Some new order takers at a few local fast-food restaurants never punch in late, never take breaks, never complain, never ask for vacation time, and work, sometimes ’round the clock, for a buck an hour.
They’re touch-screen, self-serve kiosks customers use to place and pay for orders, and they’re said to be the way of the future in the quick serve restaurant arena, just as automated teller machines were in the banking industry, and more recently, self-serve kiosks that dispense boarding passes at airports.
Predictions vary from one to four years as to how long it will be before they become standard fixtures. According to analysts, most big chains, including San Diego’s Jack in the Box, are sticking a toe in the water before they jump in.
“But it’s a matter of when and not if ,” said Carl Winston, director of San Diego State University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Program.
“Restaurants are dealing with labor issues and the need for cost savings, and at some point their customers get fed up with incorrect orders and say, ‘Give me a machine,’ ” Winston said.
Eager To Be A Leader
Yet EMN8, which just installed six custom-made, self-serve kiosks at three San Diego Jack in the Box restaurants, is certain that quick-serve restaurants are poised and ready to climb on the bandwagon. And the University Towne Center manufacturer is confident of being a leading supplier when that happens.
“There are not many competitors, just a couple of us trying to do this, but nobody has come close to our installation base,” said co-founder Paul Monahan. He’s also a co-founder of Hollywood-based REZN8, a leading graphic designer of Microsoft’s X Box.
To date, 4-year-old EMN8 has sold or leased 112 devices , most within the last year , to several chains.
Steve Donly, the firm’s president and chief executive officer, said that tally includes 27 at Disneyland and Disney World, and it just signed a contract to place self-serve machines for testing at 12 Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf shops in Los Angeles.
“We’re growing so quickly that you can ask what the total is every day, and every day you’ll get a different answer,” said Donly. “Basically, within the last 10 months we’ve seen growth of several thousand percent.” Projecting that EMN8 will install roughly 1,200 devices at 800 locations in 2007, he said that it will “grow exponentially after that.”
Before joining EMN8 two months ago, Donly served as president of Aramark Work Apparel & Uniform Services, a division of Philadelphia-based Aramark food service.
In addition to Jack in the Box and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, EMN8’s client list includes such high-profile chains as Burger King, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr. and Pacific Theatres.
Eyes Have It For Graphics
EMN8’s graphic artists design programs that are bilingual, have voice prompts and reflect a restaurant’s advertising look and theme.
Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of food strategies for Columbus, Ohio-based WD Partners, said that while he expects technophobes will balk at the new trend, good graphics will be the key to “appealing to the next generations.”
Usage, according to Steve Zolezzi, executive vice president of the San Diego Food & Beverage Association, will depend on how much help a restaurant’s staff gives to customers trying the devices.
“It will get easier for customers every time they use it,” Zolezzi said.
Lombardi predicted that states such as California, which have high labor rates and high bilingual populations, would be the first to embrace the self-serve ordering machines.
However, Wayne Burke, vice president of operations for Glendale-based Cimm’s Inc., a Burger King franchisee with 52 restaurants in Los Angeles and Houston, said the decision to test EMN8’s kiosks in five of its Los Angeles locations was not based on trying to cut labor costs.
“We strive to be the best from an operations standpoint, and we didn’t go into this looking at reducing payroll,” Burke said. “We wanted to be out in front with quality technology.”
After four months of testing, he said it’s too early to know whether the machines will be keepers.
Yet, he has noticed two positive changes: the check amounts rung up on the kiosks are 10 percent higher, on average, than transactions at the counter and the machines make it easier to deploy help to the back of the house during rush periods.
Because the machines never fail to “up sell” by suggesting fries or dessert, “customers are more apt to add on at the kiosk than at the counter,” he said.
Kathleen Finn, a spokeswoman for Jack in the Box, acknowledged that the chain, which counts 2,000 restaurants nationwide, was testing the devices, but the company has not announced what criteria will be used to determine their use systemwide.
Meanwhile, EMN8 has at least two serious competitors in the self-serve kiosk arena, Pro-Tech Solutions Inc. of Suwanee, Ga., and NCR Corp. of Dayton, Ohio. How many devices are in use nationwide is unknown. Analysts say most manufacturers keep their figures close to the vest.
Robert Kramer, a spokesman in the Atlanta offices of NCR, declined to give specifics, but said that the corporation, a leader in the manufacture of cash registers, has “only a handful” of self-serve kiosks in restaurants at this time, but it is pursuing contracts for more. Pro-Tech did return a call seeking comment.
EMN8 does not disclose revenue figures or prices for its machines, but Monahan said that the total cost, including hardware and software, amounts to “less than $1 an hour” for a customer.