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Restaurant technology links the customer to the kitchen

Technology is taking an important seat in restaurants these days, and for many, it's a welcome guest.

Evidence of the high-tech stuff is everywhere. Hungry hockey fans in the 200 level at HSBC Arena, for instance, are familiar with the in-seat service in which food orders are placed on hand-held devices.

Shrimp skewers, chicken wings, Caesar salads, beverages - just name it. Those orders go directly to the kitchen; runners bring them directly to the seats. "People love it," says Dave Sevcik, manager of the 200 level.

"Once the game starts, they don't want to move." Payment is by cash or credit card.

Then too, customers in the small restaurants behind the Delta Sonic car washes on Main Street and Niagara Falls Boulevard are familiar with the computer touch screen that they encounter as soon as they walk in the door.

It's easy to operate; they simply press the screen to order, say, a hand carved roast beef sandwich and/or macaroni and cheese. Then customers move on to another counter where the bill is waiting for them. Once they pay, they go to the counter where their meal is already "up."

Obviously, speed is the big advantage here.

But fast as that system is, Delta Sonic owner Ron Benderson says the system will even get faster. He says that soon, his company will install similar terminals at the gas pumps, which will be equipped to accept payment on the spot. Once the tank is filled, the customer will just step into the restaurant where the order is waiting for him.

"You will never wait in line," Benderson says. "As soon as you punch in what you want, we start making it." The new system, he says, will not only speed up the process for the customer who is in a hurry, it will reduce labor costs as well."

Micros Systems Inc. is a leading worldwide hospitality provider and Matt O'Connor is regional vice president in this area. He supplies analyses and equipment for fast-food restaurants like Mighty Taco as well as to more upscale spots like the Pearl Street Bar & Grill on Franklin Street and The Grapevine on Niagara Falls Boulevard.

All systems are individually desinged but O'Connor describes one such setup called "the Kitchen Display System." It helps to integrate the front of the house and the kitchen.

Servers enter the orders at what is called the "precheck unit" in the dining room. That information is transfered to the kitchen, often to individual monitors at each chef station.

But each of those stations also conveys information as to what the other chefs are up to. By the time the food gets to the front side of the line or the expeditor, everything is ready at the same time.

That keeps the service moving smoothly but the system can do more than that. It can report on the the status of every table in the dining room and issue what O'Connor calls "red alerts." If Table 4, for instance, has been waiting 15 minutes for its appetizers, the manager will hopefully do something to move things along.

Such setups don't just benefit customers, they benefit management, too. They help identify bottlenecks in the kitchen, for instance, and can be programmed to e-mail an absent owner that something is amiss. The systems can alert management to potential expensive disasters like power failures, too.

Technology also turns up in other places. There's the so called "Glowster," that looks like a coaster and can be given to a waiting customer, who is then free to wander. The thing will light up and vibrate when the table is ready.

There is a new system being introduced that is meant to eliminate identity theft. It's called "Pay at the Table" and it's necessitated because the restaurant industry is one of the few where a credit card leaves the owner's hands and sight.

Pay at the Table strives to eliminate that problem. The unit is brought to the table with the bill; the card holder swipes the card and puts it back in his wallet. He has control of his credit card at all times.

There are all types of restaurant Web sites, too, that describe restaurants, give reviews and even offer a reservation option.

One such national site, called Open Table (www.opentable. com) but not yet operating in Western New York, offers a culinary view of the whole country and even enables restaurateurs to keep track of their customers' likes and dislikes.

The National Restaurant Association expects technology to continue to expand and is ready with some figures:

Nearly four in 10 fine dining operators report they are using more front- and back-of-thehouse technology than they were two years ago. And roughly three in 10 full-service operators are planning to devote a larger share of their budgets to technology this year.

And, perhaps more importantly, the association also reports that customers like it. Forty- six percent of American adults surveyed by the association said they would be likely to use customer-activated ordering and payment terminals if they were available. Not surprisingly, young adults are the most enthusiastic.

There's a way to go on those terminals, though. We're just on the cusp of this development. Again, according to the restaurant association, just 7 percent of family dining operators, 3 percent of casual dining operators and 4 percent of fine dining operators are currently offering ordering or payment systems at the table.

So stay tuned.