Technology adds reach, scrutiny for restaurants

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Technology gives restaurant owners closer connections with customers, improves service and streamlines operations — and that’s both the good news and the bad news.

University of Massachusetts Professor Melissa Baker, who teaches service and restaurant management at the Isenberg School, noted that while the use of technology has expanded tremendously in restaurants, some restaurateurs find the changes unsettling.

“In a lot of ways, technology is being underserved in restaurants,” Baker said.

But with a greater reach comes greater scrutiny.

“Restaurants and retail are under the magnifying glass now more than ever,” said Amherst Area Chamber Executive Director Donald Courtemanche.

Baker noted that increasing numbers of diners use social media to evaluate their dining experiences and post pictures of food, as well as Yelp and Trip Advisor to offer critiques.

Restaurant owners need to be aware of these outlets and should not be shy about interacting, she suggested. “It’s surprising how many restaurants don’t respond to comments, both positive and negative,” Baker said.

Tom Schnapp, head chef at Vespa, a new Amherst restaurant that offers Italian cuisine, said he’s familiar with Yelp and Trip Advisor, and those sites have taught him that people working in the business need to be thick-skinned.

“We’re able to do our job better knowing what people want and what they don’t want,” Schnapp said.

Meanwhile, with technology changing so fast, it’s valuable for someone on a restaurant staff to be tech-savvy. For example, websites remain common, but Baker says many restaurants need to improve their websites to be more effective at online marketing.

While social media has been popular, Keren Rhodes, owner of Glazed Doughnut Shop in Amherst, said Facebook, in particular, has lost some of its utility. Her shop continues to announce new doughnut flavors or special items, such as the doughssant, but she says not as many people are seeing it.

“Unless people interact with our page, Facebook can hide stuff from them,” Rhodes said. “It used to be a fantastic free tool for small businesses, but now most small businesses I know don’t use it.”

After reading up on social-media options, Rhodes said it was too much trouble to post in 10 different places and she may return to old-fashioned email lists.

Courtemanche said that with the ubiquitous use of social media, like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, restaurants have more advertising avenues than ever, while 20 years ago advertising options were much more limited.

“Now it’s where do you concentrate on? There are so many places to get your message out,” he said.

Putting technology to use

For customers, the use of smartphone apps can guide them to restaurants, Baker said. The Local Eats app, for instance, finds locally owned restaurants rather than chain restaurants. Orders can be placed using both the Hunger and Grub Hub apps, Baker said.

Incorporating technology within the operations of a restaurant has tremendous potential, said Joe Deng, who runs the Lime Red Teahouse restaurants in Northampton and Amherst.

“I’m a firm believer in technology as an enabler to do better,“ said Deng.

At its most basic, the technology being deployed inside restaurants like Lime Red is in the form of tablet computers, such as iPads, which are replacing conventional cash registers.

Tablets mean a faster checkout, Deng said, and an ability to stay in closer touch with his customers through use of a special smartphone app they can download. Deng said he appreciates that customers can now give immediate feedback using smartphones, which allows him to maintain consistency and improve quality.

Like others, his restaurants uses what is known as the Square to swipe credit cards.

Deng is also an advocate for Perka, a loyalty program app that gives incentives to returning customers. “We used to give out punch cards, but we don’t do that anymore,” Deng said.

Besides being a waste of paper and something everyone would lose, the rewards now go directly to smartphone. “Using that, we’re able to get a closer contact,” Deng said.

Customer checkout using an iPad is not only easier, said Rhodes of Glazed Doughnut, but more cost effective. Rhodes said she spent between $300 and $400 for the iPad and pays just $35 more per month for the necessary phone connection, adding it to her existing smartphone plan so the iPad can handle credit card transactions.

“It’s substantially more robust than the old analog register,” Rhodes said.

Customers can get electronic receipts sent to their smartphones and give direct feedback to the restaurant. An iPad app also allows her to handle payroll, track inventory and view all transactions in real time.

At Vespa in Amherst, owner Jonathan Welch said a sophisticated system shows what is selling and not selling. The waitsaff will also be using hand-held iPad air minis to quickly relay the customer order to the kitchen, providing accurate and quick service.

Woodstar Café in Northampton recently began using the tablet for checkouts. Owner Rebecca Robbins said this allows the restaurant to keep track of sales in more detail, right down to the numbers of sales of 17 different kinds of cookies

“The amount of detail we’re able to get is pretty amazing,” said Robbins. She noted that that her husband and co-owner, Dmitri, was instrumental in bringing in this technology.

Once employees are trained, the service is similar to what customers have long expected. But Robbins said she feels this means the ultimate in contradictions.

“We’re making bread the way it’s been made for 2,000 years, and right on top of that is these gleaming silver devices,” Robbins said.

In the end, she said, the quality of the food is still more important than whatever gadgets are introduced.

“If our products aren’t good enough, technology doesn’t play a big role in changing that,” Robbins said. “The number one method of advertising is still word of mouth.”

Many avenues to reach out

Deng said Lime Red has a monthly email newsletter received by those who download the Lime Red app.

Courtemanche described an electronic newsletter from the Pub restaurant that contains a secret word or catchphrase that can be used as a coupon for receiving discounts at a specific time.

“It’s gone from something you cut from the Sunday newspaper to something that’s on your desktop or your smartphone,” Courtemanche said.

Baker said self-service technology is allowing some restaurants, like McDonald’s and White Castle, to add ordering kiosks. Hotels and airlines are increasing the amount of automated check ins and check outs, she said.

At national chains like Chili’s, Applebee’s and Uno’s, Baker said tablets on tables allow patrons to more quickly order food and drinks, pay their checks and even provide entertainment for children.

Baker said diners benefit from faster service, and server tips are going up. Like the self-checkout aisles in a supermarket, though, tablets may reduce the number of people needed to staff a restaurant. Adding technology can improve efficiency and accuracy, but may diminish the experience in the higher-end restaurants, she said.

“The most important question is technology helping or hurting your business?” Baker said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com

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