Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Table Ordering Apps

You may think me a dinosaur in terms of technology but let me tell you for someone who is on the wrong side of 50 and who grew up as home computers were just starting to find a market, I am not completely ignorant of the pace of technology, but sometimes “Old School” rocks!  Back in the late ‘90’s I worked for a large brewery company in the UK and had to learn their EPOS (Electronic Point Of Sale) system for the bar and ordering food through to the kitchen. 

It was a fairly advanced system that also managed our stock control and gave us daily reports and management figures.  Since that time I have been abroad, running my own small restaurants with à manual system, until recently.

We all know that Covid has had a devastating effect on the hospitality industry and we have had to put in place stringent measures to protect our staff and customers. The use of QR codes that link to online menus, disposable menus and a general lack of being able to touch anything that might be used by someone else. 

But, for me, the worst possible advance is allowing customers to use an app, either on their phone or on a tablet supplied by the establishment, to order their own meal.  It has been my recent misfortune to work for a large branded hotel chain that has such a system – I will attempt to explain the system and what happens when it crashes!

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Young couple with menu on tablet PC screen in restaurant

In the kitchen we have two screens, one a computer monitor at the pass and a large TV screen on the wall at the back of the kitchen, both are linked to the ordering system.  The idea is pretty straightforward in that the customer has a menu on their phone or tablet and can input their choice of meal, starter and main course and, later, dessert, along with their table number and room number. 

The order appears on the screen in the kitchen and we get to work.  The order should show the starters in bold and the main course in a different colour so that we can differentiate and not serve all the food at the same time. 

The exception to that is room service or if the customer has got it wrong!  Once the starters are ready we use the touch-screen to expedite the order which will then appear on the expeditor screen for the waiting staff and all is good.  The main course section goes into a holding area so we can no longer see it until it is called “away” by the front of house using their terminal and the chefs keep working with the orders on screen, which can sometimes fill two pages at least.

Once the starters are cleared the main courses are “released” from the expeditor screen and magically appear on the kitchen screen looking like a new order at the end of the list of current orders without showing the starters that have been sent. And here is where the trouble starts and the reason you cannot beat paper and proper communication with your front of house staff. Picture the scene – new chef in the kitchen trying hard to impress, sees orders coming in, looks ahead to prepare main courses and waits for the main to be called “away”.

In the meantime other orders for the same main arrive, so the new chef doubles up not realising that the “new” order is actually just the mains following the starters being cleared.  There is no way of knowing if that table has already had anything to eat, unless you are able to remember about a hundred table numbers. 

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Person scanning contactless menu QR code with smartphone as new normal. Code edited and not valid.

Any chef who has been around will know that “back in the day” the head waiter would appear with an order screaming “check-on!” The order was frequently illegible but at least chef got the opportunity to scream back!  Starters were prepared and sent and crossed off the check, the main courses were got ready to cook. And you never received a dessert order until the table had been cleared.

Now, as a customer, you have no interaction with a member of staff before placing your food order and eventually, hopefully, someone will arrive with the food you ordered. If you are very lucky they might even clear your first course and remember to activate the app to release your second course with the kitchen.  However, if you are not entirely familiar with the system there is the possibility, just, that you might input the order incorrectly and all your food will arrive at the same time! The system is not foolproof and I have actually seen desserts ordered ahead of mains and arrive at the table before anything else!

We all know that “national eating out time” exists whereby everyone wants à table at the same time.  With properly trained waiting staff it is possible to stagger the orders hitting the poor chef brigade but not when the customer is suddenly in charge.  Orders can literally flow into the kitchen with little time for the kitchen to react.  Ah the chaos!!  Even the best prepared kitchen occasionally runs out of stock of certain items and needs to communicate with the servers as that item starts to run low. 

Not possible with a table ordering app. Although it is possible to mark something out of stock it is almost impossible to gauge it so that you sell all of that one item for fear of overselling and having to go back to the anonymous customer to tell them and for them to have to cancel their entire order and start again.

And then the system crashes!!  The developers will tell you it doesn’t happen: believe me, it does.  When you have a young waiting team and a young chef at the pass who know no different, it is time for the old timer to step in.  We recently had a service where the system crashed halfway through it and then to see the blank expressions staring at an equally blank screen would have been priceless had it not been so serious. 

After some scrabbling around for pens and paper the team were launched back into the fray to talk to customers, take orders and bring them to the kitchen where they were arranged in line and orders barked across the stove.  It was quite invigorating to hear the proper sounds of a busy kitchen and, I have to admit, it ran much smoother than with a silent screen in the corner.  There was an opportunity to ask questions and get an understanding of the order if there was anything different requested.

Waiting staff are rapidly becoming unskilled plate carriers and they are worth so much more than that.  Customers are the most important part of our business and come out to be looked after.  Do not let them loose with the ordering of their own meals.  Please, please, please bring back human interaction!!!!

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Dave Winteridge
I am a restaurateur in the South of France but originally from Great Britain. I have spent around 30 years in the hospitality industry and over the past 12 years I have opened restaurants in Spain and France. I am a keen skier, living in the Pyrenees, and ideally for the future I would like to spend less time at the stove and more time at the keyboard.

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