Self-serve fast-food a tough sell


Shoppers can buy gas, check in for a flight or scan their own groceries without the help of a clerk, but the self-serve kiosks revolutionizing so much of the world are having a tough time gaining traction in the nation's fast-food industry.

Proponents say many customers prefer to take control of their order, rather than idling in line. They can order fries by just touching a picture of them on the screens of the machines developed by Miami-based Boink Systems Inc., Radiant Systems Inc. of Atlanta and RoboServer Systems Corp. of Las Vegas.

While major restaurant chains such as McDonald's Corp., Taco Bell, Burger King and Dairy Queen have considered the idea, none has taken the step to order a rollout of the technology.

"The country is not quite ready for self-serve," said Devin Green, chief executive of ESP Systems LLC, which is deploying a system for alerting a restaurant's staff that a patron needs service. "This is a people business. People go to a restaurant to be served."

Dick Rivera, president and chief executive of Rubicon Enterprises and former chief operating officer of Darden Restaurants, said there may be other ways "to put the customer in control that don't detract from service." Darden Restaurants owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden and other chains.

Bill Whitman, a spokesman for McDonald's, said self-serve isn't ready for prime time, at least at the Golden Arches.

"The opportunity that we see with kiosks is largely with convenience with customers in the play area," said Whitman.

"Beyond that, it is not a major priority in the U.S.," he said, saying the world's largest restaurant chain, with nearly 32,000 stores, has ended its tests of the ordering system at restaurants in the Denver area and in a restaurant in west suburban St. Charles, Ill.

In fact, a spokesman for Boink Systems, which tested its machines with Taco Bell, said the largest opportunity they are seeing now for the machines are with jails and prisons which use them to manage the inventory in the commissary.

While the self-service kiosk has yet to take off, systems that put the customer in control of the dining experience, such as a pager system for the wait staff or a new payment system, are quickly gaining fans in the industry.

Like many of the new technologies that are quickly evolving today, ESP Systems uses a wireless system. A paging device at the table gives the customer the ability to summon the server such as when they are ready to order, need assistance or want the check.

"It puts the server at the end of a string," said Rivera, who has observed the system in tests.

Green said the system reduces complaints about poor service by as much as 90 percent.

"It lowered the stress of customers and they said they felt in control over the time and the kids didn't start blowing up," he said.

The system has been ordered by a franchisee of TGIF and by Fatz Cafe, a casual restaurant chain with outlets in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

"It really drives our level of guest satisfaction, which is key to our success by being able to customize the dining experience at that particular time and particular day," said Carol Cannon, operating partner at the Fatz Cafe in Rock Hill, S.C., a suburb of Charlotte.

She said tests showed tables turned over 10 to 15 minutes faster with customers in control of the pace of service. And servers said it made their jobs easier, according to Cannon.

On the payment side, both fast-food and fine-dining restaurants are moving quickly to upgrade their systems to emulate systems deployed in Europe.

Whitman said McDonald's, which just completed deploying its counter-mounted card payment system, is preparing to revamp that effort. The new system will accept cards containing the radio frequency identification chip that is now being used by debit card issuers.

In sit-down restaurants, the new systems will permit the server to complete the transaction at tableside, rather than taking a customer's credit card to a machine.

"Protecting the security of guest payment information is a real problem," said Rob Regan, vice president of Verifone Hospitality Systems, a unit of Verifone Holdings Inc. "What we are really talking about is bringing secure payment to the point of payment and in full service restaurants that means tableside.

"This is just the next step," he said.

John Schmeltzer writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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