September 10, 2005
 

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Posted: 10.03
Slingin' Profits
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Cincy’s famous Skyline Chili implements a wireless ordering system to spice up its bottom line.  

By Phil Britt




Pete Perdikakis, owner of three Cincinnati-area Skyline Chili restaurants, says he has been immersed in technology ever since the Apple II debuted in the 1970s.

The restaurants themselves, the mainstay of which is the famous Ohio chili, are proud of their value-priced fare, lightning-fast service and their trick of letting customers see their orders prepared in a central cooking area.

A customer enters the 90-plus-seat restaurant, sits down and then orders with a server, who calls out the order to the cooking area so it can be started before the server returns to the kitchen. If the server happens to get delayed at another table, the order might even go out to the customer before the server returns. “We want to deliver customer orders in two to three minutes,” Perdikakis says. “Two minutes is the norm.”

That kind of speed enables the restaurant to service three turns (different groups of customers) at each table during each meal shift. Even though his service seems slick and quick, Perdikakis knew that the right technology could make his restaurants even more efficient.

Where’s the Beef?

“I had been approached before about order entry systems,” Perdikakis says. But the other systems all required the server or someone else to physically input the order into the system after calling out the order, which would not only slow down the entire process but also led to incorrect entries.

“We didn’t want anything that would slow us down,” Perdikakis says. “We wanted to keep better track of our sales and inventory, but we wanted to maintain our [fast] service. I kept thinking wireless, but everyone else said we couldn’t do it—that it would be too expensive.”

When discussing his dilemma with another restaurant owner, Perdikakis learned about point of sale software (POS) from PixelPoint in Ontario, Canada, that could be customized for different restaurants and for a wireless environment. PixelPoint’s software is one of the first applications designed specifically for the hospitality industry (including restaurants), according to company officials.

Other software uses a proprietary POS front end that exports data to the back end, usually in the form of a flat-file database. The proprietary solutions tend to be unreliable, according to PixelPoint. PixelPoint has since introduced a new version, PixelPoint PocketPOS, which is installed on a wireless device.

Perdikakis’ wait staff uses the software on Hitachi handhelds that display the restaurant’s menu on a touchscreen. The server taps the items ordered on the screen, and the order is immediately transmitted to the cooking area via an 802.11b wireless LAN for the food to be prepared.

Different cooks who prepare different types of items (e.g., fries or hamburgers) can look at the order at the same time and get started on each respective part of the order. Skyline’s quick service has become even faster, according to Perdikakis. The wireless system hub is at the front cash register, which also captures all of the information for accurate ticketing and charges.

Another problem with the previous system, according to Perdikakis, was that the young wait staff was manually adding item prices, sales tax and calculating the final price on the written sales ticket, so math errors weren’t uncommon. With the new system, all charges are automatically calculated. It’s also easier to split tickets for tables with customers who want to pay separately.

Serving up Profits

Underlying the PixelPoint program is iAnywhere Solutions’ wireless database technology, SQL Anywhere, which records sales, checks, sales tax receipts and inventory. This enables faster and more accurate processing of orders and better inventory control. The database also stores and synchronizes all data. Any pricing or menu changes can be easily made to the database and all of the handheld devices are automatically updated with the new information.

“Now we’re harvesting all of our sales,” Perdikakis explains. “Before, the order-taker may have called out four of something, but written down only two. So the customer only paid for two at the register. We were never able to zero in on our inventory control before.”

Perdikakis suspected that the restaurants were losing some sales, but he didn’t realize how many until he installed the system three years ago at one Skyline Chili outlet, and two years ago at his other establishments. “Our inventory control [profit] increased by 12 percent,” Perdikakis says. “In the restaurant industry, any time you can increase profits by even 2 to 3 percent, that’s outstanding.”

Even though Perdikakis has been very successful with his adoptation of wireless technology, other Skyline Chili owners are still somewhat skeptical, he says. The main objection is that a wireless solution such as Perdikakis’ costs some 20-percent more than a similar wired solution, he says.

Other local restaurant owners have taken note, however. The system is also used at the Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds, and at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Cincinnati Bengals play. Those systems include credit card swipe capabilities on the handheld devices. Perdikakis opted not to include the card capabilities on his staff’s handhelds because it enables him to sell a few impulse purchase items at the cash register.

According to Mike Paola, iAnywhere group product manager, financial services companies, healthcare institutions and retail establishments also use the SQL Anywhere software in various
applications. “Several different types of companies need to be able to capture transactions anywhere, anytime,” Paola says. “This enables salespeople to capture information without retyping it when they get back to the office. That reduces the chance of errors. The company executives aren’t computer experts. They need simple solutions that will power their businesses.”

In June, iAnywhere released the latest version of the SQL Anywhere Studio software, which includes XML import and export functionality, new HTTP server, SOAP and Max OS X support, as well as expanded support for the .NET framework and .NET extended framework for mobile devices. Company officials expect the upgrade to move the software deeper into the small and medium-sized business market. •

Phil Britt is a freelance writer who covers technology.










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