Nobody likes getting cold food delivered to their restaurant table. Wait staff do the best they can, but it’s not always easy to find the customer who ordered a meal; servers can lose a lot of time (and a hot dinner can lose a lot of its heat) looking for the right table. Restaurants can therefore lose a lot of money bringing in additional staff to make up for inefficiencies – not to mention money lost from customers who won’t return after having a poor experience.
What they need, according to the Austin- and Sydney-based tech startup BlueCats, is a GPS: A Guest Positioning System to give servers a general sense of where a customer is seated. So that’s exactly what the company created, and it’s now in use by major quick-service and fast casual restaurant chains, including Panera, McDonald’s and KFC.
The NOW GPS enables restaurateurs to create zones by strategically placing Bluetooth readers around the establishment. Then, as guests are seated (or seat themselves), they’ll receive a Bluetooth tag to place on the table, which relays location data to the kitchen based on the zonal structure.
In some instances, two tags might suffice: Is the customer sitting indoors or out on the patio? But the solution can also be scaled to create as many zones as the restaurant needs.
“That’s what makes it unique,” said Kurt Nehrenz, VP of technology and one of three co-founders behind BlueCats. “Some of the competitors’ solutions, you’ve got to go out and deploy the whole solution throughout the whole venue for it to work, where ours can be built upon like Lego. I hate pushing tech that doesn’t have that Lego capability.”
Positioning was just the first Lego block for BlueCats. The company believes that, once a Bluetooth infrastructure is established, the sky’s the limit. Restaurateurs can build their own localized Internet of Things within the premises to help improve the customer experience and meet important health regulations.
For instance, a Bluetooth temperature sensor can monitor refrigerators to prevent spoilage and ensure that all food is stored at the regulated temperature. Another sensor can help keep track of allergens.
A Bluetooth accelerometer can sense how often doors open and close, which can help optimize heating and cooling for cost savings and customer comfort. The same solution could also be used to show how often the bathroom needs to be cleaned based on actual usage rather than time intervals.
At Panera, one of BlueCats’ U.S. customers, Bluetooth table tags not only help servers deliver food promptly once guests have ordered and seated themselves; they also enable mobile payments directly from the table for customers using the Panera mobile app.
Another potential setup? The restaurant could put Bluetooth beacons under or above every table. Then, app users could order ahead, arrive, sit down and open the app. Based on their physical presence in the restaurant, the app would push the order through to the kitchen, and servers would have all the information they need to make and deliver the order to the correct table.
By basing kitchen activity on proof of presence, the restaurant can ensure that the food is served fresh while still ensuring that the loyal customer doesn’t have to stand in line to order it.
In some settings, such a setup could be a powerful tool for increasing both table turns and ticket sizes. Guests who can order right from their table without flagging down a server order more, especially if they’re there to drink.
Nehrenz theorizes that the anonymity afforded by an approach like this reduces the embarrassment customers might feel about ordering too many rounds of drinks. When they are done, being able to pay from the table without flagging down a waiter saves time and energy for wait staff and enables guests to clear out faster, making room for the next group.
Is there other technology that can do these things? Sure, but it’s generally not a one-stop shop, said Nehrenz. The BlueCats solution kills about a dozen birds with one stone.
“Hospitality as a focus has a lot of tech going in now,” Nehrenz said. “The issue with the majority of that tech is that not a lot of it plays very well together. So restaurants are going and putting multiple systems in that don’t really talk between each other.
“One of the issues we’re solving on the technology side is, once you put our one infrastructure in, you’re getting table location, and you can track your assets as well on that same solution. You could track staff if you wanted to, or activity of phones – you can now connect and communicate with your guests.”
Though there are instances where the NOW GPS system may not be a good solution, that distinction is based on style more than logistics, Nehrenz said. Some restaurants want to offer a full guest experience, and many diners look for that. But automation is probably the future for quick-service chains, and a hybrid model with a hostess as well as automation could dominate in the fast-casual market.
“I don’t think any technology will ever replace that personal touch of a hostess. It’s of the things I look forward to when I come back to the States,” Nehrenz said. “The GPS is complementary to having a hostess. In quick service, this eradicates the requirement for staff interaction. But in fast casual, you still need service.”