- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

The local pizzeria or fast-food drive-through might fill your order, but it is increasingly likely they won’t take your call.

More and more pizza restaurants — including two chains in the Washington area — are relying on operators at call centers to take orders for delivery and give employees more time and space to focus on food preparation.

Two fast-food restaurants are testing the use of remote order- takers to cut down on errors.

People taking orders can be thousands of miles from the restaurant preparing the food. One chain has workers in Southern California taking orders from Florida. Another chain has workers in Pennsylvania talking to customers in Reston and other Washington suburbs.

“We envision order-takers sitting in offices or sitting in their homes. They could be one mile away from the restaurant or 2,000 miles away,” said Jeff Chasney, executive vice president for strategic planning at CKE Restaurants Inc., the Carpinteria, Calif., company that owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. chains.

Pizzerias have used call centers for more than a decade to prevent employees from answering phones, which slows down food preparation.

“It lets them focus on making pizza,” said Robert Grimes, chairman of Gaithersburg-based Accuvia, a technology consultant to hotels and restaurants.

When Vocelli Pizza opens a new restaurant in Rockville this month, its phone orders will be funneled to a call center at its corporate headquarters in Scott, Pa., outside Pittsburgh.

Phone orders to more than half of the 23 Vocelli pizzerias in the Washington area are routed to Pennsylvania.

“Every once in a while people say ‘What? I’m calling Pittsburgh to order a pizza?’ But this is the future of pizza delivery,” said Varol Ablak, president and chief executive of Vocelli Pizza.

Calls to Vocelli restaurants as far away as Florida also go to the company’s 59-seat call center, which fields about 35,000 calls a week.

Domino’s Pizza Team Washington, which has 60 locations in the Washington area, started using a call center in Oklahoma to take orders from Spanish-speaking customers about two months ago. Customers call the store and are directed to another number, which connects them to the call center and allows them to place the order in Spanish. The order is then sent back to the store through a high-speed Internet connection.

Fast-food restaurants have been slower to try the new approach, but now Hardee’s and McDonald’s are testing the use of remote order-takers in some markets.

Hardee’s is using remote order-takers for 20 restaurants in St. Louis and Jacksonville, Fla., to instantly process drive-through orders. Six of its order-takers are in Anaheim, Calif. One is in St. Louis, and one is in Jacksonville.

McDonald’s, based in Oak Brook, Ill., has not disclosed how many restaurants are using remote order-takers.

Fast-food restaurants are testing the new approach to reduce errors. People taking drive-through orders get them wrong because they also make change for customers and bag orders, Mr. Chasney said.

When a customer pulls up to a drive-through at one of the 20 Hardee’s eateries involved in the test, a computer alerts remote workers that someone wants to place an order. The computer system defines which restaurant the customer is at and remote workers log the order just as they would if they were in a store because they work on the same computer system.

A drive-through order from any Hardee’s restaurant can be filled by any of its eight remote workers.

Remote workers for McDonald’s take orders for a single restaurant and patrol drive-through lanes by watching monitors.

McDonald’s and Hardee’s both have backup systems so store employees can take orders if remote workers get deluged with orders or Internet connections fail.

Remote workers speak to drive-through customers over an Internet telephone connection. That’s an improvement in sound quality compared to old-fashioned speakers that can make it difficult for customers to hear restaurant employees, Mr. Chasney said.

The improved connection is an important factor in getting food orders correct, Mr. Grimes said.

“It’s all about providing better customer service,” he said.

Donna DeMarco contributed to this report.

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