UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL
Sunday, June 11, 2000

CHICAGO, June 11 (UPI) - Faced with high employee turnover, low profit margins and heavy overhead, many restaurants are turning to the Internet to cut costs and simplify the dining out experience.

From ordering food and supplies, to managing employee's time, to monitoring critical appliances, the Internet has already taken over many things in the back of restaurants -- except food preparation and sanitation.

"There's really very little that's not being done in the back of the house by a computer today," said Philip Kirsch, CEO of RestaurantMarket.com, a White Plains, N.Y.-based online marketplace serving the food and beverage industry. "And if it can be done on a computer it's going to be found on the Internet.

The company brings together restaurant operators and suppliers and allows them to find the best deals.

"What makes us unique is that we are not customer-centric nor supplier-centric," said Kirsch, whose company serves as an online broker. "We are merely a middleman trying to help enhance current business relationships while helping to form new ones, as well."

Other office functions like employee time and attendance, payroll and inventory have long been computerized using various software programs, but many of those are now being tied together and run via the Internet through such "middleware" providers as Aloha and FoodEnterprise.com.

"Electronic (time keeping) is not only a big cost saver but also reduces the amount of time and paper needed to compile time and attendance," said Nadine Taylor, a human resources administrative specialist with Tennessee-based snack food manufacturer McKee Foods. The company makes Little Debbie snack cakes.

McKee went to an Internet-based time keeping system for many of its white-collar employees last year and has already seen savings of up to 85 percent.

"It's still in a pilot stage but we're quite pleased with the results so far," Taylor said.

She said it was uncertain whether the program would be extended to the production lines, which operate 24 hours six days a week.

"We have a very similar environment to restaurants, with a lot of shifts changing at odd times," Taylor said.

Electronic monitoring of equipment such as freezers, ovens, fryers and grills is becoming more prevalent.

Dallas-based Critical Devices and X-traWeb of Denver have entered into a partnership to electronically track and monitor performance, usage and the whereabouts of any device with an IP address.

"We've combined our expertise and technologies to demonstrate that remote control and monitoring of devices -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week using the Internet -- is here today, is affordable and can actually save thousands of dollars annually," said Roy Hogsed, president and chief executive officer at Dallas-based Critical Devices. "These services are particularly valuable for companies with a large number of remote locations."

Employee and manager training, especially in areas such as food safety and handling, is another area about to make its debut on the Web, according to Ellen Moore of the National Restaurant Association's Education Foundation in Chicago.

The NRA recently unveiled it's foodscape.com website, which will include training modules currently being developed.

"The savings in hard costs (time, training, travel) is huge," Moore said. Moore estimated that the time savings would be in the neighborhood of 50 percent and cost savings around 30 to 50 percent.

"It's still going to be a high touch (training environment) because people expect that," she added. "But the interactive aspect appeals to both young people and adults alike because our research has shown that people learn better and are more productive when they have some control over their learning experience."

However, from a diner's perspective, no part of the restaurant experience is more important than the seating area itself, and the Internet is making inroads in the dining room too.

Several companies, among them Open Table and foodline.com, already offer reservations and seating arrangements, either online or via cellphone.

Ameranth Technology Systems of San Diego has taken that a step further, joining with several Improv theaters to unveil a Net-based ticketing, reservations and food ordering system that runs on specially designed Palm Pilot hand-held computers.

And for those who are planning parties, or for restaurants holding "theme" nights, there is South Whitley, Ind.-based Shindigz, which helps plan up to 200,000 parties and events each year through it's website, many of them free of charge.

The site, which offers advice for free and sells merchandise through its website, is often used by restaurants planning large events, according to Wendy Moyle, president of shindigz, who says the average person celebrates two dozen events each year, many of them at restaurants and banquet halls.

"We know how to make each event special and different," Moyle said. "And that is important for not only people celebrating major events like weddings, bar mitzvahs and graduations, but for restaurants in terms of return business and customer value and loyalty."

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