Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Technology is fast becoming a top item on restaurant menus.

They are adding sophisticated systems and high-tech gadgets to enhance customer service and run their businesses more efficiently. The technology ranges from databases full of preferences for frequent customers to hand-held wireless devices used to take orders.

“This is a tough business,” said Alisa Neary, an account executive in Washington for OpenTable Inc., a San Francisco online restaurant-reservation system. “Anything a restaurant can do to enhance their service, the better.”

For example, a frequent customer at Capital Grille in Northwest prefers a particular diet soda that the restaurant does not carry. When he makes a reservation, the staff stocks the drink without being asked. It’s done with OpenTable’s customer database, which allows notes to be attached to a frequent diner’s profile.

“It’s in our best interest to make sure [diners] are taken care of like they are a guest in our home,” said Stephen Fedorchak, regional director of operations for Capital Grille.

The District’s Capital Grille started using OpenTable.comin early 2000.

“It blends efficiency with hospitality,” Mr. Fedorchak said.

OpenTable offers online reservations that hook the guests into the restaurant to make real-time reservations via its Web site, www.opentable.com. The company’s system allows a restaurant to keep a customer database with detailed information about frequent diners, as well as a computerized system to manage its tables.

The OpenTable system is the high-tech version of note cards or slips of paper tucked in a reservation book — the old-fashioned way that restaurants and maitre d’s keep tabs on what their best and frequent customers prefer.

Mr. Fedorchak says the database, which includes phone numbers, e-mail addresses and guest favorites from a tasty red wine to a preferred booth or window-seat table, helps the restaurant serve the customer better.

“The guest never has to tell us something twice,” he said. “The database allows you to recognize [the guest] and additionally customize.”

Oren Molovinsky, general manager at Mie N Yu, agrees.

The 170-seat restaurant in Georgetown, which has been using OpenTable since opening in February, has collected detailed information on 450 to 500 frequent guests. Between 3,000 and 4,000 names and phone numbers of people who have dined there are registered in the system, Mr. Molovinsky said.

The servers are encouraged after a customer leaves to make notes that may help enhance the dining experience next time.

For instance, Mie N Yu noted in one frequent diner’s profile that he likes a particular bottle of wine. Before a visit about six weeks ago, the server put the wine on his table so it was waiting for him when he arrived. That guest has been back 15 times since, Mr. Molovinsky said.

“Personalizing service is what differentiates us from the other nice restaurants in town,” he added.

Mr. Fedorchak says Capital Grille’s information is used solely to “take care of the individual guest” and is not used to track spending, nor is it sold or shared.

Mr. Molovinsky uses the database to market to specific customers — from concierges and meeting planners to individual diners — based on their preferences.

Despite the fear that technology would dehumanize the restaurant experience, the industry is finally trying to catch up to other sectors.

“As people become more and more accustomed to technology, restaurants are starting to realize that it has its benefits for them, too,” Mr. Fedorchak said.

Since becoming available, OpenTable has signed on more than 140 restaurants in the Washington-Baltimore area and 1,600 restaurants nationwide. More than 55,000 diners in this area are registered with the site.

While some restaurants use systems that diners don’t know exist, others are using tech-savvy gadgets to enhance customer service.

Charlie Palmer Steak in Northwest has replaced the ordinary wine list with a hand-held computer. Guests can navigate through the restaurant’s extensive list of 750 wines.

“Wine can be intimidating,” said Keith Goldston, director of wine at the 5-month-old Charlie Palmer Steak. “This gets people talking about wine.”

Customers can search for wine using different criteria like price, vintage or by the glass. The electronic wine book pairs wines with foods on the menu, gives descriptions of the wines, features wineries and allows diners to write comments to the chef or sommelier. Guests can bookmark the choices they are interested in, but they can not order from the wireless books.

Mr. Goldston is not worried that the electronic wine book will replace him or other sommeliers.

“It is a helpful tool,” he said, adding that he has found guests still want to talk about their wine selection and ask questions to be sure.

Other restaurants are making the investment of thousands of dollars to upgrade their current computerized systems.

Local companies like Action Systems Inc. and Micros Systems Inc. make portable hand-held devices for the restaurant industry, among other point-of-sale systems, to make placing orders and back operations run more efficiently.

Columbia-based Micros has offered hand-held devices — called Mobile Micros — since 1992. Servers use a portable touch-screen system, which lists all the items at the restaurants. The order is immediately transmitted to the kitchen from the table without having to be re-entered into another computer. Between 200 and 250 sites worldwide use the most recent version of Mobile Micros, introduced in spring 2002.

Action Systems of Silver Spring brings the portable devices one step further with its Write-On hand-held, which recognizes handwriting. The server can place an order tableside by writing abbreviations of menu items. Typically, a server needs to write only two or three characters before the device recognizes the item the server is looking for, eliminating the process of navigating through different screens to find an item.

The order is then transmitted to the kitchen without it having to be rewritten. The Write-On hand-held is used in more than 50 restaurants worldwide.

Hand-held proponents say the devices cut down on errors. They also allow servers more time with customers instead of disappearing to a terminal to place an order, giving them the opportunity to offer desserts, extra drinks and more expensive items.

Royal Mile Pub in Wheaton, which has been using the Write-On hand-held since February 2002, has posted a 12 percent increase in sales over last year, said Ray Morrison, president of Royal Mile Pub Inc.

Mr. Morrison says the wireless gadgets don’t take away from the customers’ experience.

“I think it adds to the service,” he said.

But the Capital Grille’s Mr. Fedorchak isn’t a fan of technology at the table.

“We feel more comfortable limiting technology at the table,” he said. “A restaurant should be a respite of daily life.”

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